The media’s smoke screen for screening!

The media’s smoke screen for screening!

The brilliant charity Sense About Science has provided me with yet another opportunity to promote the amazing work it does. As part of their effort to debunk science myths and misconceptions, Sense about Science, produces ‘Making sense of’ guides which tackle a variety of misunderstood scientific areas. The areas covered range from statistics to genetic modification. Recently, Sense about Science released a new edition of ‘Making Sense of Screening’ on the emotive area of screening. The guide aims to draw out the common misconceptions around screening and discuss both its pros and cons.

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Public expectations of screening are very unrealistic. But who is to blame for this? In part, the portrayal of screening in the media and in public discussion. High profile cases covered in the media, often involving celebrities or emotive case studies, allows the issue to be sensationalised and the debate skewed. This has led to calls for more regular screening, for more of the general population to increase earlier stage detection. But what’s lost from the debate is the discussion of potential harms as well as the benefits.

Many people are shocked to hear that not all of the population will benefit from screening. No screening test is 100% accurate, which means the use of screening to detect tumours, in say breast cancer, will result in some people being overdiagnosed and receiving unnecessary treatment. Similarly if you get screened and celebrate the news of an all clear, it doesn’t mean you won’t develop that disease later in life and rarely, there are false negative results – where the disease marker is not detected.

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Screening is an important tool that can indicate if you are at high risk of developing a disease and tells professionals what might need to be done. It can play essential role within our healthcare system. However public misconceptions have resulted in the demand on screening becoming excessive. Making Sense of Screening aims to bring clarity to the issue and centre the debate around the scientific evidence of harms and benefits. This guide is extremely important and a huge leap in the right direction towards recalibrating public perceptions of healthcare.

 

Rosie Brian

Scientist in training

Bye Bye BBQs!

Bye Bye BBQs!

As we reach September, luckily the end of the British BBQ season, many news articles emerged with headlines focussing on the Western diet. ‘Eating meat is causing ‘dangerous climate change’, claim scientists.’ These headlines feature throughout the media, from the traditional broadsheet papers such as the Guardian to the more ‘down to earth’ papers including the Daily Mail. My imminent arrival to Nottingham to study a PhD in global food security naturally gravitated me to read such articles. Particularly as I had noticed articles referring to the fear of global food insecurity in 2050, published in May of this year, including a huge section in National Geographic which made no mention of changing diets. I couldn’t help but ask how wise or confusing it is for the media to inform people to restrict their diets. To me at first the two crises seemed contradictory, when in reality they are very closely linked. The links are not made clear by the extreme headlines posed by media articles, however identifying the related crises may be key in solving potential problems.

So, the production of food can be negatively affected by climate change and the food we demand produces greenhouse gases, a huge contributor to climate change. The Western diet, which contains high meat consumption, is clearly effecting the environment by increased greenhouse gas emissions from cattle. In particular, the media focuses on the levels of methane produced by the flatulence of our beloved cows. Increased emissions effect global food security due to the heating up of the earth caused by the greenhouse effect. (for explanation visit: http://www.bbc.co.uk/climate/evidence/greenhouse_effect_img.shtml )It has even been stated that global temperature increases of 4 degrees combined with an elevated demand for more food would pose greater risks for food security. The reduced ability to produce food would mean expansion of farm land to produce more food in order to prevent humanitarian issues such as malnutrition and starvation. The cultivation of land however would without a doubt shoot us in the foot! The removal of trees means less carbon dioxide is taken up, increasing levels in the atmosphere and exacerbating the changes in climate seen. The vicious cycle in short, greenhouse gas production= increased climate change = reduced food security= more land needed to produce food= more deforestation= less carbon taken up by trees= increased climate change. A lengthy chain I know, but the link between climate change and food security is definitely clear! In my opinion, both supply (agricultural practises) and demand (our diet) need to change in order to support the global population. Both aspects need to be addressed to prevent us from going round in circles, like a song with no melody (as Billy Preston would say.)

The articles do try and mitigate the potential outcome of these crises however a scare tactic has been used. Many of the articles suggest we need to adopt a vegetarian diet as you can see from the headline quoted above, completely overlooking the dairy products produced by farm animals. If anything we should be joining the vegans! The scientific papers feeding the media articles however are nowhere near as extreme. Little changes such as reducing the amount of beef you eat, cutting the meat you eat in a week in half or even eating fish as an alternative are enough to reduce the demand and effects on climate. Surely, explaining these gradual alterations people can easily make is more productive than scaremongering. The meat- loving Western cultures are more likely to take small steps than quit meat cold turkey! This reason alone is why I disagree with the statement made by the lead author of the paper, Bajzelj,

‘Agricultural practices are not necessarily at fault here, but our choice of food is.’

Although Bajzelj in other points has discussed the potential faults of agricultural supply, the media has not reported so. Surely rather than playing the blame game we should be suggesting a gradual change in diet AS WELL as improving the energy passed down the food chains and improving supply practises. Okay supply acts to meet demand but if we mitigate demand as suggested in the papers and improve the methods of supply, we surely stand a better chance against both of these global problems. In my opinion a dual attack is best and the articles presented do not provide the full picture.

The issues of climate change and food security plucks at many of my heartstrings, I feel strongly about climate change and always have, however feel strongly we should increase food production in order to prevent starvation. What if such a way involves increasing cattle numbers to feed the world? Although this option is not sustainable what if it prevents starvation in the here and now? I find myself in a moral quandary, which wins out ethically, preventing the starvation of populations or combating climate change? Either way the picture at the moment seems pretty bleak! I feel cooperation between scientists exploring climate change and those trying to solve food security problems needs to be seen to allow production of a pragmatic, sensible plan. Alternatively, home grown foods may be the answer- get your allotment applications in!

Rosie Brian

Scientist in training

To find out more about any of the issues discussed and further life science related research click here