Science/Health News by Press Release

As a science writer, a variety of press releases on the latest research--from physics to neuroscience--cross my desk each day. But when I saw a press release for the following article, I knew that media outlets around the world were going to have a field day:

Evidence of gender differences in the ability to inhibit brain activation elicited by food stimulation

More than the study, what interested me was how the subject was going to be twisted by desperate reporters the world over. They did not disappoint.

The study itself was based on PET scans of the brains of 23 "normal-weight" individuals who fasted and

then either focused on a favorite food or used a technique called cognitive inhibition to suppress thoughts of hunger and eating. When the subjects focused on their favorite food, the hunger and desire for food increased at a similar rate in both sexes, as shown in brain scans using positron emission tomography (PET). Although cognitive inhibition decreased hunger in both sexes, the technique significantly lowered desire for food only in men. PET brain scans showed that men using cognitive inhibition techniques showed a decrease in brain activation in the regions involved in emotional regulation, conditioning, and motivation. These regions are known to play a role in processing the conscious awareness of the drive to eat.
(from the original press release)*

The headlines, however, told a very different story. Some of the top ones?

Hunger Control: Women the Weaker Sex? (WebMD)
Why Saying No to Foods May Be Harder for Women (Washington Post)
The secret of successful dieting is in your gender (The Independent, UK)
Women Can’t Say No to Their Favourite Food! (eFlux Media)
Women No Good At Resisting Food Temptations: Study (E Canada Now)
Weak-willed women give in to food cravings (Healthcare Republic)
Why Men Are Better Dieters Than Women (Time)
Revealed: Why women find it so hard to diet (Marie Claire UK)

Appalling doesn't even begin to cover the implicit assumptions in the headlines (Women have out of control appetites that must be curbed! Women are weak! Women have no willpower!), nor do they really reflect the content in the paper. Scientific American had a pretty decent summary (and non-offensive headline!), and even looked at the study's limitations, such as a small number of subjects and that the subjects were not actually given the choice whether or not to eat- they were just asked to convince themselves they weren't hungry. And there are plenty of limitations of brain imaging studies, though they also yield fantastic information.

Blogger Sandy Szwarc of Junkfood Science has written several times on the dangers of science by press release. I don't think press releases are going to go away. Most newspapers don't have a science section and fewer still have any health reporters- the Washington Post doesn't. They borrow from other sections for their stories. And most writers don't have the time or expertise to plow through the thousands of research journals out there. However, they should know better than to parrot a study's grand claims without further investigations (wouldn't happen in any other field).

*The original press release isn't openly available online, but if you're really interested, I have a copy saved on my desktop. And please, for my privacy, if you know how I stumbled across this information, please don't mention it in the comments. I'm a professional science writer- 'nuff said.


cbtish said...

Just looking at the abstract, you start off with, "Although impaired inhibitory control is linked to a broad spectrum of..." and already your eyes have glazed over and you take nothing in until the end: "...lower ability to suppress hunger in women as a contributing factor to gender differences in obesity."

So those headlines look perfectly reasonable to me — just what Wang et al. were hoping for when they wrote that abstract.

More importantly, studies like this seem to assume a model of normally-controlled weight that depends on voluntary suppression of cravings. It's hard to find science writers who question crazy assumptions like that one, but then, I think it's hard to find journalists in any field who do.

Carrie Arnold said...

I actually don't know whether the researchers intended for their work to be covered like this. As for the abstract, the general format is pretty formulaic, and from what I've read, this particular one doesn't seem outside the norm. It starts with just a smidge of background and ends with implications. Nor are the abstracts intended for reporters, really. They're intended for other scientists and not really meant to be titillating or interesting, just to provide an overview.

My problem isn't with the study itself, it's with the way the news media interpreted it.

But you're right- the underlying assumptions of the study (that the only reason people are fat is because they eat more and/or can't "control" their appetites) is way off base. The problem is that it's a pretty widespread assumption, and writers believe it too.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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