Should I be a spin doctor as well as a medical one?

Cameraman and journalist wearing prevention masks. TV news reporters are making reportage about a vi

A journalist once told me he knew two drugs, a miracle cure or a killer drug. Nothing else makes headlines. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

A few years ago there was an exposé of a dangerous chemical, dihydrogen monoxide.

This frightening substance kills several hundred people a year who simply fall into it. 

It is an ingredient in all the processed food we give our children and yet nowhere will you see 'dihydrogen monoxide' on the label.

It causes considerable damage to property and erodes iron structures and yet the government keep a vast stockpile. When will the Government act?

Anyone with a basic knowledge of chemistry might have spotted that 'dihydrogen monoxide' is H2O or water.

H2O. Illustration of Water molecule model on white background

Anyone with a basic knowledge of chemistry might have spotted that 'dihydrogen monoxide' is H2O or water - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Everything here is true but even the Archbishop of Canterbury in 68 per cent water.

I could never understand why some politicians and journalists lie when it is perfectly possible to give a completely false impression using the truth. 

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Should I be a spin doctor as well as a medical one?

A journalist once told me he knew two drugs, a miracle cure or a killer drug. Nothing else makes headlines. 

But most drugs are neither. They are helpful in certain situations but may have possible side effects which must be weighed against any potential benefit.

Try fitting that into a catchy headline.

Things have got worse with the advent of the internet. Many websites earn their money by advertising and the fee will depend on how many clicks the site has, known as clickbait.

No one is slightly upset, 'people are fuming'. Nothing is a bit popular, 'everyone’s going crazy over it'.

The reality with medical research is that breakthroughs are rare.

Most progress depends on a new study showing a possible effect. Other scientists review the work and try to repeat it. Gradually a picture is built up. 

Unfortunately, this is not good for clickbait.

A website which has the headline 'There appears to be a small statistically significant effect which needs to be repeated by other scientists' will not grab the attention of anyone surfing the internet. So, we’re back to killer drugs or miracle cures.

There are tricks of the journalistic trade to spin a medical story. Real numbers give the impression of a serious problem, percentages can sound much lower.

This disease only affects less than 0.5 per cent of the population sounds much better than '325,000 people are suffering across the country'.

Another way to sound dramatic is to say this 'doubles your chances' of some terrible disease. Buying two lottery tickets instead of one will double your chances of becoming a multimillionaire but there’s no need to contact a financial expert in the City of London or put in a bid to buy Torquay United when you buy your second ticket.

Claiming any increase of a disease is meaningless unless we know how many people had it in the first place.

The numbers will have doubled if there is one case in the world in Uzbekistan and the victim’s husband catches it. I feel sorry for the Uzbekistan couple, but we do not need to put the NHS on alert. If, however, there were 100,000 cases in Devon and the number in Devon doubled to 200,000, I would be worried.

Be careful of beautiful graph showing parallel lines. Correlation does not mean causation.

Between 1999 and 2007 there was a direct correlation between murders by steam, hot vapours and hot objects and the age of Miss America but having younger Miss Americas will not prevent any murders by steam. 

One American seaside resort showed a direct correlation between ice cream sales and shark attacks but banning ice cream with not stop Jaws.

Whenever there is a dramatic story it is worth checking the source. Is it widely reported? A dramatic cure for cancer would be covered everywhere not just on an obscure website. 

Where’s the reference? Is the reference in a reputable peer reviewed journal? Is it relevant? An effect on rats or on a culture in the lab might not work in real life.

Of course, I’ll never try to spin anything in my column. I’m off to have a drink of dihydrogen monoxide with added 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine otherwise called a cup of coffee.