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Knowing When to Trust the Research

Last Updated on Friday, February 25, 2011

Editor's Note: The recent flurry of news reports about aspirin use reducing the risk of preeclampsia has left us head-scratching (though certainly appreciative of the awareness being raised for the issue). Low-dose aspirin has been used by some providers for decades, research has never strongly supported its use, and the ACOG guidelines which came out five months ago recommended it for high-risk women. Meaning, this isn't really new news. In light of that, one of our most well-read articles is worth re-reading to understand how medical research makes it into mainstream media. 

When preeclampsia studies are reported in the news, there’s rarely enough background to evaluate, from the news article alone, how important the research is, or how strong the findings are, or how likely they are to lead to some sort of improvement in care or treatment of preeclampsia. That’s just a consequence of the way news reporting happens these days; preeclampsia is hard to explain, column inches are scarce, and science reporting divisions have largely been cut from media staff.

When a new bit of research is published in the media, it’s an announcement that some new research was published and then put into an attention-getting wrapper. And that’s all. The way science is handled in the media has become so predictable that it’s been the subject of parody lately.

So it’s best to be a bit leery of media coverage of this condition, if you’re trying to learn true things about preeclampsia. Take, as an example, the widespread coverage in October 2010 of an interesting paper published in the journal Nature.

The Guardian, a UK newspaper, reported it as the discovery of “the root cause” of preeclampsia.

A medical news aggregator, MedPage Today, picked up the story, and got more specific and more cautious.

We had a lively discussion on the Preeclampsia Foundation's Community Forums.

The British National Health Service responded with a thorough discussion.

And we asked the PF’s Medical Board to weigh in (anonymously).

It’s almost stunning to realize that all of these conversations and reports are about the same scientific paper.

The advantage to the coverage from the NHS or the Preeclampsia Foundation lies largely in their ability to tap experts - actual authorities in preeclampsia - and to use background information about the disease to illustrate the current state of the research and how this new information fits into the greater context of what is already known about hypertensive pregnancy disease. They’re also both willing to say that they don’t know things - which, since there are a lot of unknown things about these conditions, is very likely to be the best possible answer to some questions.

Our goal is to illustrate the current state of the research, put it into context, explain the statistics, and bring in principal investigators and science writers in this area to comment on their research and interests in the disease. 

This process works best if you, the reader, ask us a bunch of questions, partly because that way we can figure out what we forgot to explain well, and partly because many of our readers are very well-informed and will know the answer to your question before we can respond. Having an in-depth discussion with other people over how good an explanation is, and finding the weak spots, gives you the best reason to trust the research of all. You know, then, the extent of the explanatory power of the claims made by the researchers. The crucial point is that the research is only trustable if peer review agrees that the study and argument are sound and that it provides a novel explanation of the phenomena it studies - and even then, it might be wrong. Newton had a great explanation of how gravity worked that covered a bunch of phenomena better than anyone else had before him, and then Einstein came along. Some stuff we believe now about preeclampsia is also bound to be wrong.

It isn’t unusual for our readers to ask the same questions that researchers are asking. Please don’t hesitate to jump in and get involved; anyone hit by this disease deserves the best explanations and we’ll be trying to find the right people to provide them.

If you run across an article and want to evaluate it, here's a handy tool. If you’re looking for more research blogging, here is a good site for more discussion of individual research articles. And if there’s something you’d like to see discussed here, please don’t hesitate to email Caryn Rogers, our science writer.

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