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Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Is this another new disease?

Every now and then, there is an outbreak of the well known infection of telling journalists how to do their job. The latest flair up comes from The Academy of Medical Sciences which has just put out the report Identifying the environmental causes of disease.

According to the summary, this "sets out five key recommendations and offers guidelines for the wide range of stakeholders involved in generating, communicating and translating research into the environmental causes of disease into policy and practice". The academy set up the study "to address increasing scepticism amongst professionals and members of the public that had arisen when claims from one such study were so soon reversed by those of another".

Given the "public" angle in there, it is no surprise that the document deals with communication. That's why there is a separate section on how to get the message across to hacks. They dress this up as "Guidelines for science or medical writers and journalists".

That is their first mistake, science and medical writers aren't the source of most of the propblems. These happen when such stories fall into the hands of people who are not familiar with how science works.

There is also an interesting section "Communicating the findings from causal research". This makes the important point that when it comes to communication "the prime responsibility lies with the researcher to communicate accurately, clearly and fairly what the study set out to do, how it sought to accomplish its aims and how secure were the findings, as well as the confidence that can be placed on causal conclusions, and the generalisability of the conclusions to the population at large."

They weren't quite devoid of knowledgeable input when they wrote this. Along with lots of eminent professors and scientists there was one Dr Geoff Watts, FMedSci, Freelance Science and Medical Journalist.