News - October 21, 2016

‘Science has degenerated and become entertainment’ (video)

Yvonne de Hilster

The people who expected to be able to follow the Wereldlezing ‘Is worst de sigaret van de toekomst?’ (‘Will sausage become tomorrow’s cigarette?’) via the internet livestream on Wednesday felt deceived. The livestream did not work, not one bit. And that was a shame, because the evening was a very interesting.

Photo: Wednesday evening, one hundred lucky guests attended the Wereldlezing in Impulse (Vincent Koperdraat)

The reason for the Wereldlezing, which was organised by Wageningen Academy and the University Fund Wageningen, were the alarming media reports that sausage is carcinogenic – but these reports contained quite some erroneous information. Wageningen professor in Nutrition and Disease Ellen Kampman spoke to many journalists in the past year.

During the lecture, Kampman once again provided a clear overview of all the facts and figures. The chances of colorectal cancer are rather small: five out of every 100 people are affected by the ailment during their life, a chance of 5 percent. Studies show that if you would daily eat 100 grams of red meat (beef, pork, lamb, goat), your risk of colorectal cancer would increase by 17 percent. For processed meat (sausages, charcuterie), the risk increases by 18 percent for each 50 grams a day. This would increase your total risk from 5 to 6 percent. On an individual level, this effect is minimal, says Kampman. ‘On the public health level, this is a considerable effect. But one of a completely different order of magnitude than smoking.’ For people who smoke a pack a day for a longer period of time, the risk of lung cancer can become 20 times as high as for non-smokers.

Journalists are not interested in this kind of shades of grey
Ellen Kampman, professor in Nutrition and Disease at Wageningen University & Research

Shades of grey
The fact that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization (WHO) puts meat in the same category as cigarettes and asbestos is because of the proven risk of cancer, not because of the magnitude of that risk. Kampman: ‘But journalists are not interested in this kind of shades of grey.’ Nevertheless, she does not solely blame the media for the exaggerated reports. ‘There are also reports on how universities would pay employees depending on how often they appear in the media. This makes researchers more prone to report news that would attract attention.’

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Frozen dinner
During the Wereldlezing, science journalist Hans van Maanen described how the publicity around the WHO research had taken place. Is started with an item in the British newspaper the Daily Mail. A journalist had overheard it during a meeting of the IARC. After that, the WHO issued a press release with a somewhat clumsy figure: 18 percent increase in the chance of cancer. That stuck with people.

This was also because the number of people who actually understand anything about percentages and basic statistics is depressing, as Van Maanen showed by means of several studies. ‘Science has degenerated and become entertainment. Many editorial offices do not employ science journalists who could assess the quality of research or indicate the results. A press report has become like a frozen dinner: a slight edit here and there, and the report is done.’ This could also entail a risk to science, Van Maanen says: ‘When researchers boast more in a press report or during an interview than their research warrants, they harm the credibility of science.’

When researchers boast more in a press report or during an interview than their research warrants, they harm the credibility of science
Hans van Maanen, science journalist

Although Kampman likes the idea of brushing up the journalists’ knowledge by scientists, Van Maanen sees the two professions standing on opposite sides of the counter. ‘Journalists should be much more critical. They should keep nonsense out of the newspapers by first verifying information and reading the report.’ Which is one more curious detail about the coverage on meat and cancer: the report still remains unpublished.

About a hundred people who were able to lay hands on a free ticket were present during the Wereldlezing. Those who could not attend were able to join the discussion thanks to Twitter and #voedingkanker (‘#nutritioncancer’). However, no reactions came in. Whether this was only caused by the choppy livestream is hard to say. Judging by the messages that appeared on Twitter with this hashtag in the days leading to the lecture, there seemed to be little enthusiasm for discussion. On the evening itself, only a handful of complaints was made about the livestream that was impossible to follow.

You can watch the recording of the livestream here (in Dutch):