An Oxford researcher has attempted to distance himself from “misleading” media reports twisting the results of a study on the effects of binge-drinking on unborn children.
The article, published online last week by the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, studied the results of experiments carried out over the last 35 years on the relation between binge-drinking during pregnancy and damage to the unborn child.
It concluded that there was “no convincing evidence of adverse effects of prenatal binge-drinking,” but newspaper headlines came out with bold claims such as: ‘Binge-drinking while pregnant OK’ (Metro).
Dr Ron Gray, the senior member of the study’s research team, said that the media’s coverage of the study was inaccurate. He said, “This happens a lot with medical articles. Our conclusion was that the evidence is unclear, not that binge-drinking is safe. In the paper we specifically advise against binge-drinking while pregnant.”
Dr Gray defended his team’s belief that women who report isolated instances of binge-drinking should not be made to feel excessive concern.The research has provoked negative responses from experts who believe that scientists have a responsibility to consider the message that the public might take from their work.
Professor Andrew Shennan, of St. Thomas’s Hospital, London, said, “You learn with time that just because you don’t prove something doesn’t mean it’s not there. If you replicated the study on a larger scale I’d put money on the fact that you would find something. Even very small amounts of alcohol can damage the foetus.”
He added, “To be responsible we need to say that alcohol is not safe. There is a danger that researchers put a spin on their articles because they want them to be high-profile.”
In response to such criticism Dr Gray said, “How could we have known that our research would be misinterpreted? That logic would apply to people doing important research on obesity, smoking, drugs; you name it.”
Mervi Jokinen, a spokesperson for the Royal College of Midwives, said that she was “deeply concerned” that the study gave the impression that drinking during pregnancy is safe, but conceded that the risk from a single episode of binge-drinking during early pregnancy is “minimal.”
She added, “Concerns about possible media response should not influence scientific research, as long as it is carried out ethically."