Science Media Hype: Scaremongering Over Viral Research

I first wrote this post for Science on Google+ and the response has been highly emotional and very far removed from the evidence presented. My interest in this story is on the epidemiology of disease, given my work on the sociology of health. Misinformation on the spread and management of infection can severely impede public health campaigns. While bioethics is an important issue to openly debate, the fact is that this particular story about virology research has been hyped up by journalists. The media created a moral panic using doomsday scenarios about what might happen if this research “escaped the lab,” without seriously reviewing the researcher’s body of work, as discussed in the post below. 

I’ve previously written that when people think about scientific risks regarding a topic they are uninformed about, they are less likely to support such risks if they have vested interests such as political or personal biases. I’ve also shown how public trust in science is also influenced by education and belief systems. Bad science reporting only serves to complicate things by presenting sensationalist views (see my post http://goo.gl/mcqxWY).

Science Scaremongering

You may have seen the media circulating a sensationalised story about the research by Professor of Virology, Yoshihiro Kawaoka, who works at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Kawaoka studies influenza viruses, specifically the “molecular mechanism of interspecies transmission of the virus leading to influenza pandemics in humans. His previous research explores genetic compatibility between swine-origin influenza virus (S-OIV), a contemporary avian flu (H5N1 virus) and human influenza viruses. He also examines why, in rare cases, viruses such as avian H5N1, H7, and H9N2 become transmitted across animals species to humans even though they do not spread efficiently from person to person.

Kawaoka has published various studies to determine how different types of influenza viruses work their way from species to species through various modes of transmission. This includes a comparison of duck and quail flu transmission to humans (the latter is a potential point of transmission to humans; swine influenza in macaques (closely mimicking influenza in humans; and the spread of H5N1 influenza viruses in mammals in a study of ferrets and hamsters.

His work is also important in understanding why some influenza viruses affect some groups of people more than others, such as in a study comparing swine-origin H1N1 influenza virus in mouse models from Norway, Osaka and California (see images). The study showed the that pathogenic strains possibly develop in response to aberrant immune responses in some people, leading to lethal results in a minority of humans. Vaccines are imperative but they have limited viability, and so combined therapies appear to be more effective.

Sites like The Independent, The Daily Mail, Gizmodo and others have run scaremongering headlines such as – “Scientist creates new flu virus that can kill all of humanity.” These news reports emphasise that Kawaoka’s ongoing research is unpublished but they claim that his work is reckless and divisive amongst the scientific community. The fact is that all research remains unpublished until it’s gone through peer-review; there’s nothing under-handed about this, it’s simply the scientific process.  These news stories make it seem like Kawaoka is manufacturing viruses that might easily escape into the public. This fear is unfounded as there have been no reported breaches of protocol. This is nothing more than irresponsible reporting. Research labs are closely monitored. There is enough of Kawaoka’s research available in the public domain to demonstrate its scientific rigour and value.

Social science research shows that media hype shapes public responses to disease. Misinformation about the epidemiology of illness – the spread, causes and social dynamics of disease, can severely impact how the public responds to both epidemics and pandemics. Kawaoka’s research evaluates the transmission and generation of pandemic viruses across various species and to people. This work is important because influenza viruses do not spread consistently across populations. We need to better understand these patterns in order to plan and prevent pandemics that might otherwise severely impact public health. Poor science reporting serves to spread fear, rather than educate and ultimately undermines public health efforts.

As our Science on Google+ Moderator, Professor Rajini Rao, points out:

there is no truth to the claim that the scientific community is split over this research. The news sites do not provide credible links to substantiate this claim because it’s not true. This sort of viral research is not unusual and it is the basis for making anti-viral therapy. Unfortunately, this sort of media hype  comes up at regular intervals.

Learn More

Check out these past debunking posts that delve into misinformation about similar research, by Prof Rao and Dr Tommy Leung.

See more of Kawaoka’s research: http://goo.gl/URT8tQ

If you still have questions after reading this post read this analysis of the unfounded critiques of the virology research in question.

Notes

All cited research has been conducted by teams of researchers, with Prof Kawaoka being one of several authors, and not necessarily the lead investigator.

Image Credit Ryuta Uraki et. al., 2013 “Virulence Determinants of Pandemic A(H1N1)2009 Influenza Virus in a Mouse Model,” Journal of Virology, vol. 87 no. 4. Notes in images are direct quotes from the paper.

 

Myth of Domestic and Family Violence

Sociologist & public health researcher, Sara Shoener, critiques the dangerous narrative that positions two-parent households as a protection for women and children from domestic abuse. The Washington Post ran a reckless piece of social science by a conservative sociologist who made this claim based on poor use of statistics. This researcher, writing for The New York Times, has conducted ethnographic research on how the criminal justice system handles domestic abuse cases. Her data illustrate the damage of the two parent myth. Continue reading Myth of Domestic and Family Violence

Italian-Australian Migrant Women

Italian-Australian activist Anna Moo talks about her attraction to social justice and how she worked with a group of migrant women in the 1970s to achieve policy changes on migrant women’s reproductive health. Moo says:

We really wanted to connect back with the women that we were advocating with. They were not aware of health services that might have been available to them. The W.I.C.H. [Women in Industry Contraception and Health] education project was developed in conjunction with Australian women and women from many different backgrounds with the support of a number of organisations.

And the fantastic aspect of that education kit is the fact that it was taken to the factories by women who were themselves from multicultural backgrounds. Each worker spoke a language, a community language, whereby women could actually ask questions and be supported through the discussions. You know, what’s really amazing is that we still have Women in Industry Contraception and Health, it’s called a different name but it’s still that organisation…

It’s really a testament to what women can do together.

Source: Immigration Museum.

Sudanese Australians Use Music Rehab

Sudanese Australians use music to reflect on their war experiences. This group performed for the Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS) in Western Sydney. One performer says:

When you’re happy, you sing it out; when you’re sad, you sing it out… You talk to people, you make an announcement – anything at all, you make a song.

Another singer says:

It looks like fun, but it’s not fun… I’m not a young woman, I’m an old woman. I can’t come if it’s [just] fun. We want the people that doesn’t know what happened a long time in the past, and that is why we are here.

STARTTS Chief Executive says:

Dance brings people together, but also brings people together in a way that turns thoughts and feelings into action, and that’s tremendously therapeutic.

Source: SBS News.

Beyond Arm Chair Social Science: Diabetes and Food Insecurity

By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD
The internet is filled with many science blogs and websites holding themselves up as experts on all sorts of research topics. It’s frustrating to see the high volume of articles where non-experts feel qualified to dismiss social science research. The damage is worse when it’s journalists and scientists without social science training, because the public doesn’t always know that these people aren’t qualified to write about social science. I will demonstrate this through a case study of the sociology of diabetes.

With increased media attention on diabetes, the public has come to expect certain behaviours from people who have this condition. While some people understand that there are some differences between the two broad types of Diabetes (Type 1 and Type 2), there are many misconceptions about what causes diabetes and how this condition should be treated. With these misconceptions comes judgements about the people who get diabetes, and why this may be the case.

I am not an expert on the biology of diabetes. I can however speak to the sociological aspects of this disease. As an applied researcher, I have worked on projects in the sociology of health, such as examining the influence of organisational practices on health outcomes. I’ve also researched socio-economic disadvantage amongst minority and vulnerable groups and the impact this has on social integration, help-seeking behaviour and wellbeing. Social disadvantage will be the focus of my analysis here. I use my discussion on the socio-economics of diabetes to explore the problems that arise when non-experts wade into social science issues using individual explanations (such as personal experience and opinion) rather than scientific evidence about societal processes. I call this “arm chair” social science because it does not adhere to the social theories and methods for analysing social issues.

My post begins with the social science research on diabetes, centred on the research of Hilary Seligman. Her team’s work was refuted by a science blogger who is not a social scientist, and who subsequently posted this critique to Science on Google+, a large multidisciplinary Community that I help moderate. Below I discuss Seligman’s longitudinal research on how poverty affects the experience and management of diabetes. Seligman uses the concept of “food insecurity” to situate her research. I draw on other studies that lend further support to this concept. I discuss the influence of social location on the management of diabetes. That is, I will examine the socio-economics of where people live as a key factor in diabetes care. I end with a discussion of the exchange on the Science on Google+ Community and the problems of viewing diabetes from an individual perspective.

Exhaustion of food budgets is a driver of health inequality - The Other Sociologist
“Exhaustion of food budgets might be an important driver of health inequities” – Hilary Seligman and colleagues

Continue reading Beyond Arm Chair Social Science: Diabetes and Food Insecurity

Kabul Disability Health Centre

This disability health and support centre in Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan, is staffed almost exclusively by disabled care workers. They produce prosthetic limbs and provide  rehabilitation and social support in a country where public healthcare is negliable.

Video: Al Jazeera.

Autism Research and Policy

Today, our community, Science on Google+, is co-hosting an event with Autism Brainstorm. The Hangout includes autism experts who will speak about educational, policy and biological research into autism.  

Read my notes of the discussion below, plus links on the research discussed, as well as biographies of our guests. I focus on the research and policy developments highlighted by the speakers. I hope these notes might also facilitate our visually impaired community members.

In order to set the background for my Hangout notes, I begin by summarising the key research and policy recommendations on autism made by The Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee. The scientific focus on biology, social science and research practices are of interest to our multidisciplinary community.

Continue reading Autism Research and Policy

Better Life Index

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The OECD’s Better Life Index attempts to compare well-being amongst OECD nations using education, housing, environment measures. The Economist has reproduced this graphic, which ranks Australia first, the USA second and Norway third.

On the one hand these types of surveys are useful because they measure social conditions rather than simply material wealth. On the other hand, this particular graphic neglects other socio-economic measures that give a different picture of national well-being.

For example, the Index makes a sweeping statement about gender: “Taking all 11 topics of the BLI into account, the differences between women and men’s well-being are small. However, there are topics where men do much better than women, such as for instance jobs and earnings. Conversely, women fare better than men in health, education, community and life satisfaction.”

This does not really reflect social science data, which show how men and women’s mental health differs according to marital status, life stage, social network support. The 2012 World Development Report compares low, median and high income nations, noting that men in Australia and the USA are over-represented in violent crimes and incarceration. Moreover, domestic inequalities and social welfare distribution mean that these countries are ranked lower than Scandinavian nations.

Paternalism, Colonialism and Indigenous Education

Photo by Mark Roy via Flickr
Photo by Mark Roy via Flickr

By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the content on this page may contain images and references to deceased persons. (Why this warning?)

The Council of Australian Governments has conducted a national review of Indigenous socio-economic outcomes. Its recent report finds that while some measures are improving, there is still a large gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. This post provides a snapshot of the findings with a focus on education and responses by the state. One of the solutions being offered to improve educational outcomes amongst Indigenous youth is to send them to boarding schools. I discuss this in relation to Australia’s colonial history and the Government’s paternalistic views on Indigenous welfare.

I review other approaches to Indigenous education, which focus on working to students’ strengths in order to improve outcomes. This means making curriculum more focused on applied skills, vocational training within remote communities, and ensuring knowledge is culturally relevant. At the same time, educational efforts must avoid “pigeon holing” Indigenous students and teachers. Instead, education needs to make leadership and career pathways more accessible, and ensure that Indigenous insights are being fed back into the education system.

Finally, my post explores how sociological teaching and activism needs to change in reflection of the history of Indigenous educational practices.

Continue reading Paternalism, Colonialism and Indigenous Education

New Study Shows Brain Benefits Of Bilingualism

Being bilingual opens up new worlds to speakers. It also appears to delay the onset of dementia…

In the Hyderabad region, a language called Telugu is spoken by the majority Hindu group, and another called Dakkhini by the minority Muslim population. Hindi and English are also commonly spoken in formal contexts, including at school. Most people who grow up in the region, then, are bilingual, and routinely exposed to at least three languages.

The patients who contributed data to the study, then, are surrounded by multiple languages in everyday life, not primarily as a result of moving from one location to another. This turns out to be an important factor, as the authors explain:

In contrast to previous studies, the bilingual group was drawn from the same environment as the monolingual one and the results were therefore free from the confounding effects of immigration. The bilingual effect on age at dementia onset was shown independently of other potential confounding factors, such as education, sex, occupation, cardiovascular risk factors, and urban vs rural dwelling, of subjects with dementia.

In other words, thanks in large part to the study’s cultural context, these researchers made great progress zeroing in on bilingualism as the specific reason for the delay in dementia symptoms.

What exactly is it about the ability to speak in two languages that seems to provide this protective effect? Alladi and co-authors explain:

The constant need in a bilingual person to selectively activate one language and suppress the other is thought to lead to a better development of executive functions and attentional tasks with cognitive advantages being best documented in attentional control, inhibition, and conflict resolution.

Source: NPR.

Read the study in Neurology (behind a paywall). Or check out these open source links:

  • Delaying the onset of Alzheimer disease, Neurology 2010. 
  • Language Control in Different Contexts: The Behavioral Ecology of Bilingual Speakers, Frontiers in Psychology
  • A Longitudinal Study of Memory Advantages in Bilinguals, PLOS ONE.

Links via Nicodin Bogdan on Science in Google+.

New Study Shows Brain Benefits Of Bilingualism