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Learning to look beyond health headlines

“Critiquing Health News,” taught by epidemiologist Cecile Janssens, equips students to deconstruct scientific research and think critically about news coverage being shared.

Years before shaky scientific claims about COVID-19 flooded the internet, Cecile Janssens spotted media coverage of a study in a peer-reviewed journal that would prompt her to create a critical thinking course in Emory College of Arts and Sciences.

The findings — that a 45-year decline in time spent housekeeping contributed to American women becoming obese — were trumpeted across trusted media that included doctor-focused Medscape and the New York Times, which called the research “scrupulously even-handed.”

Except Janssens, an epidemiologist at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health, saw that it wasn’t.

The study relied entirely on self-reported diaries of women recording how they spent their day. It didn’t account for other factors, such as food intake or the women’s weight.

“You don’t need a strong science background to see the research does not support the conclusion,” Janssens says. “Students can see the contradictions, but I think they just feel overwhelmed by the news. The class gives them more and better skills to make sense of it all.”

The class, “Critiquing Health News,” is part of a collaboration between Rollins and the College’s Center for the Study of Human Health that began six years ago after undergraduates increasingly expressed interest.

It’s a natural fit for human health, which integrates the College’s liberal arts emphasis on evidence and critical thinking with Emory’s renowned health sciences research. Last year the program launched an undergraduate  “focus” in epidemiology, built around a core of epidemiology classes.

“We consume so much information on a daily basis,” says Lauren Christiansen-Lindquist, an epidemiologist who helped shape the undergraduate initiative and teaches an introductory course in addition to directing Rollins’ master’s programs of public health in epidemiology.

“Epidemiology provides a wonderful framework for critical thinking that helps you understand what you’re really reading and if you have additional questions or need to change behaviors,” she adds.

Deconstructing scientific research

Students in Janssens’ course learn to deconstruct scientific research by breaking down news coverage of different studies. First up for review this fall was an article about research showing that zinc and folic acid supplements did not boost male fertility.

The Associated Press wrote the story, which was posted on the NBC News website. Government researchers conducted the study, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Such respected sources initially seemed believable to first-year students Madi Olivier and Caroline Hansen.

Olivier, who studied journalism in high school, found she was skeptical about the claim itself. Coming off a summer internship working with data at a Kaiser Permanente regional office made Hansen want to know more about the data, especially overall rates of fertility.

With Janssens’ guidance, they were part of a team that noticed mention that the study did not examine the female partners of the men in the study. It then mentioned that a third of those women were infertile, dramatically skewing the results.

“It feels weird to be a freshman in college, critiquing the bigger names,” says Olivier, who is considering a career in medicine and science writing. “Luckily, I’ve always been very curious so I’m enjoying learning how to ask better questions.”

Hansen agrees. “The class has been really good at letting me think as I read, so I can go to the actual research and see if I pull answers there.” 

Starting with questions

Janssens wants the students, who range across all undergraduate years and from pre-med to humanities majors, to look for questions as they read.

In showing how scientists “do” science, she encourages students to start with basic questions about the research process itself: What kind of study is this? What is the hypothesis? What data are collected?

“Scientific research is not abracadabra. It needs to make sense,” Janssens says. “If you can look critically at how the researchers conducted the study, you have a better opportunity to understand and consider if the claims are justified.”

Muhammad Mukarram decided the critiquing class would complement the introductory epidemiology course he had just completed and deepen his understanding of health statistics on the path to medical school.

The senior human health major was in the class when it was first offered — in the spring of 2020 — and developed an eye for that analysis by examining real-time news in the unfolding pandemic.

 “Professor Janssens really showed me I have a knack for seeing the fallacies and inconsistencies and I rely on those concepts in my day-to-day life now,” says Mukarram, who at Janssens’ urging added the epidemiology focus to his major and plans to pursue both an MPH and MD after he graduates.

“As an African-American, I feel like it’s my duty to understand and ask the questions for the whole community,” Mukarram adds. “It’s not just something to know. It’s something I can do.”

Michelle Lampl, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Human Health and Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Anthropology, is director of the Center for the Study of Human Health. She notes that kind of student excitement is common and growing.

The enthusiasm also gets at the heart of the program, she says.

“That’s our mission: to provide students with knowledge and critical thinking skills that they can use to become leaders for change,” Lampl says. “What better time than now to have an informed understanding of scientific evidence and how it can affect your life and health?”

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