If “fake news” is an epidemic, we see it no place more clearly than in the media relations offices of universities that promote their professors’ latest research results. Some of the blame falls on the researchers themselves, who have eschewed conservative, careful language in their studies and instead have turned to hyperbole and over-generalization.
The latest example of scientific “fake news” is the supposed discovery of the single cause of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). And we don’t have to look any further than the news release published by the University of Würzburg to see how bad the problem is.
To get this out of the way, researchers have not discovered the cause of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
What the researchers did find was when they shut down a specific protein (SPRED2) that inhibits a neurological signal pathway in the brains of mice (Ras/ERK-MAP kinase cascade), they created OCD-like behaviors. In mice.
Last year, another set of researchers at Duke University found “a single type of receptor for the neurotransmitter glutamate in the brain is responsible for a range of OCD-like symptoms in mice.” But they didn’t work on SPRED2, their work was on SAPAP3 — a completely different protein.
That’s because there are a number of different mouse models that various research groups are working on to help explain OCD behaviors. It’s a very complex area of study with some promising initial results.
What is completely lost in translation of this complex science to everyday health news is that this work is currently only being conducted on mice — not humans. When mice models are translated to humans, most of the time they don’t pan out. You don’t find that important caution in any of the news releases, however, nor any of the mainstream news stories built on those news releases from university press offices.
In fact, you don’t find any caution whatsoever in the original news release about the researchers’ findings. Not a single word about the generalizability of the results to humans, or how the researchers’ work squares with other researchers’ findings on different proteins exhibiting similar behaviors in mice.1
The Problem: Getting Your Signal Through the Noise
Robert Emmerich — who wrote the University of Würzburg news release that made such a bold and over-generalized claim about their researchers finding the one, true cause of OCD — is a part of the problem. Mr. Emmerich isn’t a scientist, he’s simply an editor and writer employed by the University of Würzburg to ensure that whatever he writes get picked up by mainstream news organizations.
Mr. Emmerich’s challenge in getting his news releases picked up grows every day as the Internet becomes saturated with new findings from researchers who’ve definitively found something BRAND NEW that must be noticed. Researchers are under pressure from their institutions to ensure the work they are doing is of import, and ideally, can be sold to the public as a set of intellectual goods. These goods, if properly promoted will increase the university’s reputation and stature. “Yes, we’re the university that discovered the actual cause of OCD!”
Not only do legitimate researchers working hard at mainstream universities have to get their work published (and then publicized), but increasingly they have to compete against ordinary people who just make stuff up in order to get clicks to their website (which drives advertising or sales revenue into their pockets).
It doesn’t help when the mainstream news, regurgitating the crappy news release from the University of Würzburg, repeat the same baseless claim:
- Cause of obsessive-compulsive disorder discovered – Science Daily
- German Researchers Discover Cause of OCD – Teen Vogue
- Scientists uncover cause of obsessive-compulsive disorder – UPI
- Scientists Found Underlying Cause of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder – Nature World News
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Behaviors Linked To Missing Protein In The Brain – Medical Daily
There’s no easy answer to the problem of explaining complex science in a simple manner with proper cautions in place. There is no reward to university media offices for holding back on their enthusiasm for their researchers’ work, and there’s little benefit for mainstream news organizations to tone down their headlines to more accurately reflect the truth. Mainstream news organizations, however, have a responsibility to the public to start questioning the news releases from universities and do two minutes worth of Googling (as I did) to put new research in its proper context.
It’s not that hard. It’s something we used to call good journalism.
Schuh, K. et al. (2017). OCD-like behavior is caused by dysfunction of thalamo-amygdala circuits and upregulated TrkB/ERK-MAPK signaling as a result of SPRED2 deficiency. Molecular Psychiatry, DOI: 10.1038/mp.2016.232
- The title of the actual study, “OCD-like behavior is caused by dysfunction of thalamo-amygdala circuits and upregulated TrkB/ERK-MAPK signaling as a result of SPRED2 deficiency” gives away the truth. This isn’t necessarily the same obsessive-compulsive disorder as it is defined in adults — it is “OCD-link behavior”… in mice. [↩]