Why Most Biomedical Findings Echoed by Newspapers Turn Out to be False

Kermit Cole
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Researches in France and the United States found that seven of the top ten most reported-upon studies on ADHD in newspapers in the 1990s were initial studies; six of the studies were later either refuted or strongly attenuated by subsequent related research, and the conclusions of the seventh appear to be unlikely. Coverage of these initial publications, however, was quadruple the coverage of the subsequent publications, with only one newspaper reporting that the initial finding had been attenuated. Because newspapers, the researchers conclude, “preferentially echo initial ADHD findings appearing in prominent journals, they report on uncertain findings that are often refuted or attenuated … a major cause of distortion in health science communication.”

Article → Gonon, F., Konsman, J., Cohen, D., Boraud, T., Why Most Biomedical Findings Echoed by Newspapers Turn Out to be False: The Case of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. PLoS One, online September 12, 2012

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Kermit Cole
Kermit Cole, MFT, founding editor of Mad in America, works in Santa Fe, New Mexico as a couples and family therapist. Inspired by Open Dialogue, he works as part of a team and consults with couples and families that have members identified as patients. His work in residential treatment — largely with severely traumatized and/or "psychotic" clients — led to an appreciation of the power and beauty of systemic philosophy and practice, as the alternative to the prevailing focus on individual pathology. A former film-maker, he has undergraduate and master's degrees in psychology from Harvard University, as well as an MFT degree from the Council for Relationships in Philadelphia. He is a doctoral candidate with the Taos Institute and the Free University of Brussels. You can reach him at [email protected]

2 COMMENTS

  1. The authors of the paper go on to say that the “hottest” stories are likely to come from high-class journals, and even more highly likely to come from prestige universities. After all, aren’t we supposed to take findings from Harvard or Johns Hopkins more seriously than from East Carolina University? And shouldn’t we put more confidence in the New England Journal of Medicine than, say, the Southern Journal of Kidney Failure or something?

    What they may not realize is that the placement of these papers is heavily stage-managed by PR agencies working for the drug companies. They’re known as medical communications agencies, and in many cases they literally write the paper, with the impressive guy from Johns Hopkins just reviewing it and signing his name. (We hope he reviews it anyway.) David Healy & Co. looked at a series of scientific papers about Zoloft, and found that the ones written by these PR agencies (all proclaiming Zoloft to be the best thing since sliced bread) actually had MORE success getting into the high-class journals than did the papers actually written by scientists who did the research.

    So if these PR agencies can finagle you a placement in the New England Journal of Medicine, isn’t it logical to think they can finagle you a placement in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal? I think that is what’s really going on — the news making process is even more manipulated than these good people realize.

  2. And the journals and newspapers and TV stations are owned by corporate magnates that have shared interests with the pharmaceutical companies. For instance, if Big Pharma can make more money with advertising blockbuster drugs, it stands to reason that TV stations, magazines and newspapers can make more money selling those advertisements. Why would they want to kill their own cash cow? The commercialization of the media over time plays right into PharmA’s slimy hands.

    —- Steve

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