Mark Twain famously said “If you don't read the newspaper, you're uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you're mis-informed.” An article in the "Reporting Science" column of the Economist last September suggests that the mis-informing of the public may spring from a mental health condition that afflicts members of the press.
According to the article, which bears the intriguing title "Journalistic Deficit Disorder," journalists share a number of traits with impuslive, hyperactive children. Like bored children, journalists tend to spring for novel and exciting ideas, especially in medical research. But they don't necessarily have the patience or concentration required to follow up on these new ideas to discover if they are later refuted. Nor do they consider the weighty consequences of printing the good news of possible cures prematurely, before the alleged cures have withstood the test of further research.
Take the case of stimulant drugs like Ritalin and Adderall, that are used to treat ADHD in children. In September, 2007, the Washington Post printed an article entitled "ADHD Drugs Help Boost Children's Grades." A few days ago on July 8, 2013, the Wall Street Journal ran an article alleging precisely the opposite: "ADHD Drugs Don't Boost Kids' Grades."
Certainly this kind of thing reflects the way science progresses. Science is after all a dynamic process. As data become available from new research, previous hypotheses are refuted and replaced by new ones. Because samples are often small in medical research, many conclusions do not stand the test of time.
But consider the consequences of articles like the one in the Washington Post. Since 2007, there has been a 16 percent increase in the number of kids receiving the ADHD diagnosis in the United States, with a 41 per cent rise in the past decade. About two-thirds of children with the ADHD diagnosis receive prescriptions for stimulants like Ritalin or Adderall.
Well-intentioned parents and doctors who read the Post article were left with the impression that stimulant drugs would help the academic performance of children who struggle at school. This impression would naturally result in many more children receiving prescriptions for stimulant drugs--which carry risks of heart failure and psychosis. And, as it turns out, research studies eight years later suggest that the drugs do not boost these kids' academic achievment in the long term--so millions of children may have been taking stimulants unnecessarily.
Certainly most doctors tend to source articles they read even in respected newspapers like the Washington Post. But often prestigious and respected medical journals feature the latest exciting news in medical research, while the follow-ups that deflate the original results appear in more obscure publications.
So what's the prescription for journalistic impulsivity, on the part of both the popular media and medical journals? As the Economist article suggests, it goes beyond not believing what you read in the newspapers--or for that matter, what you read in initial studies in medical journals. It is a question of following up initial results to see if there has been subsequent confirmation of the findings. If there is no confirmation, then the original conclusion may have fallen by the wayside.
In my own experience with studies about ADHD in particular, even closer scrutiny is required. I always make it a point to find out the funding source of the research, before I take any conclusion seriously.
Copyright © Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D.
Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D. is the author of Pills are Not For Preschoolers: A Drug-Free approach for Troubled Kids.
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