Science in the Media

This week’s Inside Health had not one but two great items for science lessons. I just wanted to put together a quick post so this will be mainly links and ideas rather than detailed resources.


You can follow the title above for the programme page, complete with transcript and their own links. My focus is on the two very different approaches to sharing ‘discoveries’ demonstrated by the programme.

The recent decision by NICE to use Tamoxifen ‘off-label’ for the prevention of breast cancer, in high-risk groups, has had a lot of media attention. @drmarkporter and his studio guests nicely referenced the negatives as well as the positives, mentioning side-effects and comparing the benefits to pre-emptive surgery (as chosen by Angelina Jolie).

As a contrast, the press release a little while back about the use of antibiotics to treat lower back pain seems to have been wildly optimistic. As I tweeted during the programme:

The authors had an undeclared financial interest and the trial was very small; it also seems that the media were encouraged to hype the results far beyond the very small group of back-pain sufferers who would actually be eligible. I strongly recommend listening to the programme, which can also be downloaded from the Inside Health podcast page.


Lots of useful questions and lots of likely arguments! My personal choice would be to have a class (probably an able GCSE group or perhaps A-level?) split into pairs or threes to research different aspects of reading a paper. There’s a fantastic page at NHS Behind the Headlines, where you can also see their own take on both of these stories (antibiotics for back pain, preventing breast cancer).

The ideas for the students to consider will revolve around three main concepts: benefit, risk and (financial) cost. These can be approached in several ways:

  • Claimed vs actual benefit
  • Conflict of interest
  • Placebo effects
  • Other choices (eg lifestyle changes) offering equivalent benefits
  • Side effects
  • Definitions of high-risk groups
  • Who pays for treatment
  • Number needed to treat (NNT)

It might also be useful to provide students with printed copies of news stories, as well as a good summary of each piece of research, to see how well the downsides as well as advantages are covered. Cross-curricular links with literacy and media studies, anyone?

As I’m not teaching students who would benefit from these kinds of discussions, I can’t speak from experience – but I hope my ideas will prove useful to colleagues. Please let me know if so!


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