From the marketing department – or: blogging by science journalists vs scientists who are blogging?

A bit of context first. I received an “in need of an update” email from science blogger Rebecca Sato about one of my webpages I’ve written some 7 years ago and which summarises informally the benefits of red wine. In short, I had listed three negative aspects of red wine (alcohol, tannin, sulfites) and an amazing 7 positive aspects, being: reducing coronary heart diseases, maintaining the immune systems, polyphenols, Resveratrol (trans-3,5,4′-trihydroxystilbene), flavonoids, anti-bacterial activity, and anti-stress. This was based on 4 references (due to ‘article access secured for subscribers only’), a class at university (WAU, it probably was the food chemistry or fermentations course), and, taking into account health guidelines of the different countries, I had written at the end “The net effect of drinking at least 2 to 3 glasses of wine a day is supposed to result in a healthier life.

According to Ms Sato, I really have to update the page, because

you’re going to put uneducated readers at more than 25% elevated risk for cancer with your 2-3 glasses a day advice. International health organizations like the World Health Organization agree based on numerous studies that alcohol can elevate the risk of a range of cancers with as little as one glass a day. And by the way concord grape juice has been proven to have an even better effect on the heart that red wine, and the effects are longer lasting than alcohol, … to leave outdated and dangerous advice on your site could end up hurting people that don’t know it’s dangerous and outdated advice.

Ah. First, I did dutifully list alcohol in the “negative aspects” section to indicate that I’m not from the alcohol-promotion-board, so the reader was warned. Second, there were neither references in the email to back up the 25% elevated cancer risk claim—what about the balancing act that ingredients in wine actually reduce cancer by x %? And what if x>25?—nor the “as little as one glass a day”. Different countries’ health board gave different guidelines (from average 4-5 in Spain to 1-2 in the Netherlands), also based on research, presumably, so I took the middle ground. Third, some fun with concord grape (a cultivar derived from the Vitis labrusca) juice. Blasting in font size 29 in the email, “New study shows Concord grape juice has a heart-healthy effect not yet reported with red wine”, with some additional text reporting on the recently held WineHealth 2007 conference where this new scientific fact has been presented, presumably. The research presented there has not been published, but supposedly will be by December 2007, in a 1-page abstract (see last page of the conference leaflet). It was organised by Vin & Sante, where they have as aim to “to prove or disprove the phenomenon called the French Paradox and to help the scientific understanding of this phenomenon.” They are still researching.

It gets even better. A quick search revealed that the main text in the email was a press release, posted on physorg, with source attribution Hunter Public Relations. Hunter PR has its mission on their front page:

“marketing public relations firm that develops and executes programs that help brands achieve their sales and marketing objectives. Utilizing a creative and strategic combination of public relations, publicity and influencer outreach approaches…. helps [companies] become relevant in the hearts and minds of target consumers. Utilizing the power of the news and entertainment outlets, events, sponsorships and atmospheres, ….”.

So I “need to” update my wine page on the basis of non-published research that is being promoted by a PR firm??? I don’t think so.

I looked into the topic some 7 years ago out of curiosity and because I wanted to have something else to do than the daily grind of systems engineering. I know there are more references I can add to the webpage. But now I have access to most scientific journals, so, when I make an update on the pros and cons, it will be more scientific results (and, possibly, with my limit to six languages, to add a small table with the Ministries of Health guidelines one wine consumption). If you have any scientific publications on the French paradox, feel free to add them to the comments or email me.

A friend suggested I should try to get some corporate funding for my tiny little page on the outskirts of the Internet – after all, I’m only on a PhD stipend at the moment. I wonder how much those “science bloggers” earn to spread misinformation. Spreading misinformation, be it under the banner of ‘science reports’ or other, goes even quicker with blogs and instant news feeds and all that. Newspaper headlines generally exaggerate research results with the ‘new vaccine against AIDS’ kind of stuff to make it look sexy and sell copies, but at least there’s a reasonable-length article to go with it that has at least some of the usual nuances, explains the whole thing in laymen’s terms, and has the original literature reference(s). The Newsinternet headlines and sites are a simplification of the printed press (mostly); science journalism blogs definitely are (I know, not all of you science journalists. When I’m not working on my thesis, I’m thinking of an algorithm to mine the blogs to separate the wheat from the chaff and play with SPSS to back up this statement). In casu, googleing Ms Sato, the top result is a blog post “Immaculate conception?” from 16-4-‘07 twisting Prof Nayernia’s research focus from stem cells w.r.t. curing diseases to biological kids for lesbian couples, supposedly based on research published in “Reproduction: Gamete Biology”. It’s even the wrong journal title; it’s Biology of Reproduction and `gamete biology’ is a subsection of the journal. Nayernia’s article from Dec 2003 is entitled “Male Mice Lacking Three Germ Cell Expressed Genes Are Fertile” (open access). Or you would like a post on time travel and a follow-up with criticism by physicists? She does not seem to have her own blog but posts at others’. Need I say more?

Of course, I’ve read about bogus ‘think thanks’, fake tobacco and sugar research institutes, and the need to declare competing interests at the end of a scientific publication. But to encounter the nonsense first-hand was a new experience. I have to admit it was a not a bad try to bend tings, but it failed; instead of continuing with my research, I ended up wasting time tracing and looking up the info and writing this. What do such people hold me for that they think I would just swallow it?!

p.s.: no competing interests. I’m still on the university-paid PhD stipend; and this is not to be understood as a hint. The bad-publicity-is-good-publicity is bad enough as it is.

p.p.s.: yes, I very much enjoyed my wine yesterday evening.

p.p.s.s.: I emailed Ms Sato I’ve honoured her initiative to email me with a blog post. Now let’s see if I end up in purgatory.