This is a good article highlighting how scientific research gets misrepresented in the media, making it important to go to the original source. Moreover, often an experiment measures one thing (a surrogate) but makes conclusions that go well beyond what was actually measured. (E.g. high cholesterol levels being used as a surrogate for heart attack risk.) – Ilene
Fish oil helps schoolchildren to concentrate ran a headline in the Observer. Regular readers will remember the omega-3 fish oil pill issue. The entire British news media has been claiming for several years now that there are trials showing that the pill improves school performance and behaviour in mainstream children, despite the fact that no such trial has ever been published.
There is something very attractive about the idea that solutions to complex problems in education lie in a pill.
This paper showed no difference in performance at all. Since it was a brain imaging study, not a trial, the results of the children’s actual performance in the attention task was only reported in a single paragraph. But these results were clear: "There were no significant group differences in percentage correct, commission errors, discriminability, or reaction time."
So this is all looking pretty wrong. Are we even talking about the same academic paper? I’ve a long-standing campaign to get mainstream media to link to original academic papers when they write about them, at least online, with some limited success on the BBC website. I asked the writer Campbell which academic paper he was referring to, but he declined to answer, and passed me on the Stephen Pritchard, the readers’ editor for the Observer, who answered a couple of days later to say he did not understand why he was being involved. Eventually Campbell confirmed, but through Pritchard, that it was indeed a paper from the April edition of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Similarly, drug reps and researchers will often announce that their intervention has some kind of effect on some kind of elaborate measure of some kind of surrogate outcome: maybe a molecule in the blood goes up in concentration, or down, in a way that suggests the intervention might be effective.
This is all very well. But it’s not the same as showing that something really does actually work back here in the real world. Medicine is overflowing with unfulfilled promises from this kind of early theoretical research. It’s not even in the same ballpark as showing that something works.
Oddly enough, someone has now finally conducted a proper trial of fish oil pills, in mainstream children, to see if they work: a well-conducted, randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, in 450 children aged 8–10 years from a mainstream school population. It was published in full this year – and the researchers found no improvement. Show me the news headlines about that paper.
Meanwhile, Euromonitor estimates global sales for fish oil pills to be at $2bn, having doubled in five years, with sales projected to reach $2.5bn by 2012. The pills are now the single best-selling product in the UK food supplement market. This has only been possible with the kind assistance of the British media, and their eagerness for stories about the magic intelligence pill.