[Ctrl-P] Roy & Sandberg: The seven deadly sins of health and science reporting

science health reporting

Als ik de Google-zoekmolen mag geloven, wordt er heel wat bewezen door dé wetenschap. Als wetenschappers al niet “met verstomming geslagen zijn”, dan “bewijzen” dit of dat. 

Niet alleen bedrijven en pr-bureaus maken daar dankbaar gebruik van, getuige daarvan bijvoorbeeld de blog Bad PR, waar al te lovende reclameboodschappen gehuld in “wetenschappelijke bewijzen” ongenadig gefileerd worden. Af en toe laat ook de Nederlandstalige pers zich niet onbetuigd. Een voorbeeld van zulke Bad PR vonden we terug in het (zeer kritische) VK-artikel Is de purpura bacca-bes uit de Andes het nieuwe afslankwonder?:

Intussen prijst het bedrijf Bioshape een Afrikaans mangosupplement aan met framboos ketonen. De bron van succes? Een studie van de Universiteit van Kameroen onder 102 proefpersonen moet het bewijzen: 51 namen het supplement, de andere helft kreeg een placebo. De deelnemers volgden geen dieet of extra lichaamsbeweging. De mangogroep verloor gemiddeld 28 kilo.

Toch even vermelden dat de auteur geen spaander heel laat van de claims over de purperen besjes. Uiteraard zijn er andere journo’s die de blokletters niet schuwen wanneer er iets bewezen werd, althans in de ogen van de schrijver (zie bijvoorbeeld het artikel Wetenschap en showbizz Luc). 

We zijn dan ook van mening dat er niet genoeg artikels zoals The seven deadly sins of health and science reporting geschreven en verspreid kunnen worden.

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Avi Roy en Anders Sandberg: The seven deadly sins of health and science reporting

Benjamin Franklin said two things are certain in life: death and taxes. Another one we could add to this list is that on any given news website and in almost all print media there will be articles about health and nutrition that are complete garbage.

Some articles that run under the health and nutrition “news” heading are thought provoking, well researched and unbiased, but unfortunately not all. And to help you traverse this maze – alongside an excellent article about 20 tips for interpreting scientific claims – we will look at seven clichés of improper or misguided reporting.

If you spot any of these clichés in an article, we humbly suggest that you switch to reading LOLCats, which will be more entertaining and maybe more informative too.

1. “Scientists have proven that” or “it has been scientifically proven that”

Why?: In science we never prove something, we can only improve our confidence in a hypothesis or find flaws with it.

Details: Sometimes it is possible to disprove something confidently, but that mainly works in domains like physics. Medicine is notoriously messy because it deals with changeable, complex and individual bodies. There are potential exceptions to nearly anything, and the link between two things is generally statistical, rather than clear-cut “if X then Y” relationships.

Health and nutrition is even worse because it deals with how we interact with our equally messy environment. We know about most of the big contributory causes of bad health such as starvation, disease, parasites and poisoning so arguably many new findings are smaller refinements that are hard to pick out from the “noise” of individual variation and habits. We know plenty of things, just beware of absolute certainty.

Takeaway: Discount the findings of any health or nutrition article with “scientists prove that…” by 80%.

2. X causes cancer, so it must be bad

Why?: There are no good or bad substances. Even water can kill you if you drink too much of it.

Details: There are a surprising number of things associated with slightly increased or decreased risks of getting cancer. We tend to think of things as pure/good/healthy or impure/evil/harmful, but in practice there’s no distinction. Many medications are poisonous, but they are helpful because they are more poisonous to infections or cancer cells than to the rest of the body.

Sometimes it’s the dose that makes the poison. So sleeping a lot or a little is associated with higher mortality (even when you control for depression and sickness, which of course also affect how much you want or can sleep). There can also be trade-offs between risks and benefits. Moderate alcohol intake can be good for heart health (in middle aged men, at least), but it increases the risk of pancreatic cancer and accidents. Whether something is good for you may depend on who you are, what you do and other risk factors.

Takeaway: As Oscar Wilde said, “everything in moderation, including moderation”; it is probably better to eat a diverse diet than to try to only eat “good” things.

Lees hier verder.