Another Kind of Fake News: Covert Marketing As Academic Research

Fake news and bad reporting (faithless journalism, perhaps) have been in the news pretty extensively since the election, and folks are trying to detangle trust, knowledge, and facts from fake news and click-bait headlines. One topic I haven’t seen addressed much is news around science articles – oh, I see the discussion of click-bait headlines and the flipflops of EGGS GOOD/BAD/WHO KNOWS. But what I don’t see so much of is a discussion of author affiliation.

For example, the Washington Post published a Wellness article about choline last week that caught my eye. There were an awful lot of claims being made about this supposed wonder-nutrient we don’t get enough of, and reading the original article seemed like a good idea. So I did.

Now, something that might not occur to folks is a normal part of reading academic articles for me: looking at author affiliations and disclosures for conflicts-of-interest. And in this case, it didn’t take long to find one. Sure, the first and corresponding author seemed okay on the surface (a professor of nutrition at George Mason), but the second author? Oh that second author.

That second author, a Victor Fulgoni the Third, is employed by Nutrition Impact, LLC. Who are they, you ask? Well hell, I didn’t know until I looked – but that’s the point. I looked. And I found:

Based in Battle Creek, Mich., USA, Nutrition Impact has helped one client successfully complete a new health claim petition (plant sterol esters and heart disease), helped another client successfully complete a Food and Drug Administration Modernization Act (FDAMA) notification authorizing another new health claim (potassium and blood pressure/stroke), and helped a third client obtain a new nutrient content claim (choline).

Emphasis mine.

This, of course, calls the entire research paper regarding choline into question, because the job of the second of two authors was to make choline a noted and noticeable health claim (almost certainly a supplement company looking to goad consumers into purchases), and the Washington Post fell for it hook, line, and sinker.

Is this fake news? Certainly not of the Facebook-style fake news generators, but it is a kind of fake news: it’s hiding a company agenda in the veneer of academic research, and thus eroding trust in both academic research and science/medical journalism.

What’s With NASGOF2 and House Ferret?

NASGOF2IsComing

If you’ve been watching my Twitter account, you’ve undoubtedly seen my parody of Game of Thrones over the last week: NASGOF2 is Coming/NASEM. And if you’re a Game of Thrones fan who works in or around gain-of-function/dual-use research of concern, then you likely giggled and nodded and probably planned to if not be at today’s meeting, at least watch it live on the internets.

If you’re a dual use person who isn’t familiar with Game of Thrones, I can’t help you–I don’t watch the show, either. All I know are the memes from the first season’s “Winter is Coming” advertisements, and I happen to both have Photoshop and be married to a fan of the show who is also one of the dual use experts. So when he offered his suggestion (instead of what I was working on), I jumped.

What was this remarkably funny suggestion? The profile of a ferret, because ferrets are what started this all.[note]Ron Fouchier and Yoshi Kawaoka published a series of experiments passing H5N1 through ferrets, ultimately making it very, very transmissable and very, very deadly. While DURC/GOF studies have been going on for a long time–Ramshaw’s mousepox is probably the most famous–this whole brouhaha can really be traced back to 2011/2012. You can read the start of it here.[/note] And because we’re talking the flu, naturally, the ferret is licking it’s sniffly nose (a detail I added and I’m grateful at least one person noticed and laughed about–oddly, not the husband).

So today, the ferrets have come home to do whatever the ferret equivalence of “roost” is, and the summary of a lot of hard work, arguing, publications, and general debate will be presented in front of a divided group of people. And me. I’ll be there with my gifs and giggles, rolling my eyes at the entire process and wondering if it’d help if I just made everyone read All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.


Socializing Girls Away from STEM

Sometimes, I wonder if the problem with STEM and girls and their interest isn’t that we devalue STEM to girls, but that we devalue girls and their interests.

Image via EDF.

Image via EDF.

In October 2015, EDF’s Pretty Curious campaign drew a lot of ire from scientists (mostly women), both for the name and for the content of the promotional material. You see, one of the people involved was a cosmetics scientist.

I found the outrage over the name to be a bit baffling, because while I admit I really wished to be called pretty when I was a kid, I was called pretty curious all the time (and I suspect those who’ve worked with me can attest this much is still true; I’m insatiably curious about the world). I don’t hear a slur or a gendered put-down in that; instead, I actually hear the kind of language people are encouraged to use when discussing young girls: talk about their minds, not their bodies. And “pretty curious” is definitely addressing the mind!

It almost seemed like bigger outrage came around the fact that the campaign includes cosmetics scientist Florence Adepoju. Rather than focusing on diversity, as Adepoju is a woman of color, critics focused on the fact that she’s a cosmetics scientist. Because, you know. Girls and makeup and stereotypes–nevermind that you actually need science to make makeup, and that’s part of the point of including Adepoju in the first place: she used science to study how to make makeup (her dissertation was on getting lipstick to stay on lips), and built that into a successful smallbatch makeup business for women of color.

Not bad for 24, eh? Certainly the sort of women I’d like the girls in my life to look up to, anyhow.

But she does makeup, you see. And so people jump on it for being too girly, and the message that’s sent? Well, whether it’s intentional or not, it’s telling girls (and women) that it’s bad to be interested in makeup, in “girly” things.

My cousin wanted to start up summer jewelry-making classes in an income and resource-poor area of the country; she’d provide the tools and materials and teach anyone who was interested how to make jewelry–and sneak in geology lessons via gemstones. After all, to understand the quality of what you’re working with, you need to know how it’s made. She was specific in saying that anyone would be welcome, but also that she wanted to target younger girls in her community who might feel alienated from more boisterous physical sciences summer-camp-esque classes, which are largely populated by boys in her area.

I floated the idea by some scicomm people, who were horrified. Jewelry-making? It’s too stereotypical! We need girls to go into STEM! Not be girls! Another friend is getting the similar pushback over a science-y fitness class.

It’s a very weird sort of mental holding to have, isn’t it? We can’t use science to talk about things that girls are interested in, are targeted to via advertising, will likely spend lots of money on for themselves over the course of their lives, and have the potential to be skills useful for real-life, adult, science jobs.

The examples, though, seem to me to indicate not a problem with STEM, but a problem with girls. In particular, a problem with the way society can socialize girls to be “girly,” to like makeup and jewelry, to want to stay fit, to be interested in clothing design. But instead of working to open those areas up to boys while simultaneously encouraging girls, it seems like we’ve kneejerked so far away that any attempts to frame these “girly” areas as science-and-okay-for-girls is rejected.

But I have a feeling that when we do that? We’re rejecting the girls who are interested in these areas, and not the socializing behind the girls.

4:46pm, edited to add: After I posted this, Bethany pointed out that this was a discussion going on in early January that I probably missed because I was still recovering from emergency hospitalization/surgery/death-flu stuff. So here is Jamie Bernstein’s post In Defense of Pink Science, and Shannon Palus’s post that Bernstein was responding to.

Lying Liars Who Lie & the Internet is Forever, CDC Edition

What, did you think no one would notice, CDC?

Did you think no one would oh, I dunno, save the image?

Eight days ago, the CDC used this infographic in a Vital Signs post about women and alcohol:

A closer view of the top part of the image:

CloseUpOriginal

You don’t have to take my word for it, as it was the outrage heard ’round the feminist internet:

Today, that same Vital Signs post has this infographic:

CDC-changedgraphic

And to further add insult to injury, they’re trying to pretend that this is the way it always was. See, the CDC actually has a little count down at the bottom of the page that’s supposed to change when they update things, and yet,…

Liars

Click here to see the full image, including day/time stamp, if you want proof I took it today. Or just look at their website. Tomato, tohmahto.

DoYouEvenInternet

Edited to add: And Jess Beasley offers this wonderful point:

3:05 pm Addendum: Apparently when BuzzFeed calls, CDC listens, blanches, and then takes down the offending graphic. …proving that yet again, the CDC does not understand that the internet is forever.

The Centers for Disease Control & Hypocrisy?

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a highly contentuous new Vital Signs post on women, pregnancy, and alcohol. The main message was, essentially “don’t drink, ever, if you could possibly be using your uterus to store more than endometrial tissue, fibroids, or intrauterine devices.”

Oh, nice try CDC. I see they finally changed their graphic, a week after the uproar. Unfortunately for them, the internet is forever. This is the original, infuriating, graphic.

Oh, nice try CDC. I see they finally changed their graphic, a week after the uproar. Unfortunately for them, the internet is forever. This is the original, infuriating, graphic.

The impetus for the post appears to be the fact that roughly 52% of pregnancies in America are unplanned, and many women are pregnant for 4 to 6 weeks before they realize they’re pregnant; in that time, there’s the possibility of consuming alcohol.

Now, while studies don’t support the idea that mild drinking while pregnant will harm a fetus, the CDC (and many commentators) have latched onto this rather ludicrous THE RISK IS REAL DON’T TAKE ANY RISK approach for alcohol and pregnany, even going so far as to say it’s not worth risking a single IQ point.[note]Which makes me wonder: really? Given we know that socioeconomic status can affect significantly more than a solitary IQ point, would the recommendation be not having children if you’re below a certain SES? Hmm.[/note] Let’s say we accept this fearmongering approach, ignoring the lack of scientific support for the assertions, ignoring the victim-blaming nature of the infographic,[note]Someone abuse you while you drank? WELL WHAT DID YOU EXPECT? …yeah, the CDC went there.[/note] even ignoring the fact that the CDC conveniently forgot not only a man’s role in conception but the damage drinking can do to sperm and how that can affect fetal development.[note]Designer Chris Giganti kindly provided an updated graphic for men.[/note] Any risk is bad. Wrap pregnant women up in cotton, leave them in a padded room, and don’t let them do anything in case they happen to be in the process of 9.5-odd months of gestation.

Really don’t let them smoke, right? I mean, the risk is real! Smoking while pregnant can cause fetal death, low birth weight, preterm birth, affect the integrity and function of the placenta, is a risk factor for sudden infant death syndrome–oh my gosh! This list is just as bad, if not worse, than the risks of pregnancy and drinking for fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Certainly with the release of new data on the risks of smoking and pregnancy–completely separate from the other known risks that smoking has on health, such as cancer, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and death–the CDC has created an equally dire infographic and message saying that the risk is real, so quit smoking, why take the risk?

Yeah, nope.WaitWhatYoureKidding

We didn’t even get an infographic.

Instead, we got a very sensible, calm, factual question-and-answer style statement from the CDC explaining how smoking can harm a pregnancy and baby, the number of women who smoke while pregnant, benefits of quitting, effects of second-hand smoke, and further resouces, with various facts hyperlinked within the article itself.

It’s almost an ideal example of how to present facts about a risk in order to allow women to do an analysis of the situation based on their own agency and autonomy.

The CDC did everything right this week with their publicization of new information about smoking and pregnancy data and risks. As Sarah Richardson and Rene Almeling noted in the Boston Globe on Monday, “[w]omen are constantly bombarded with advice about what to eat and drink and how to behave during pregnancy,” and rather than add to the growing list of simplistic injunctions of an “omg if you do that you will kill the baby” variety, the CDC provided pregnant people with credible information about how to weigh reproductive risks.

And yet. And yet. In the light of last week’s NO RISK IS ACCEPTABLE message regarding women and pregnancy, it’s a stark difference in approach and messaging, and both underscores the hypocrisy of their “ABSTAIN OR ELSE” message regarding alcohol while further damaging their credibility as a trusted source of health information and regulation.