Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday & Wednesday.

Mice, Medical Research & the Media

Reputable media outlets routinely mislead the public when reporting the latest scientific discoveries.

The latest Twitter sensation is an account, less than a week old, that has already attracted 44,000 followers. Managed by research scientist James Heathers, it humorously scolds ‘news’ stories that treat medical discoveries in mice as though they’re applicable to human beings.

@justsaysinmice began last Friday, April 12th. Heathers, an Australian currently employed by Northeastern University in Boston, explains online that “a lot of science news reporting” is misleading due to the fact that headline writers and journalists conflate starkly different kinds of research.

In his words:

Reporting pre-clinical research as something that’s directly relevant to people in the here and now is like pointing at a pile of two-by-fours and a bag of tenpenny nails and calling it a cottage.

Studies involving mice are highly preliminary. There’s all the difference in the world between a drug that appears to work on mice and one that has been rigorously tested on human beings and is therefore reasonably close to relieving your great aunt’s arthritis, or curing your co-worker’s brain cancer.

News outlets should make clear distinctions between the two. They should be careful to present scientific discoveries in their proper context. But that doesn’t happen.

National Public Radio, for example, tells us about a paper just published in Science. The NPR headline declares: Ketamine May Relieve Depression By Repairing Damaged Brain Circuits.

Readers aren’t informed that these findings pertain to mice until paragraph three. Anyone browsing the headlines, therefore, has no idea that whatever scientific insights this research produced are an excruciatingly long way from a making a difference in any ordinary person’s life.

Another story, noticed by scientist Jerry Coyne and retweeted by Heathers, is about a paper just published in Nature. The headline over at DiscoverMagazine.com reads: Scientists Uncover a Protein That Seems to Fight Aging in Our Skin.

You caught that second-last word, right? Our. As in humans. Since this research involved mice, that headline is simply wrong. It’s false. Paragraph three of that story tells us:

The team based their study on mice tails, but they say that tail skin shares many of the same characteristics as human skin.

In other words, in order to talk about reversing “our skin’s timeline at the cellular level,” as this article does from the outset, we first have to pass through Speculation and Extrapolation.

Please note: Discover and NPR are reputable media outlets. They’re both discussing research published in the crème de la crème of scientific journals within the past two weeks.

Heathers is working hard to keep the tone of his @justsaysinmice Twitter feed lighthearted. Good for him. But let’s not fool ourselves. He’s shining a light on a species of fake news.

Rather than residing on the margins, rather than spreading informally via gossip, via the unsophisticated or the uneducated, this fake news gets disseminated by ‘responsible’ news outlets. As a matter of course.

Think about that for a minute: This is how science now gets reported. By organizations that claim to respect science.

Chapter Four in Richard Harris’ book, Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions, is titled “Misled by Mice.” The following quote from that source adds even more helpful context:

“Nobody knows how well a mouse predicts a human,” says Thomas Hartung at John Hopkins University. In fact a test on mice doesn’t even predict how a drug will work in another rodent. For instance, certain drug-toxicity tests run separately on rats and mice only reach the same conclusion about 60 percent of the time. And if mice do a so-so job of predicting what will work in a rat, Hartung said, we should be very humble about what they tell us about human beings. [bold added]

 

Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions
Richard Harris

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This entry was posted on April 17, 2019 by in ethical & philosophical, media and tagged , , , .
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