Monday, September 16, 2013

The science of scientific reporting - we suck at communicating our results to the public

One of my favourite PhD comics is "The Science News Cycle." I think it adequately portrays one of science's fundamental flaws, communicating research findings to Joe Public. Or, in the case of the comic, grandma.

Knowledge exchange. Even the phrase is jargon. As researchers, we don't do it very well. We write up our research for the scientific community with the ultimate goal of publishing articles in scientific journals, and of course, eventually the Lancet or The New England Journal of Medicine. Although, most of us PhDs and post-docs are happy to have publications, period. 

Each discipline has its own jargon. You need to speak and of course understand the jargon to get published.  But what about cross-disciplinary endeavours? Can we understand each other? It's a resounding no. Take me for example. For topics related to but outside my domain of expertise, I often have difficulty reading and fully understanding what is being communicated to me (I had a PhD last time I checked). Statistical papers are my number one nemesis. I often come across papers with complex formulas derived from first principles, when all I am looking for is a more detailed "applied" understanding of the method. So, even within academia we speak foreign languages, it is no wonder Joe Public has a hard time. 

You may be familiar with the quote: "Data is not the plural of anecdote," from Roger Brinner. Based on my training and experience, you cannot plan programs or develop policy based on an anecdote, or an n of 1. But all too often, journalists reduce research to anecdotes, a story of how Sally used shark-fin soup to cure cancer and now lives life to the fullest with her three-legged, rescued cat named Jesus. Journalists do this because it's catchy, simple to understand, and brings the story to the reader or listener at a personal level; plays on emotions and perhaps, past experiences. Vincent Lam, award winning author and emergency medicine doctor, recently spoke about the importance of a narrative to a room full of Queen's University medical students, emphasising that telling a story can make you a better doctor. Anecdotes break through the jargon. But all too often, messages get twisted or misunderstood anyway.  

 I don't claim to know how to do this. I don't know how to report research results responsibly AND make them interesting AND catchy AND easy to understand. It's something I struggle with as an epidemiologist and public health researcher, especially with a topic as complicated as obesity.   

Obesity is not a behaviour like smoking. One of its main contributors is diet, but unlike smoking, we can't quit eating. It's complex. Take, for example, the work the Foresight Group has done to characterize obesity as a complex, adaptive system (CAS), complete with feedback loops. 

A CAS is defined as being: "composed of many heterogeneous pieces interacting with each other in subtle or non-linear ways that strongly influence the overall behaviour of the system" (SCPHRP, 2011)

I think this CAS perspective is important, but its incredibly messy. How in the world can we talk tangibly about this to the public? 

When considering obesity as a CAS, two basic principles also need to be underlined (SCPHRP, 2011):
1) Single interventions probably won't work on their own
2) Many small changes may lead to cumulative improvements

So, what does this mean? Reporting the results of single studies, then reducing them to anecdotes probably won't help in making things clearer. In fact, I think this is what we're doing when we do that:

Cartoon by Jim Borgman, first published by the Cincinnati Inquirer and King Features Syndicate 1997 Apr 27; Forum section: 1 and reprinted in the New York Times, 27 April 1997, E4.

Perhaps we need a new field - a degree that comprises an undergrad, masters, and PhD, which merges epidemiology, population health, and journalism/communication, and miraculously turns people into Dr. David Katz. Maybe we should stop making a big deal out of single studies? Open access journals are increasing and researchers are also paying traditional publishers to have their articles be made open access, so I doubt this is feasible. What are your thoughts? Should we only be reporting the results of well conducted systematic reviews and some how developing them into short narratives? How should we be reporting complex aetiological and intervention population health research that engages the public? Government Office for Science (2007). Tackling Obesities: Future Choices – Project Report 2nd Edition FORESIGHT Programme

Friday, April 5, 2013

Tips for safely commuting by bike

I am sharing a modified presentation that I did some time ago for my old Toastmasters club in Ottawa.  I am passionate about active transportation and cycling in particular, and promote it as often as I can. This presentation is based on a blog post in Bicycling Magazine (hopefully it's okay that I used it and modified it a bit :S) set to one of my favourite songs by Queen (again, hopefully this isn't a copyright issue but I thought  the song was too perfect to pass up, we'll see if I have to take it down at a later date). 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Do the right thing Tim Hortons

cc image

It's that time of year again, yes it's "Roll up the Rim to Win" at Tim Hortons.  For anyone who is unaware of this phenomenon, Tim Horton's is a Canadian coffee institution (I have no idea why, but I still buy it) and Roll up the Rim to Win is a marketing ploy to get us to buy more coffee. Every time we buy a coffee, we're essentially playing the lottery, to win anything from donuts to a BBQ or even a car.  I believe that Americans are also subjected to this chaos, but I'm not sure how much Tim Hortons has infiltrated our southerly neighbours. In Canada, having a Tim Hortons is more important than having a hospital, police department, or grocery store.   

Consumer marketing. It's everywhere. That's not my problem for once. The problem I have is that I and many others make a concerted effort to reduce garbage in landfills by bringing in our own travel mugs. This initiative totally dissuades anyone from doing any good. The other day, I brought in my mug,  got it filled, but was given an empty cup anyway, to "roll up". I paused for a minute. Do I say, "nah, just keep the cup," thereby allowing the server to keep it for herself or give to the next guy for free and he/she happens to win the Rav4? I couldn't take that chance (I live in a capitalist society after all), so I took the cup, rolled up the rim, won a coffee, saved the rim and threw the rest of the cup out.  That totally defeats the purpose of bringing in my own mug - now when I go for a coffee break at work, I don't bring my own mug.  Tim Horton's you are undermining me!    

The take-home message for Tim Hortons is that they should be environmentally responsible and devise a secondary way to roll up the rim for those who bring in their own mugs. A colleague at work suggested "spinning a wheel." I like that idea, or even providing a mini rim (the thing you keep anyway if you win) so that you don't end up throwing out the entire cup!   Do it Tim Hortons, do the right thing.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

On Obesity Panacea: Measuring change in child weight status in relation to local environmental factors

Just recently a colleague and friend of mine, Travis Saunders, asked me to guest post on his blog: Obesity Panacea - a highly cited obesity blog, hosted by the Public Library of Science Blog Network. The post highlights a portion of my PhD work investigating how change in child weight status relates to local environmental factors. You can access the post here. The papers on which my post focus on can be found below. Carter MA, Dubois L, Tremblay MS, & Taljaard M (2012). The Influence of Place on Weight Gain during Early Childhood: A Population-Based, Longitudinal Study. Journal of urban health : bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine PMID: 22806452

Carter MA, Dubois L, Tremblay MS, Taljaard M, & Jones BL (2012). Trajectories of childhood weight gain: the relative importance of local environment versus individual social and early life factors. PloS one, 7 (10) PMID: 23077545