Issues with communication of human microbiome studies by popular science media and suggested solutions.

Issues with communication of human microbiome studies by popular science media have been addressed by a recent opinion piece in Nature Medicine, which is summarized in this article*

Human Microbiome
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If you are a movie buff like me, you’ve frequently come across the expression “In english, please!”  when a character is using jargon to explain something. This is a symptom of bad communication, and if you want to learn how to avoid it, read a book summary I recently wrote.

Even though this expression is commonly seen in movies, the communication gap between a non-expert public and scientists is all too real. Part of the problem is scientific discoveries are communicated with the public mainly through popular science and mainstream press.  These outlets compromise the accuracy of scientific studies by overstating and/or over sensationalizing the findings. Research in the human microbiome is one topic that has fallen victim to this kind of miss-communication. A recent article in Nature Medicine (Shan et al, 2019), which I am summarizing below, addresses this very same issue, and offers solutions for better communicating findings from research in the human microbiome. 

What is the human microbiome?

Human microbiomes is the collection of bacteria or microbes that inhabit most surfaces of our bodies.  These microorganisms help us in performing vital functions such as digestion, vitamin absorption, and pathogen resistance. Recently, microbiomes have captured the attention of the popular science media and the public due to their reported benefits for colon health, and therapeutic properties. The authors argue the popular press unintentionally mislead the public by either sensationalizing scientific findings or making general unfounded claims. 

Issues in reporting about human microbiome studies

Here are some of the challenges with popular science reporting of research in human microbiome that are mentioned in the article:

  1. Popular science sources grossly over-state scientific findings to a point where they are misleading. One example that this paper uses is studies that illustrate the need for  a healthy microbiome in a newborn for immune development. However, the press misinterpreted these findings to imply that eating dirt or inadequate hygiene could be beneficial for a child’s health. This is a clear case of oversimplification and exaggeration, one that leads to severe complications and health consequences for a child. 
  2. Popular science press ignores important details of a study, overgeneralizes the findings, and as a result erases the main message of the study. This was specifically done with “microbiome-based interventions”. In a particular example, clinical trials tested therapeutic potential of Lactobacillus strains for children diagnosed with gastroenteritis.  The clinical trials did not find a difference between the control and the experimental groups.  While this study focused specifically on Lactobacillus, news reports made a generalization claiming that all probiotics were ineffective. Making the statement that all probiotics were useless was a gross overstatement and communicated the wrong idea to the public.

Solutions to improve communication of human microbiome studies 

This article not only stresses the issues of communicating scientific findings to the public but also offers possible solutions. One suggestion is for scientific publication to dedicate a section to state their limitations and specific details in nontechnical terms. This option would likely aid the lay press so that both they and their readers can understand the goal of the study and to prevent oversimplification. 

Another solution is to encourage experts to collaborate in providing oversight for pieces that the lay press writes. The authors cite the blog series published by Dr. Joanthan Eisen as an example. This way these experts can catch any material that is misrepresenting and misinterpreting a researcher’s work. 

The authors argue that the most effective solution would be to set up an Institute that would prioritize truth in popular science media. They cite the work of American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) as such a group that takes responsibility of how the lay press communicates microbiome research. 

Finally, to efficiently monitor the vast amount of published microbiome research, the authors suggest to actively engage and train graduate students and postdocs who tend to be “tuned into latest discoveries”. The authors advocate incorporating best practices in science communication and research ethics into graduate training programs. We, at Science Communication Journal Club strongly endorse this suggestion. 

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*Shan, Yue, Julia A. Segre, and Eugene B. Chang. “Responsible stewardship for communicating microbiome research to the press and public.” Nature medicine 25, pages 872–874 (2019)