Scientific Studies as Morning Gossip

Can drinking coffee regularly pose an enormous risk to your general health or is it the new miracle cure? If you will go through the currently published scientific studies related to this topic, it is quite possible that you may not reach a clear conclusion.

According to several media channel reports, scientific studies have demonstrated that drinking coffee regularly has many health benefits. It may help in reversing liver damage, preventing colon cancer, and reducing the risk of getting uterine cancer. It may also raise the risk of getting a miscarriage in females. As said by John Oliver, host of the show Last Week Tonight, “Today coffee is similar to God as in the Old Testament-it may either kill you or save you depending on your belief in its magic powers.” He further adds that the purpose of science is to make you more informed. However, how the media presents new scientific studies these days often provide wrong information to the general public. This may even lead to some individuals not trusting the research anymore. There are many other dubious studies popularized and hyped by the media. These include hugging dogs is harmful to the dog, or drinking a glass of red wine daily provides similar health benefits as you get by spending one hour at the gym.

In the year 2003, researchers who wrote in the American Journal of Medicine found something that may change the way you think regarding medical news and reporting. They observed 101 clinical studies that were published in some of the top medical and scientific journals between the years 1979 and 1983. All these studies claimed that a new medical technology or therapy was quite promising. It was found that only five among these therapies or technologies could reach the market after a decade. And only one of them (pharmaceutical medicine-ACE inhibitors) was still used extensively at the time of publication of their research.

But you may never come to know this from reading medical news. Take a recent example of a miracle cure for multiple sclerosis (MS). MS is an autoimmune disease that causes degenerative changes in the body and has no cure. In patients, the immune systems attack and damage the protective sheath surrounding the nerves and disturb the communication between the body and brain. This leads to the occurrence of a wide variety of symptoms including jerking and unsteady movements, loss of bowel and bladder control and vision, and finally, early death. In the year 2009, Dr. Paolo Zamboni, an Italian researcher claimed to find a breakthrough treatment for MS. He claimed that he has cured his wife of MS by unblocking the veins present in her neck. According to his theory, MS was a vascular disease and not an autoimmune one. This research was unreasonable; it gave several people suffering from the disease false hope as it had an alluring personal story behind it, involving a man’s pursuit to save the life of his wife. Health reporters took it as catnip and hailed this therapy for MS as a triumph for medical field fueled by romance.

Unfortunately; however, the discovery of Zamboni was more of a publicity gimmick than a breakthrough. The media didn’t give much attention to the fact that his clinical study was badly designed and small. Moreover, other clinical researchers who tried to replicate these findings failed badly. Soon, narratives of patients stating relapses and complications emerged. Now, this cycle repeats itself. An initial clinical study gives hope for a miracle. Various media channels and news stories promote that miracle. Eventually, researchers disprove that miracle.

There is a huge difference between how scientists and researchers look at the news and how all the media channels look at the news. For you, anything new may make news and due to this, the media look for new results even in scientific studies. However, newer results are most likely wrong, according to scientists.

Times.com reported a study stating that according to scientists smelling farts may help in preventing cancer, stroke, dementia, and heart attacks. According to the researchers at the Exeter University, U.K., hydrogen sulfide is present in flatulence and its small quantity help in protecting the cells and fighting illnesses. When body cells are stressed by a disease they draw in certain enzymes to produce their small amounts of hydrogen sulfide. Researchers have found a compound called AP30 that assists the body to produce the correct quantity of hydrogen sulfide, which it needs. But unfortunately, the study has not been conducted on humans and its reliability is questionable. Furthermore, times just mentioned about smelling farts and didn’t mention that the researchers have made the compound AP39 that helps in delivering small quantities of hydrogen sulfide to the cells, particularly to the mitochondria. It seems that times have published this story just to promote its magazine.

Many a time a small study with new findings is blown out of proportion by the media. This happens when a scientific journal presents a press release to summarize the study for the layperson. For instance, in a study conducted by the ‘American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology,’ it was found that there was no difference in the rate of occurrence of preeclampsia and hypertension between women eating high-flavanol and low-flavanol chocolate. It was a small study and there was not even a control group of females who didn’t eat chocolates in the study. However, the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine issued a press release related to the study titled “The Benefits of Chocolate During Pregnancy.” And this title of the press release was promoted by the media stating that eating moderate amounts of chocolate (about two-thirds of a chocolate bar) could improve blood flow to the placenta; thereby, benefiting the development and growth of your baby. They further stated that this especially happens in women who are at risk of developing high blood pressure or preeclampsia during pregnancy. Hence, the study results were distorted and presented by the media misguiding the general audience.

According to a study reported by the media channels, a woman is more open to love and romance when her stomach is full and not when she is hungry. Now, the media failed to mention here was that this study was done only on 20 females. Another media report said that according to a study by a University in England, drinking one to three glasses of champagne every week may help in delaying dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The major issue with this study was that the study was conducted on adult rodents (rats) and the media failed to tell people about this aspect of the study. The studies that are done on mice and rats are very useful but whether they apply to humans or not is doubtful and a large majority of the treatments that work on rodents do not succeed in humans. Hence, the media shouldn’t rush to publicize study results done on rodents.

The purpose of science is to provide information to people. But, the way in which the media presents the new research studies often provides wrong information to the general public. Moreover, it may also cause some individuals to even don’t believe the research altogether.

This perception of scientific studies may cause immense problems. It may lead you to believe the fact that all that science says on climate changes is not correct or that autism may occur due to vaccines. Both of these are wrong conclusions derived based on scientific consensus.

Though science is imperfect by nature, it is very important. And media should deal with it in a better way than twisting and turning it and blowing it out of proportion in a morning gossip show. There are a wide variety of reasons for so much bad research being published and publicized by the media regularly:

  • Scientific journals often publish only that research, which produces striking or prominent results. This encourages researchers/scientists to modify their research methodology until the time they can create an experiment with huge findings. One such example is of p-hacking. In this researchers collect a set of variables and try to find a statistically significant finding, even in case the correlation between the variable isn’t quite strong. P-values are commonly considered as an indication of a scientific study’s worth. But, a paper published by the Stanford researchers in ‘JAMA’ suggests that as p-values are becoming more popular these days to add credibility to the scientific study, they are also becoming more meaningless. This finding by the researchers is worrying as it implies that the scientists are possibly giving doubtful results the stamp of validity by assigning them a p-value: a hallmark of the worth of a scientific study.
  • Replication studies are the science’s best method to verify certain findings of a study and they are not usually done. No person wants to do a replication study as they are very rarely funded, never published, and hugely underappreciated. Furthermore, nobody rewards a scientist who does a replication study; hence, no one is interested in doing them.
  • Press releases issued even by renowned and prestigious universities quite frequently exaggerate results of a study and overhype them. They distort the substance at every single step. An example of this is a press release issued by the University of Maryland in December 2015 claiming that drinking chocolate milk from a single brand helped in improving the motor and cognitive skills in high school athletes and also reducing symptoms related to concussion. The initial problem in this study was that the clinical research itself was suspicious. The study had no comparison or control group and the researchers didn’t even study any other brand of chocolate milk. The worst part was that the researchers didn’t publish the results before issuing a press release to publicize it. On investigation, it was found that the professor who was the head of this research received funding from the chocolate milk company (whose milk was hyped to have the said qualities in the study).
  • A review published in 2015 in ‘BioMed Central’ states that the increasing importance placed on the commercialization of research done by universities may exert extreme pressure on scientists/researchers and lead to misrepresentation of scientific research outcomes. Furthermore, academic press offices and shops often overhype, mislead, exaggerate, or oversell research results. According to a British Medical Journal study, press releases from the offices of leading UK universities often overhype about scientific findings.
  • Then the media plays its part and blows out the findings unrealistically. Reporters and journalists rarely look into the methodology of a study or explain its limitations. These may include: the study was done on rodents and not on humans or the sample size of the study was small or there was no control group during the study and so on. For instance, a study done by researchers in England (at Loughborough University) demonstrated that driving while dehydrated may have harmful effects that are quite similar to driving after drinking alcohol or taking drugs. This study was widely reported, but the news reports didn’t mention that the study was done on just 12 male drivers (a small sample size). Moreover, the study/research was sponsored by the European Hydration Institute.

According to researchers, social media experts who influence masses often give bad fitness and diet advice 89 percent of the times. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Glasgow revealed that out of nine popular UK bloggers or social media experts making claims on weight management, only one gave trustworthy and accurate information.

The healthcare researchers studied the U.K.’s most popular bloggers and influencers. Those who were studied had greater than 80,000 followers on a minimum of one social media website, had an active blog about weight management, and they were verified from a minimum of two websites such as Twitter.

The lead author of the study said that you can’t consider the majority of these blogs as credible and reliable sources for information related to weight management as they frequently present opinions as facts and also fail to meet the nutritional criteria of the U.K. This is possibly detrimental as these health blogs have a wide range of audience.

The study team inspected whether the diet and health claims made by the bloggers were trustworthy, nutritionally sound, transparent, and included references (evidence-based). Researchers also looked at the recent 10 meal recipes from every blog for their energy content, fat, protein, fiber, sugar, salt, and saturated fat content. The findings of the study revealed that the majority of the influencers failed in the basic areas. Five of the bloggers presented opinions as facts or didn’t provide references (evidence-based) for the nutritional claims they made. Five of them didn’t put a disclaimer on the site. And when the researchers examined the meals against the traffic light criteria and the calorie targets of the Public Health England, all the bloggers failed to meet these criteria.

Out of the blogs that provide advice to their followers, only one passed the overall test with a scoring of 75 percent. This blog is run by a registered nutritionist. These blogs are also run by people who don’t have any specific nutritional qualifications. According to the researchers, you should not follow social media blogs as credible and reliable resources for your weight management goals. This particular fact adds to the already evident fact that social media and other media and news channels are playing a destructive role in promoting distorted facts in the name of scientific studies.

The focus of the reporters and the general public is on promising and striking study findings. It may be exciting to know about a new idea, which may revolutionize the field of medicine and stop the sufferings of some people. People are often prompted by overhyping researchers such as Zamboni, who may be under pressure to allure funding for their research and publications. The reporters often report a new study too early before waiting for the scientific consensus and lead patients to tread a harmful, redundant or wasteful path that may end in a smashed hope.

It happens quite frequently that single studies may contradict each other; for instance, the research that is done on foods, which prevent or cause cancer. You may find the truth while looking at the research in totality, but the media reports every study as an isolated finding underneath catchy headlines. For example, one week you may find a study claiming that drinking red wine may add so many years to a person’s life and the next week another study claiming that you may die quicker drinking it.

This is an era of unparalleled scientific exploration. You have knowledge at your fingertips by way of the internet. But often more information implies bad, harmful information and this makes skepticism a need of the hour.

References

  1. https://www.vox.com/2016/3/15/11225162/p-value-simple-definition-hacking
  2. https://www.mic.com/articles/141761/drinking-coffee-may-cut-your-risk-of-developing-endometrial-cancer-study-suggests
  3. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/social-media-weight-loss-diet-twitter-influencers-bloggers-glasgow-university-a8891971.html
  4. https://www.economist.com/leaders/2013/10/21/how-science-goes-wrong
  5. https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/weird-news/farts-can-fight-strokes-heart-6793616
  6. https://bmcmedethics.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12910-015-0064-2
  7. https://www.bmj.com/content/349/bmj.g7015
  8. https://www.phillyvoice.com/driving-dehydrated-dangerous-driving-drunk/
  9. https://www.vox.com/2015/3/23/8264355/research-study-hype
  10. https://www.vox.com/2016/5/9/11638808/john-oliver-science-studies-last-week-tonight
  11. https://www.vox.com/2016/1/16/10777050/university-of-maryland-chocolate-milk
  12. https://archive.nerdist.com/john-oliver-explains-why-most-morning-show-science-is-bullsh/
  13. http://www.frontlinegenomics.com/rich-media/5764/john-oliver-problem-science-journalism/
  14. https://www.inverse.com/article/15357-john-oliver-mocks-scientific-study-reports-on-last-week-tonight-debuts-todd-talks
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