The overhyping of medical research

Dear all

Michael Louella from the University of Washington shared this cautionary article about the overhyping of medical research findings.  The exaggeration that creeps into reporting of medical research falls into three categories:

  1. advice (say, to stop eating eggs or to drink more coffee) that was not indicated by the scientific study,
  2. stronger claims than indicated in the article (for example, saying that stress causes hemorrhoids when a study might show only that stress was associated with hemorrhoids) and
  3. directly relating findings to humans, when in fact the study was performed in rats, mice or cells.

There is a lot of finger pointing associated with these errors.  Some of the fault lies on our research side of the information war.  Researchers and their media helpers summarize their findings in press (media releases) and it is often these releases that are the essential first shot in the information war.  A study published December 9 in the British Medical Journal from Petroc Sumner of Cardiff University in Wales showed that:

  1. 40 % of press releases contained explicit advice not indicated in the journal article.
  2. Another 33% of claims in press releases used stronger language than in the journal article.
  3. Finally, 36% of press releases inferred that a finding was related to human health when the study was not actually performed in humans.

Furthermore the resulting news articles arising from these releases showed that:

  1. When advice was indicated in the press release, 58% of news stories also gave advice.
  2. News stories exaggerated associations 81% of the time if claims were also exaggerated in the press release.
  3. And when press releases improperly extrapolated animal findings to humans, the news extrapolated too — 86% of the time.

At NWABR we try hard to help researchers get the message out about their work.  Sometimes we have advised researchers to reduce nuance to help clarity.  This new research shows that we have to be very careful with this advice as it can lead to inflated claims, misunderstanding and incorrect information – all things that actually will serve to reduce the public’s trust in this most important work.

Heavy thoughts for the season – I hope everyone has a great holiday season and here at NWABR we are excited for the new year.


Ken Gordon

Executive Director


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