Friday, June 30, 2017

Confused By Science and the Media

It’s no wonder Americans are confused.  Last time I wrote about randomness and how it relates to the need for several well-designed experiments to validate each other as we search for the truth.  It is especially confusing in the area of health where single studies seem to be nearly tripping over each other trying to get to press.

Just a few days ago during the health segment of the local news the anchor referred to a new study or an international study four times in the course of one minute.  Each was backed up by a few pictures and a brief explanation.  That was one broadcast on one day with all that information packed into one minute, and it’s not unusual.  Tomorrow’s health news will be a similar list of studies and new findings.  How do we keep track?

The major networks are even more extreme.  Here is a headline from CNN earlier this month:  “Eating fried potatoes linked to higher risk of death, study says.”  It’s interesting that CNN doesn’t seem to understand that everyone’s risk of death is 100% and there is nothing you can do to make it higher.  What they meant to say was an earlier death, but that doesn’t have exactly the same ring to it.

In that case, an Italian research team, who were investigating osteoarthritis by observing the habits of 4,440 people aged 45 to 79 over a period of eight years, decided to take a short detour to compare potato consumption with death rates.  The reasoning was that at this time there is very limited scientific data to support the broadly held assumption that fried potatoes can be unhealthy.

After telling us about potato consumption in America and the percent of those potatoes that are processed – a dirty word lately among the health writers – CNN goes on to say that the study “found that those who ate fried potatoes two to three times each week doubled their chance of dying early compared to those who ate no fried potatoes.”  They never define in the article what dying early means nor do the researchers explain how those people originally being studied for osteoarthritis are representative of the rest of the population, Italian or American.

But then we find out that potatoes are not the bad guys; it’s the frying process and the trans fat in the oil.  Next I go to my freezer at home to see how much trans fat is in the processed potatoes we bought at the grocery store – zero!  Then I go to the McDonald’s website to check the nutritional information on their French fries – zero trans fats!

Ten paragraphs into the article is another interesting admission.  “The study is observational, meaning the researchers simply tracked the behavior of a group of people and found an association between one behavior -- eating fried potatoes -- and another factor -- early death. Because it is an observational study, [the researchers] note it cannot be said that eating fried potatoes directly causes an early mortality -- it would require more research to draw such a firm conclusion.”  (I would add, not only more research, but better research.)  CNN covers this technicality with the usual clever wording in their headline:  linked to rather than causes.

This looks like just another of many cases of much ado about nothing from science and the news media.  And it shows why critical thinking can help avoid panic over each instance of another dire health report.

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