So who was it that got it wrong? Scientific publishers or the popular press?
An editorial in the Lancet decries the resulting public scare resulting when “miscommunication met sensationalism” in the popular press coverage of a publication in Nature entitled “Evidence for human transmission of amyloid-b pathology and cerebral amyloid angiopathy” (the publication can be seen here).
The editorial takes the stance that despite scientists and public health officials’ best efforts to place the scientific findings in their rightful place – (“…if there were alarmist headlines, it would not be for the want of trying to prevent them.”) – the popular press ran with sensational headlines and stories suggesting Alzheimer’s disease is transmissible among humans.
The editorial goes on to discuss the findings of the paper (declaring them “interesting” but not quite of “paradigm shift” magnitude) and wraps up with a bit of wet-noodling, “…this episode of scientific reporting was handled poorly” that in my opinion understates the obvious. So researchers put out an “interesting” study about one of the most feared of human diseases with a deliberately provocative headline and abstract. The popular press (whose job is to sell newspapers, not to educate the public about scientific findings) responds. What is missing in the editorial is who it is exactly that carried out the miscommunication? There is a middle step between scientific paper and popular press. Yes – the various press announcements sent out by the journal and the institutions sponsoring the work. So what did they say? And what did they add to the miscommunication and sensationalizing? Unfortunately these links in the chain are not mentioned in the Lancet editorial.
In the same issue of Nature a news report by Alison Abbot (news pieces typically appear in the front pages and are meant to attract a more general readership and call attention to accompanying detailed scientific papers) is titled “Alzheimer’s fears in hormone patients: brain plaques may have been seeded by growth therapy.” Early in the news renowned Alzheimer expert John Hardy of University College London is quoted saying, “This is the first evidence of real-world transmission of amyloid pathology…” The news story goes on to raise the spectre that tens of thousands of other individuals could be at risk.
A quote from one of the senior authors of the paper, Dr. John Collinge, confirms that the amyloid pathology was likely transmitted via amyloid “seeds.”
Yes – there are nuances and caveats that emerge from a careful reading of the scientific paper. And the findings have yet to be replicated. But seriously, did the press officers REALLY expect the popular press would not run with sensational news? And can the scientific community claim to be “bewildered” by the results. Or in this case did they reap miscommunications from the sensational seeds they themselves sowed?