*This is a feature story from the Royal Society Commonwealth Science Conference 2017*
Eating burnt toast could increase your cancer risk, binge-watching television can actually kill you, and consuming bacon, ham and sausages is as big a cancer threat to you as smoking cigarettes.
These were all recent headlines that appeared in news reports, but in each case they were based on faulty or exaggerated interpretations of scientific papers and findings, says Sir David Spiegelhalter, a British statistician and expert in risk communication.
The Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge in Britain, Sir David was a speaker at the recent Commonwealth Science Conference 2017 organised by Britain’s Royal Society and Singapore’s National Research Foundation.
In his seminar as well as in an interview before the conference, he noted that people should be more sceptical about data cited in news reports, and scientists need to do a better job of communicating their research results.
“People tend to think that numbers are fixed ‘truths’, but they are always constructed on the basis of assumptions, and are often only a rough guide. Numbers don’t speak for themselves – their interpretation always requires judgement and additional knowledge,” he said.
“When you come across a number in a news report, you should ask: does the number really represent what is being claimed? Who is saying this and why are they saying it? What are they not telling me?” he added.
The case of the “killer toast”
During his seminar, Sir David drew enormous laughs from the audience by presenting several examples of how poorly-worded press releases and misinterpretations of scientific papers had led to absurd headlines.
The burnt toast scare, for example, was sparked by a warning from the British Food Standards Agency (FSA) in January 2017 that overcooked starchy foods can contain acrylamide, a chemical linked to cancer.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer have classified acrylamide as a probable carcinogen, and the FSA launched a public health campaign urging people to stop cooking toast, potatoes and other starchy food once they are lightly browned.
The FSA and the ensuing “killer toast” news articles failed to note, however, that the studies linking acrylamide to a higher risk of cancer had been done using animals, and involved doses of the chemical far higher than people’s average daily consumption, Sir David said.
Many studies of people’s exposure to acrylamide through their diet had found no such risk. In fact, it’s estimated that adults with the highest consumption of acrylamide could consume 160 times as much and still be at a level that is unlikely to cause tumours in mice.
“That’s at least 10 loaves of burnt toast a day!” Sir David said. The Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at the University of Cambridge wrote a blog to refute the alarmist stories and provide context to the claims, which got widespread media coverage.
The worry, Sir Spiegelhalter added, is that such stories – and their subsequent debunking – could lead people to dismiss all warnings as simply scare stories from scientists, even when they are accurate and important.
How to fight fake news
To communicate risk more accurately and earn the public’s trust, scientists need to be more involved in framing press releases and have better relationships with their organisations’ press officers, he said.
A 2014 study had found that, of 462 press releases from 20 leading British universities in 2011, 40 per cent had exaggerated health advice, 36 per cent made exaggerated inferences to humans from research on animals, and 33 per cent had exaggerated cause-and-effect claims.
More generally, scientists should try to explain what they do on their website, and some scientists should receive media training. Research institutes should also incentivise scientists to speak to journalists, for example by including it in promotion criteria, Sir Spiegelhalter said.
Governments, schools and other organisations, for their part, should invest in programmes that train people to assess the reliability of claims. Social media firm Facebook, for example, has placed advertisements in British newspapers on how to spot fake news.
A large-scale trial in Uganda in 2016, involving 10,000 schoolchildren aged 10 to 12 at 120 schools, also found that the pupils who were offered lessons in critical thinking did better at spotting false health claims compared to the rest.
In Singapore, the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Britain-based Lloyd’s Register Foundation, a charity that supports engineering-related research, launched the Lloyd’s Register Foundation Institute for the Public Understanding of Risk in 2016.
Headquartered in NUS, the institute aims to map public concerns, with a focus on Asia, and develop effective risk communication tools for policymakers, scientists, media and the public. “These are all wonderful initiatives,” said Sir David of the aforementioned efforts.
Sir David himself has written a nine-point guide on how to spot a dodgy statistic, as part of a series of columns for the British newspaper The Guardian. The other columns examined oft-cited statistics and topical risks, such as that of being killed by terrorists.
“I also give a lot of talks, including to schools, write books and advise people who want to communicate with numbers. In terms of research, my work is mostly collaborative, such as working with those who are trying to communicate risk,” he said.
Be factual, but also tell gripping stories
An expert on medical statistics in particular, Sir David helped to design leaflets published by the British National Health Service on the potential benefits and harms of breast cancer screening. These were much-praised for their clarity and accuracy.
He also played a leading role in several public inquiries in Britain, and was part of a Joint British Societies team that developed revised guidelines for cardiovascular care. He has also been the President of the Royal Statistical Society in Britain since the start of 2017.
His other awards and honours include the 2009 Weldon Memorial Prize and Medal, given by the University of Oxford in Britain for noteworthy contributions to mathematics or statistics. He was also knighted in Britain in 2014 for his work in statistics.
Summarising the advice that he would give to anyone trying to communicate risk, he said: “Respect your audiences, understand their fears and concerns, and address them honestly and directly.
“You should also demonstrate trustworthiness by being open and allowing comments and critiques. You have to be factually accurate, but also try to tell good and gripping stories!”
Sir David Spiegelhalter
Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge
Are you more likely to be hit by a meteorite or win the lottery, and do couples really hit their peak-divorce risk during the seventh year of marriage? Answering such questions is all in a day’s work for statistician Sir David Spiegelhalter, who is the Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge.
“I give a lot of talks, write books and advise people who want to communicate with numbers. In terms of research, my work is mostly collaborative, working with psychologists, mathematicians and others who are trying to communicate risk,” he said in a 2016 interview with news website Quartz.
In columns for British newspaper The Guardian, for example, David has written a nine-point guide to spotting a dodgy statistic, examined the oft-cited claim that 10 per cent of a population is homosexual (mostly accurate), and looked at people’s risk of being killed in a terrorist attack (low, especially when compared to that of being killed in a traffic accident).
An expert on medical statistics in particular, he has played a leading role in several public inquiries and was part of a team that developed revised guidelines for cardiovascular care. He also helped to write and design leaflets published by the British National Health Service on breast cancer risks and the benefits of breast cancer screening.
He has also been the President of the Royal Statistical Society in Britain since the start of 2017. His other awards and honours include the 2009 Weldon Memorial Prize and Medal given by the University of Oxford, and a British knighthood in 2014, both for his contributions to the field of statistics.
About the Commonwealth Science Conference
The Commonwealth Science Conference will be held from 13 to 16 June 2017 at the Matrix Building, Biopolis, Singapore. Jointly organised by the National Research Foundation Singapore and The Royal Society, this multi-disciplinary conference brings together leading scientists to celebrate excellence in science throughout the Commonwealth; provides opportunities for cooperation between researchers, builds scientific capacity on issues of common interest to Commonwealth countries, as well as inspires young scientists on their scientific career. The conference will be attended by over 400 scientists from Commonwealth countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the Americas, the Pacific and Europe.
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Written by Feng Zengkun