13 November 2015

Science Release Headlines

Welcome back. I’ve been sitting on this one for two months, trying to forget it, let it go, but the disappointment keeps stinging. I expect
Press release guidance. (Graphic
from www.pressreleasewriters.org/)
science bashing from politicians and media personalities, not from top science writers. It’s not as if he’s gone to the dark side. There’s just one article, the one where he ridicules 10 scientific studies apparently on the basis of their press release headline.

Catharsis time. I tracked down 9 of the 10 studies. I could pick any of those, but here are three to show you why I’m bothered.

Headline: “Scientists discover a difference between the sexes”

Yep, someone should have come up with a better press release headline.
Oh! There is a difference.
(Graphic from multiple

The title of the Northwestern University researchers’ paper wasn’t much help: “Sex differences in molecular signaling at inhibitory synapses in the hippocampus.”

Well, forget the humor; it’s all about brain disorders. You see, many disorders vary between the sexes, but it’s unclear if that’s due to experiences or biology or both.

The study demonstrated that there were intrinsic sex differences in molecular regulation of the endocannabinoid system in the brain’s hippocampus. Endocannabinoids are involved in physiology and behavior--cognitive and motivational state, responses to stress and neurological disorders such as epilepsy.

The difference between sexes the scientists discovered suggests that treatments, therapies or drugs that engage endocannabinoids could affect males and females differently.

Headline: “Quitting smoking after heart attack reduces chest pain, improves quality of life”

That sure seems obvious, yet the association of smoking with angina (chest pain due to coronary heart disease) and health-related quality of life after a heart attack is--or was--unclear. Patients continue to smoke after a heart attack, despite knowing that, if they stop, they’ll reduce the risk of another heart attack and mortality by 30% to 50%.

Researchers from the University of Missouri and Washington University in St. Louis monitored over 4000 heart attack patients for a year. They documented that smoking after a heart attack was associated with more angina and worse health-related quality of life, while the experiences of smokers who quit were comparable to those of heart attack patients who weren’t smokers.

It’s hoped those observations will be added inducement for patients to stop smoking after a heart attack.

A basset enjoying an electric fan.
(Photo from multiple websites)
Headline: “Study shows beneficial effect of electric fans in extreme heat and humidity”

Could it be that our science writer is unaware that public health guidance typically warns not to use electric fans in extreme heat and humidity? The concern is that the temperature difference between skin and air reverses with higher temperatures. A fan could increase heat transfer toward rather than away from the body and potentially accelerate body heating.

Noting the guidance lacked much of a foundation, researchers from the University of Ottawa, Canada, Loughborough University, England and the University of Sydney, Australia conducted controlled tests with eight healthy males, average age 23. They found that electric fans prevented heat-related elevations in heart and core body temperature up to approximately 80% relative humidity at 97°F and 50% relative humidity at 108°F.

Although their experimental sample was small with results that may not hold for those who aren’t young, healthy and male, it’s clear that public health guidance needs reevaluation.

Wrap Up

The other studies run the gamut of topic and publication journal. They offer no hint as to why they were chosen to be labeled ridiculous other than a press release headline that lent itself to humor. I assure you that ridiculous they’re not.

Given the writer’s usual high quality article, I can only guess that he had a deadline and no time to read more than the press release headline. As my mother often said, You can’t judge a book by its cover. She never saw a research study press release.

I feel better now. Thanks for stopping by.


Science writer’s article on Time website: time.com/4026473/ridiculous-science-studies/
Difference between sexes paper in Journal of Neuroscience and Northwestern University press release:
Smoking after heart attack paper in Circulation Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes journal and American Heart Association blog post:
Electric fan research letter in Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and article on Science Daily website:

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