09 January 2015

New rule for medical research headlines

Dear science journalists—

I propose this simple rule for all headlines about medical research:

All headlines must include the species the research was carried out in.

I’ve suggested this a few times here and there on social media, but the latest case was the title of this Telegraph article:

Has Stanford University found a cure for Alzheimer’s disease?

My reaction might be summed up thus:

The problem is so obvious it doesn’t need a spoiler alert. The study was done in mice. Yeah. There have been a lot of studies on lab mice that suggested a cure for something or other was on the horizon. They often vanish without a trace.

Even after animal studies suggest that a treatment will be safe and effective, more than 80% of potential therapeutics fail when tested in people.

While “But if you read the rest of the article...” is a handy out for science writers, it doesn’t change that headlines are 90% of communication effort. If we’re going to improve science communication, headlines would be the place to start.

Imagine the difference in people’s response between the headline that was used and this:

Has Stanford University found a cure for Alzheimer’s disease in mice?

This provides people with a much more realistic idea of how far along the research is in that “bench to bedside” pathway.

External links

Betteridge’s Law

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