What Researchers Can Learn from Bacon's Bad Week

If you’re a bacon lover like me, you probably read Monday’s news on the World Health Organization’s classification of processed and red meats as carcinogens with some mixture of alarm, disappointment, and an utter lack of surprise. I think we’ve all known for a long time that red meat is less than healthy for you, and that anything as processed (and tasty!) as bacon probably isn’t good for you, either.

But the speed and breadth with which the news of the WHO’s report spread was something to behold. The “bad week for bacon” has been a fascinating case study, too, revealing some unfortunate truths about the clarity—or lack thereof—with which researchers communicate with lay consumers. And while this particular example is from the realms of nutrition science and public health, social scientists and social sector researchers can certainly learn some lessons as well.

Researchers need to speak more clearly to lay audiences. To its credit, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the working group that issued Monday’s report on red and processed meat, distributed a Question & Answer brief as a way of concisely addressing public concerns that might arise from their report. Unfortunately, even the Q&A would be difficult for a layperson to understand, given its high reading level and the scientific nuances in the interpretation of data. This opens up the door for mass media to reduce the findings to sensationalistic headlines, such as “Processed meats rank alongside smoking as cancer causes—WHO.”  Which leads me to my next point…

Researchers need to better understand—and respond to—the layperson’s interpretation of scientific information. In the case of this week’s report, the IARC’s placement of red and processed meats in the same carcinogenic classification group as cigarette smoking understandably leads many to conclude that eating bacon and burgers are the dietary equivalent of puffing a pack a day. But that’s not quite the case. As Cancer Research UK explains in its post, “Processed meat and cancer—what you need to know,” the IARC classifications reflect strength of scientific evidence that a substance is carcinogenic; they do not, however, reflect the actual increased risk that that substance causes cancer. That subtlety—that although they share the same classification category, bacon and cigarettes are not remotely equivalent carcinogens—gets lost in in the messaging. And as Sarah Zhang of Wired points out in her article “Bacon Causes Cancer? Sort of. Not Really. Ish.,” the IARC recognizes that risk assessment is part of how the public wants to understand health and other scientific data—it has just chosen to be unresponsive to that fact. Leading some to simply throw up their hands and declare, everything you love will kill you, so why even bother trying to be healthy?

 

So we know what some of the problems are with researchers’ communication patterns. The bigger question is, what can researchers do differently to successfully share important findings with the public?

Check for clarity among lay audiences. Much like market research is conducted, scientific communities could “market test” sample research findings with public audiences to check on readability and clarity of messaging. In addition, questions that arise in response to these tests could be better anticipated and addressed. Visuals, such as the infographics created by Cancer Research UK, also go a long way in helping distill and simplify complex scientific information for the general public.

Translate findings into practice. Researchers need to ask themselves, What do these findings mean for people in their day-to-day lives? The IARC’s Q&A brief, unfortunately, offers unclear, somewhat confusing advice to readers seeking answers on whether, and to what extent, to change behaviors. (One example: “Q: Should I stop eating meat? A: Eating meat has known health benefits. Many national health recommendations advise people to limit their intake of processed meat and red meat…”) Cancer Research UK is again a great counter-example to the IARC’s obfuscation. In the graphic below, the organization helps readers estimate how much meat a person might typically eat in a day, and offers helpful suggestions on how to decrease processed and red meat consumption.

Consider Blogging. Leading news outlets—such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal—have science or wellness blogs, as do research sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Harvard Health Publications. These blogs help readers sift through scientific mumbo-jumbo by culling key information, suggesting practical lifestyle modifications, and making research findings less intimidating. If one of the goals of the research community is to inform and change behaviors, it behooves researchers to use tools—such as blogs—to make their findings as accessible and user-friendly as possible.

What challenges has your organization had in using, or sharing, research findings? What suggestions would you make to improve researchers’ communications with the public?