Health·Second Opinion

Mice are not people: Fighting spin in medical science

When it comes to health and science research, spin exaggerates the benefit of a treatment and plays down the risks. And spin can affect how people judge the benefit of treatments they read about in the news, according to the first randomized controlled trial to test the effect of spin on readers.

There was big news in baldness this week — for some furry rodents

A news story making the rounds this week about a 'cure for baldness' was based on research in mice. (Baishev/Shutterstock)

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"A cure for baldness could be on the way."

That was the big news in baldness this week as headlines announced a "critical breakthrough," along with photos of hairless human heads

It was exciting news — for a mouse.

The baldness breakthrough was unpublished research by a commercially sponsored group that used stem cells to grow new hair through the skin of mice. 

The story was the top tweet on @justsaysinmice, a Twitter account where a Boston scientist is exposing one of the most common sources of spin in science: Inflating the significance of research by downplaying the fact that the discovery happened not in humans, but in mice.

James Heathers, a researcher at Northeastern University, started the account in April as an inside joke for other scientists who know that, despite the sensational headlines, any discovery in mice has almost no immediate relevance to human health.  

"I thought it would be an 'in' joke, a little silly thing," Heathers said. "I was perfectly happy to have sort of a thousand scientists having a giggle about an article from the Daily Mail." 

Heathers seems to have hit a nerve: @Justsaysinmice has almost 65,000 followers after just three months, with people all over the world tweeting him examples of hyped mouse research.

"When something happens that's really egregious, it will get sent to me," he said. 

Spotting spin

Exaggerating animal research is just one aspect of health and science spin. Another common spin technique involves using "causal" language when the study isn't able to prove cause.

Other signs of spin? Omitting the report of adverse events or dangerous side effects, or implying that a single patient experience can be generalized to a wider group. 

I first got frustrated reading scientific articles and then I got frustrated reading news.- Isabelle Boutron, who researches spin

Essentially, spin in medical science is "an exaggeration of the benefit of the treatment, a way to distort results toward people thinking it's more beneficial than is actually shown by the results," explained Isabelle Boutron, a professor of epidemiology at Paris Descartes University who has been studying spin for a decade. 

"I first got frustrated reading scientific articles and then I got frustrated reading news," Boutron said. 

1st trial testing effect of spin on readers

Boutron wanted to answer a simple question: Does spin affect the way people feel about a discovery they read in the news?

So in what the researchers believe is the first randomized controlled trial designed to measure the impact of spin, Boutron and her colleagues tested a series of news reports on 900 readers.

Isabelle Boutron, a professor of epidemiology at Paris Descartes University, researches the impact of spin in health and medical science. (Isabelle Boutron)

Volunteers were divided into three groups, each assigned to read news stories about drugs at a different stage of development: early animal studies; early human studies; and late-stage randomized controlled trials, considered the "gold standard" of drug research.

One group read stories with spin, the other read stories that were rewritten without spin and with caveats added to put the findings in context.

The volunteers were asked to record their belief in the benefit of the treatment immediately after reading the article. "It was their first feeling after reading the news: Did they feel the treatment was beneficial," said Boutron.

The researchers found that people reading the stories with spin were more likely to answer "yes."

Spin harms?

"Overall, whatever the study design reported in the news stories, participants reading a news story with spin were more likely to believe that the treatment would be beneficial for them," the study concluded. 

"Misinterpreting the content of news stories because of spin could have important public health consequences because the mass media can affect patient and public behaviour," the authors wrote, citing other research showing evidence of people changing their behaviour, including their use of drugs, based on what they read in the media. 

Boutron and others have searched for the source of spin in science, tracing it all the way back to the original conclusions by study authors and amplified by press releases and news reports.

In one paper, University of Alberta professor Tim Caulfield described a "hype pipeline" created by "a complex array of social forces" that include "the pressure to publish, the increasingly intense commercialization agenda, the messaging emanating from research institutions, the news media and, even, the public itself."

James Heathers, a scientist at Northeastern University, intended his Twitter feed to be an inside joke for scientists. Instead, @justsaysmice is exposing a major source of spin in health reporting. (Northeastern University)

How to stop spin? Boutron is investigating a series of interventions, including a checklist for scientists as they write up their research, along with the idea of having a second impartial author assist in writing a research paper's conclusions.

"It's difficult to write without spin," she said, adding that she noticed it in her own work when she first started researching in this area. "I did realize that sometimes I was writing with spin. You do it quite spontaneously."

So what about those mice headlines?

Boutron suggests news editors should routinely add a segment to health and medical stories listing the caveats, just as the researchers did when they wrote the articles for their research to eliminate spin.

That meant adding a line in animal studies that said: "It may take years to know whether this treatment will be beneficial and safe for humans. In fact, less than one per cent of the drugs tested on animals/cell culture are approved for clinical use in patients."

In non-randomized drug trials, the researchers added this caveat: "We do not know whether it was the treatment or something else that really accounted for the effect observed. In fact, less than 10 per cent of the drugs tested in preliminary clinical studies are approved for clinical use in patients."

Just say 'in mice'

As for Heathers, he says he is not suggesting the media never report on mice studies; he's just asking journalists to add the phrase "in mice."

He believes he's already having an influence, pointing to a headline from a U.K. news site this week that reads: "Sweeteners are harmful to gut bacteria and liver function – IN MICE."

This tweet from @justsaysinmice demonstrates a headline citing research 'in mice.' (CBC News)

"I honestly think that, properly qualified, I still think it's interesting. I don't think it loses anything by qualifying what it actually is," said Heathers, adding he hears from people with chronic illnesses who are tired of being told their condition is on the verge of being cured, based on mouse studies reported in the news. 

"I've got lots of messages from people, [saying] 'I have Type 1 diabetes and I'm really sick of being told that everything is just 'round the corner' … because they read some article that wasn't accurate."  


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About the Author

Kelly Crowe

Medical science

Kelly Crowe is a medical sciences correspondent for CBC News, specializing in health and biomedical research. She joined CBC in 1991, and has spent 25 years reporting on a wide range of national news and current affairs, with a particular interest in science and medicine.

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