Lessons from the Standing Up for Science Media Workshop in london organised by Sense About Science
Do you know what the following claims have in common?
I hope you have realised that none of these claims have any substantial evidence to support them, so we can safely assume they are false [1,2]. Everyday we are bombarded by adverts and stories in the news detailing the latest scientific advances and companies selling their newest health and beauty products. How can us scientists ensure the wrong information does not reach the public?
The mainstream media is often criticised for biased reporting of current affairs. They have also angered many scientists for dumbing down the science when reporting about newly published studies, or even distorting the main findings to support one’s agenda, perhaps politically motivated. Quite unexpectedly tabloid newspapers can be more accurate at reporting science stories than broadsheet newspapers. While hyping up a study, as “the next miracle cure for cancer” will undoubtedly garner attention and increase newspaper sales, their intentions are not always so covetous. Newsrooms are incredibly competitive environments, so the pressure to release an attractive story can be so immense that erroneous reporting can slip through. Journalists actually do welcome help to interpret the latest studies, after all they are not trained scientists, so how can we expect them to critically analyse data from a study like a trained scientist can! And it is incredibly damaging for a journalist in the long term if they become known for misreporting a study, as scientists will not trust them if they receive a request for interview. Journalists often use #journorequest on Twitter to find experts to help them on a story.
How can you ensure the main message of your study doesn’t get lost in the media hype? If your study gains massive media attention, be prepared for interviews, and have three clear messages that you can repeat. Learn to speak in repeated sound bites, as you generally do not have much time to have your say. As you are the expert of the study, be prepared to engage with people with all levels of intellect. If you believe your study is not receiving the attention it deserves, then get your word out there. Practice writing about your study in a short but interpretable manner, as if it were a newspaper headline. Even try writing and circulating press releases to get yourself known and trusted in the media as an expert in your field of research. When writing your press release, target it towards a journalist specialising in scientific reporting. It also pays to go to your university press office and talk about your research; they like to hear from active researchers. However it is interesting to note that journalists do not always trust university press releases, as they have been known to exaggerate the impact of a study, due to their reliance on publicity to obtain further funding.
The terminology you use is extremely important, as words can have different meanings in different disciplines. For example the word ‘significance’ to a scientist means that the p-value obtained from a statistical analysis is small enough that the null hypothesis can be rejected. For example a treatment is shown to significantly reduce cell death in comparison to administering water, the null hypothesis in this case would be that the treatment does not affect cell death. But to the general public or a journalist, significance means something that is important and worthy of attention. So to relay your message, it is important to use simpler and understandable terms, and speak in the journalist’s language. This does not necessarily mean dumbing down the science; you just need to disseminate the core message. You cannot expect the public as non-scientists to understand all of the hard-core science.
So there is plenty a scientist can do to help the media report science accurately. But as a member of the public, what can you actually believe? If you see an advertisement or news story and you are not quite sure if there is any evidence to back it up, there is something you can do about it – ask for evidence! Sense About Science has launched a brand new website: www.askforevidence.org, which gives guidance on how you can ask for evidence. You can directly email the company/journalist/publication and request to see evidence behind the claim, or you can fill in a form on the Ask For Evidence website. Companies have already been forced to withdraw products or advertisements, and change policies as a result of being asked for evidence they could not provide to support their claims. Sense About Science also regularly teams up with scientists in the Voice of Young Science network to examine the evidence behind suspicious claims, for example the use of homeopathy in developing countries, and the promotion of detox diets and products. You can see more about their campaigns here: http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/voys-campaigns-64.html. So put your critical thinking hat on and ask for evidence the next time you see something a little dodgy. The more people ask for evidence, the more people will expect to be asked, thus we can create a huge culture change.
 Book by Ben Goldacre (2009) Bad Science, Harper Perennial, UK.
A pandemic is sweeping the globe and has transpired into the world’s biggest killer. (And no it is not Ebola, however deadly it is proving to be.) They are killing millions every year. They are non-communicable diseases or NCDs; the five most common being cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases and mental illness. While many are afraid that the Ebola epidemic will escalate by rapid transmission between individuals, NCDs are far more destructive despite not being transmissible, killing 35 million people worldwide annually; that is 60% of total global deaths.
Many would stereotype the typical NCD patient as being an old, overweight lazy male in the Western world. The reality is very different, 80% of global NCD deaths occur in low- and middle- income countries, and 8 million of these people die below the age of 60. NCDs are fast becoming indicative of poverty, and a major burden on global health and development. So as young people who are passionate about tackling NCDs, is there anything we can do to stem the tide? Thankfully there is, and the NCDFREE bootcamp held in London a couple of weeks ago aimed to equip young people with the skills to make that change.
We began with Prof. Richard Smith who asked if slavery can be abolished, why can’t NCDs? A strong social movement, like the abolitionists or the civil rights movement, is required. An element of outrage needs to be instilled in the public for meaningful change, resembling the outrage observed in relation to AIDS in the 1980s and climate change today. A multi-disciplinary team with a variety of skills to offer can produce a powerful movement and relay the message to lay people. Katie Dain of the NCD Alliance described the prevalence of facilities to support patients of infectious diseases in the developing world, but scarce support exists for NCD patients. She mentioned one diabetes patient who stated that he would rather have HIV, due to the lack of support he receives to manage his diabetes. Dain concluded that we in the Western world created this problem through globalisation and allowing the food industry to run riot. Now it’s time for us to solve it. Futerra co-founder, Ed Gillespie described the bystander effect – people hope someone else will solve the problem. Gillespie said we must understand that solving one problem can create another, but it is still a sign of progress we must persevere with.
Jo Creed from the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation gave us a whirlwind tour of good and bad campaigns, ranging from personalised Coca Cola bottles to the no make-up selfie and the ice bucket challenge. A clear, simple and positive message proves most effective but the educational content is extremely important, as often people become involved in campaigns to gain attention rather than heeding the message. For example many who participated in the recent ice bucket challenge failed to either raise awareness of the rare neurodegenerative disorder amytrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or donate to the charity running the campaign. Dan Lewis-Toakley of the petition website Avaaz, emphasised the need to involve everyone to maximise a campaign’s impact. We must make use of powerful statistics but also use human stories; showing your own vulnerabilities can trigger emotional responses from your audience.
Dr Corinna Hawkes from the World Cancer Research Fund gave a fascinating talk on how hidden political interests can often hinder progress in public health affairs. Once a high level UN meeting involved a heated debate on salted anchovies! It emerged that Nordic and Mediterranean countries were competing to promote their diets as being the ‘healthiest’ to increase business for their food products. To overcome this issue we must learn what political interests are at play, leverage them to our own interests, and learn to communicate with politicians or economists in their language, not in scientific terms they will not understand.
We had an insight into social innovation from Dr Harpreet Sood, a Senior Fellow at NHS England, and Dr Fred Hersch, a Clinical Research Fellow at the George Institute for Global Health, Oxford. It is vital to have a strong multi-disciplinary team working on a specific aim within a reasonable time frame. But you will not know if your invention will be effective until you go out and test your prototype, so be open-minded and prepared to improve your product.
The most moving account of the weekend came from filmmaker Batsheva Lazarus. She described how telling an individual’s story is often more persuasive than presenting a plethora of facts. As a scientist this was really eye-opening, we are trained to support every claim with experimental evidence, yet if you want to relay your message to the public or policymakers, they will simply get bored of listening to you. Introducing an emotional component by telling the story of someone who may be suffering from cancer in a low income country for example, can really help your message hit home. This is perhaps the magic behind the short advocacy films created by NCDFREE in Mongolia and Ghana, which have been shown to the WHO and included in global health courses.
The final talk was from NCDFREE founder Dr Alessandro Demaio, a Global Health Fellow at Harvard Medical School, who spoke about his experiences as a leader. To be a successful leader of a movement like NCDFREE, you must truly believe in your idea and speak about it passionately. Having a multi-disciplinary team is helpful with a clear and shared vision. Remain positive in spite of the challenges you face, focus on finding solutions not the problems, provide support to your teammates to continue achieving and keep evaluating your own performance.
Also featured in the bootcamp was a quiz to test our knowledge on NCDs, during which we learnt Halle Berry and Tom Hanks are among those suffering from diabetes! We were trained to relax and control our emotions with a session of yoga and meditation. And we participated in a group challenge to design a campaign and a 60 second film concept answering a real challenge facing the NCD community; the winning pitch will be made into an actual campaign film. The challenge facing my team was to devise a campaign involving smartphones to get young people to care about a disease they may not get for another 30 years. And I am delighted to say we came up with the winning pitch! We designed a film concept where a healthy and unhealthy person were using their smartphones to chat with their ‘future self’ 30 years ahead, and thus saw the consequences of their lifestyles on their health. We concluded the pitch encouraging viewers to join the #ticktock campaign (emphasising that their time is running out if they don’t improve their health) and share their healthy actions on social media. Check out the video of our winning pitch here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORe9_6ZZ1AM and if this becomes the next viral campaign, remember you heard it here first!
In the meantime NCDFREE has launched #theface of NCDs campaign encouraging people to share their stories of how NCDs have affected their lives, whether it’s affecting their own health or those they love, or observing the impact on local communities and work environments. Do you have an NCD story you would like to share? If so visit http://www.thefaceofncds.org, share your story and help change the face of NCDs.
This piece was originally published on Imperial College's Global Health blog Cafe Communique. It can be viewed here: http://cafecommunique.org/component/easyblog/?view=entry&id=58&Itemid=290
Dr. Anusha Seneviratne
My research is funded by the British Heart Foundation. To donate click sponsor me below.
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