The Wednesday Post 23/6/10

ResearchBlogging.orgMaybe you heard about it? Recently a new study was published by the American journal of Clinical Nutrition that has some interesting results.Essentially, they were able to show that after splitting 33 children into 3 groups of 11 and giving one group a placebo, another group a small dose Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA or Omega-3) and the final group a large dose of DHA. And they found:

“there were no significant group differences in percentage correct, commission errors, discriminability, or reaction time”

So what? There have been papers in the past that have indicated that our blind faith in Fish Oil and Omega-3 may be misplaced, so why does this even rate a news?

Because the Observer (UK paper) ran a story on the first study with the headline

“Fish oil helps schoolchildren to concentrate”

Wait, what?

It turns out the author, Dennis Campbell, wrote the story after attending a press conference. At the press conference the lead author, Prof. McNamara, showed that following the delivery of DHA (which by the way was given on its own and extracted from algae, not even close to fish oil) brain scans showed some differences in thought patterning but and I repeat,

“there were no significant group differences in percentage correct, commission errors, discriminability, or reaction time”

In Campbell’s story the ‘fish oil’ performed miraculously;

“Those who had received the high doses did much better in mental tasks involving mathematical challenges”

Yeah, that didn’t happen.

Of course Mr Campbell was called out and the news story was pulled but not before another science journalist chimed in. Jeremy Laurance, a health reporter from another newspaper, the Independent, leveled his attacks on the whistleblower, Dr Ben Goldacre, for being a meany.

In Mr Laurance’s article he first took the time to lather on sarcasm before pointing out the Dr Goldacre was right. He then went on to point out that Dr Goldacre has had a few words to say about Mr Campbell before, doesn’t that just show that Mr Campbell has a long history of poor reporting, not that Dr Goldacre has a vendetta?

Plus people who look like Dr. Goldacre dont hold grudges, they have fun times. (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ben_Goldacre.jpg)

A few snide remarks about the competing newspaper then he discusses some reasons for Mr Campbell’s appalling article. First, traditionally science and health reporting has not been of a very high standard. Second, reporters are messengers, not scientists. It is their role to report what others say and not to fact check peoples statements. Thirdly, reporters are under enormous pressure because newspapers are under pressure.

First, if its bad then your a reporter, set an example. Second, reporters cant be expected to fact check the claims made by scientists in press conferences? Balderdash. Reporters shouldn’t have to go back to source material (like the paper itself) and make sure that the words they write are accurate? Balderdash. As a reporter you are responsible for your own interpretation, if you stuff it up then acknowledge it. His third point is valid but it does not make up for the negligent reporting.

Why do I have such a bee in my bonnet about this? Because the media has a lot to answer for by popularising bad science or missinterpreting scientific work to such a degree that the general public get confused or worse, disengage from the public debate. MMR vaccination and now vaccination generally has been associated with autism based (yes that’s about Jim Carey’s) on media interest in bad science even though its now been completely disproven. People think taking homeopathic remedies, sugar pills, will cure their cancer and that acupuncture will actually fix their sore backs (turns out just sticking needles in randomly will do exactly the same amount of good as a trained practitioner so save yourself the cash).

I’m not suggesting that reporters do the science, I just think that they are capable of being more than animated Dictaphones regurgitating whatever nonsense they get handed.

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Kirby, A., Woodward, A., Jackson, S., Wang, Y., & Crawford, M. (2010). A double-blind, placebo-controlled study investigating the effects of omega-3 supplementation in children aged 8–10 years from a mainstream school population Research in Developmental Disabilities, 31 (3), 718-730 DOI: 10.1016/j.ridd.2010.01.014
McNamara, R., Able, J., Jandacek, R., Rider, T., Tso, P., Eliassen, J., Alfieri, D., Weber, W., Jarvis, K., DelBello, M., Strakowski, S., & Adler, C. (2010). Docosahexaenoic acid supplementation increases prefrontal cortex activation during sustained attention in healthy boys: a placebo-controlled, dose-ranging, functional magnetic resonance imaging study American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 91 (4), 1060-1067 DOI: 10.3945/ajcn.2009.28549

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