Headlines that lie, but who reads the small print?
Staying at my mother’s recently I had the unusual pleasure of perusing the Daily Mail (Friday 4 June). Two headlines caught my eye, both clearly nonsense so, preparing to arm myself with a reply, I sat down to read the articles. One took the wind from my sails, the other pulled the rug from under my feet. The articles themselves gave the lie to the headlines so there was no room for me to do the same.
The first was “The instant test that can detect autism. Breakthrough by scientists.” It seems unlikely that a simple urine test could ever pick up a syndrome with a multifactorial aetiology, but it is indeed being investigated. Given that gut problems are far from ubiquitous in autism, the DM quotes a National Autistic Society Spokesman, who suggests that “The differences reported in the study might not be representative”. They also acknowledge that a test would only be possible IF “trials….show the new test to work.” What happed to the breakthrough? To the test that can detect autism?
The second headline was, “The pill that can wipe out those painful memories”. To make this clear, the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is referenced. It turns out however that early tests with BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor) may have a similar effect on traumatic memories as does extinction training or desensitisation, in which gradual exposure reduces fear. Far from wiping out painful memories, (a rather chilling idea) if successful and safe, BDNF may help with the process of organising traumatic memories.
So why am I fussing about these two articles? After all, with the exception of the headline they appear to tell the truth in the end. It matters because these articles clearly aren’t written by people who have totally misread the original papers, they aren’t even by journalists who are trying to mislead; the fault is that of the headline writers. The headline intentionally and wilfully misleads, not even telling half-truths, the article is merely on a similar subject to the headline, having a very different meaning. We are often inclined to put glaring errors down to the possibility that many journalists don’t understand the science.
What the Daily Mail of 4 June 2010 has shown us is that they may understand the science well enough. They just don’t care about truth.