Field of Science

Associated Press turns a story on critical care into commentary on religion

A news story from the Associated Press (and carried by CNN) illustrates how the media can focus on whatever they want to in a scientific or medical article, and create a headline that doesn't seem to match the article. Here's the CNN headline: "Survey: Many believe in divine intervention". The URL is even more telling: god.vs.doctors. The first sentence reads: "When it comes to saving lives, God trumps doctors for many Americans."

Well, this isn't too surprising - Americans tend to be religious, and the results were gathered by a survey, which might have biases. But the surprising element of this story is what the original article in the journal Archives of Surgery really contains. It is a survey by three doctors titled "Trauma Death: Views of the public and trauma professionals on death and dying from injuries." The main result is that a majority of the public prefer palliative care (i.e., making the patient as comfortable as possible) when "aggressive critical care would not be beneficial in saving their lives." The study also found that most people trust a doctor's recommendation to withdraw treatment when there is no hope for improvement. These findings are presented first.

However, the authors also asked a question about religion in their survey - they asked both the public and trauma professionals if "divine intervention" could save a person after medical professionals determine there is nothing left to do. Not too surprisingly, over half (57.4%) of the respondents from the public said yes, while only 19.5% of professionals did.

I'm not sure why the authors of the study included this question - maybe they knew it would be a "hot button" that would get them headlines. But it seems the point of their study was to educate doctors about what patients think. CNN turned this into a story that claimed "God trumps doctors," although the article didn't say any such thing. The CNN headline suggests that people would prefer "God" to doctors, but in fact the story says that most people trust a doctor's recommendations for treatment.

This is another illustration of how careful scientists and doctors need to be in presenting their work to the public. The reporter in this case (an un-named AP reporter) gathered quotes from a number of medical professionals, none of whom supported the article's lead sentence. Reporters sometimes decide for themselves what the story is - which clearly seems to have happened here - and they are only too happy to "shape" a story from the scientific literature to support their pre-determined conclusions.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great blog. I love the "rational" approach that you take in analyzing an issue, to the best of your ability, to avoid bias. Demonstrating the instances of pseudoscience in any area, whether it is genomics, politics, etc., is a responsibility that rests on the shoulders of the elite.

    Your writing about the Associated Press commentary, which shows how reporters shape a story using headlines and pseudoscience, to support their pre-determined conclusions, is very thoughtful.

    The extend of this practice in media, particularly in the US, could be quite astonishing, for the elite who know, like Chomsky.

    Undoubtedly, many politicians use headlines to further their goals, regardless of how selfish the goals are. However, it is even more unfortunate, when professors use pseudoscience, for example when Samuel Huntington highlights the satisfied society of South Africa in the 1960's, or the clash of civilizations rather than "dialog among civilizations."

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