Communicating complex evidence: the danger of the misrepresentation and misuse of evidence

Daily Telegraph front page 1 December 2016:

Thursday’s Daily Telegraph front page: Axe speed bumps to save lives #tomorrowspaperstoday #bbcpapers National Institute for Clinical Evidence (NICE) has produced new consultation guidance on ‘Air pollution - outdoor air quality and health’.  Not very newsworthy you might think. Well you’d be wrong.

The Telegraph ran the story on the front page under the headline ‘Axe Speed Bumps to Save Lives’: NICE says "speed bumps could be removed to cut pollution". Whilst somewhat less dramatic the same spin on the story was across the media:

But, doesn’t traffic calming such as speed bumps save lives? I checked the Cochrane Library which confirmed that "area-wide traffic calming may have the potential to reduce death and injuries", though – as usual – more research is needed. So I tweeted that NICE was recommending removing speed bumps, but the trade off with the benefits of traffic calming needed to be taken into account.  NICE replied that they ‘haven't called for a ban on speed bumps or their removal’. I turned to the NICE website. Indeed the guideline has just one reference to speed bumps which states "Evidence on traffic-calming measures such as speed bumps suggested that these may increase emissions by adding to decelerations and accelerations. Evidence from area-wide schemes does not show increases. So where physical measures are needed to reduce road injuries they should be designed to minimise their impact on air pollution." The evidence was weak so this was a 'consider' recommendation.

So NICE were right that they hadn’t recommend to "axe speed bumps". But they were uniformly and widely misreported as having done so. Is that the fault of the media for sensationalizing, and thus misrepresenting, the story? Or is it the fault of NICE for not handling the story well? As communicators of evidence we surely have a responsibility to do the best we can that the evidence is not misrepresented and misused by those with an axe to grind.

We welcome views on comments on how to better communicate ‘complex evidence’ to the media.


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