I saw a newspaper headline over someone’s shoulder today and it made me feel rather angry. In fact I was sure I must have read it wrong, so I found myself a copy of the paper in question, The Evening Standard, and had a look myself. There it was:
I bet they don’t. I bet they say nothing of the sort in fact. Let’s read on and see if they are directly quoted as saying that or anything even remotely similar.
Quelle surprise. They are not. In fact the only quote from an author is this: “HIV is still rampant in the US and the explosion in poorer countries continues to be a bad problem because of the tremendous human suffering and the cost of treating it”. That’s not quite the same thing now is it?
I tweeted about it, but then felt compelled to look into it a bit further. I was going to drop Professor David Marvovitz (sic) a note to alert him that his study had probably been misquoted, but as I Googled his name, I came across the EurekAlert press release instead.
Aha. The story isn’t quite as the headline would have it. A chemical derived from bananas ‘may open the door to new treatments to prevent sexual transmission of HIV’. So it seems this is more about stopping the transmission of the virus, rather than treating HIV in people who are already infected, as the short article had me (and I use the term loosely) believe.
The typo in Professor David Markovitz’s name seems to have crept in in the EurekAlert release, which is odd, because other than missing a couple of hyperlinks it appears the same as the University release.
Anyway, here is the University of Michigan’s press release so you can read a little more, but to cut a long story short, don’t stop taking anti-retrovirals in favour of bananas, the scientists DO NOT say that ‘bananas are as good as drugs for treating HIV’. Mainly I suspect, because they’re not.
I wrote to Professor Markovitz last night and suggested he might like to get in touch with the Evening Standard. He was suitably shocked by the ‘crazy headline’ and promised to reply in more detail today. Here’s what he wrote (and has sent to the editors of the Evening Standard too):
“Thank you so very much for calling the very misleading headline in the Evening Standard to my attention. We in no way have stated anywhere that bananas are as good as antiretroviral drugs for the treatment of HIV! Our work, which builds on that of others and is in a very early stage of development, suggests that a particular protein derived from bananas, BanLec, might be useful as part of a topical anti-HIV microbicide that could be applied vaginally (or rectally) to prevent the sexual transmission of HIV. At this point, this is far from proven, however, and years of additional studies will be needed to test whether what we have found might prove useful in the clinical setting. We certainly have no data suggesting that BanLec could be used to treat those individuals who are already infected with the virus, and it would be very dangerous for any patient to stop taking their medications and simply resort to eating bananas! While we appreciate the Freudian aspects of our findings, we would be aghast if they were to be used to deter people from proper, proven treatment of HIV infection”
As yet, I have had no response to my email to the editors, which I sent this morning. The text of which I’m copying below:
Dear Geordie and Sarah,
I feel compelled to write and ask who was responsible for allowing the page two headline “Bananas as good as drugs for treating HIV, say scientists” in yesterday’s edition of the paper.
This is completely misleading and does not represent what the authors said in their paper, nor even what it says in the accompanying press release from the University of Michigan (or the one published by EurekAlert, where I assume you got the story, judging by the exact typo in the lead author’s name).
Not only have you grossly and dangerously misrepresented the findings, but you have misrepresented what the scientists themselves have said. You are misleading readers, by giving them the impression that a banana is as good as an anti-retroviral drug (which of course it is not) and in doing so, also damaging the public perception of, and trust in, science. You have made no effort to describe how the study was conducted, nor make it clear that they were looking at this banana-derived chemical in relation to the prevention of sexual transmission of HIV. That fact is in the first line of the press release, so even if you didn’t have chance to read the paper itself, you should have seen this.
I found your article so irresponsibly misleading that I got in touch with Prof Markovitz to let him know about it, and suggested he get in touch. He replied almost immediately saying that your “crazy headline” had raised his blood pressure. He may well be in touch with you as well.
Is there some way of issuing a correction? Can you provide some assurance that this sloppy approach to science journalism won’t be repeated in future?
Science is an important and exciting field. You don’t need to make up fantastical headlines to make it “interesting”.