I was busy finishing up the draft of what was to be my latest column, "Everything About Sausages Is Awesome," when someone pointed out to me that the only research I had done was creating 45 animated gifs of rotating sausages. "Avant garde," I mumbled, waving my hands around in an authoritative manner. "Daring," I added, waving my hands in a more daring manner, before concluding with, "you slope-browed idiot." This, it turned out, is the wrong way to win an argument with an editor, much in the same way that it's the wrong way to win an argument with everyone else. So in order to find some sort of academic support for my deeply held belief that sausages are awesome, I went to the public library. My initial searches were frustrated by the fact that the academic community apparently has greatly neglected sausage-based research, and despite numerous queries -- "Excuse me, you slope-browed idiot ..." -- I was unable to find the sausage section of the library at all. My only promising lead, a helpful elderly gentleman who led me to the washroom, turned out to be talking about something else entirely, and I was forced to leave the washroom empty-handed, though with my honor thankfully intact. (Being empty-handed actually kind of related to the intactness of my honor.) Frustrated, I turned to the archived newspapers and periodicals and began reading their health sections to see what the popular media had to say about sausages. Although I found little advice about tubed meats, I did find a lot of other advice, almost all of it dangerously insane. There wasn't a single article about nutrition or health that didn't make massive, barely substantiated claims about a new diet or medical treatment. This kind of journalistic malpractice is perfectly acceptable for Cracked (company motto: Journalistic Malpractice Is Perfectly Acceptable Here), but I was surprised to see this kind of ass-grabbery in the grown-up newspapers. Seeing a new, better column idea, I tore up the draft of "Everything About Sausages Is Awesome," then set those pieces on fire so I wouldn't be tempted to look back. Properly motivated, and also kicked out of the library, I set to work on a new column, the one you're currently stroking with your eyeballs, in which I will outline all the ways the media lies to us about health and nutrition.
Spotting stupid things in a newspaper is a bit like shooting fish in a supermarket: It's incredibly, incredibly easy. But if you've never read something critically before because of some grossly misplaced trust you have in people capable of writing, here is a short list of symptoms that can easily be found in flawed health reporting. #8. ____ Is Incredibly Good/Bad for You
Here's a headline you've probably read a few times already today:
Now I'm not going to pick specific fights with specific foods or drugs; I don't want to provoke too many fistfights in the comments section, and in this particular example, I adore red wine, a key element of my morning routine. But you see this kind of thing all the time. Some study finds a link between anything and anything, and a newspaper will take that study and hold it up as proof that the universe is demanding we should be eating more kale and less fudge, even if that sounds patently ridiculous.
Seriously, fuck you, universe.
What these articles usually don't do is qualify what exactly that "link" means. If you're missing a discussion of: - the cost of a diet/treatment, - its side effects, - how it compares with other treatments and - how it compares with doing nothing at all, ... then you're not reading very useful advice. Consider that last item for a second. Does a new diet reduce the risk of getting a disease from 5.4 percent to 5.2 percent? (I don't know or care what the units could be. Riskometers, let's say.) That is a potentially interesting finding, and it could certainly serve as a guide for future research, but it's not the kind of evidence that should inspire you to cram fish oil into your throat until you stop blinking. _______________________________________________________________________ #7. Conflicts of Interest
Scientists have proven that, on occasion, human beings have been known to act unethically. (Whether we can trust those scientists remains unknown.) That means it's entirely possible for a scientist, or really anyone wearing a lab coat, to have some sort of financial stake in the advice they're giving. And a lot of articles just don't look very critically at the financial backing behind these new studies. This is important to know. I'm not going to say that all egg-related advice from the Egg Council of America is invalid, but I would be a little wary if they started advising a three-egg-a-day shampooing regimen. Maybe a reporter would pick up on something so blatant, but what if the Egg Council of America changed its name to the Doctors for Healthy Health? Is a reporter going to catch that? Why would he? Just look at the name! Doctors for Healthy Health
. Who wouldn't trust those guys? Those, shiny, shiny-haired guys? _______________________________________________________________________ #6. Thin Evidence
Another warning sign to look for are articles that cite a single source, whether it's a single study or a single expert or even a single married expert. Single studies can throw up all sorts of misleading or contradictory evidence; it's very common for weak, circumstantial or cherry-picked evidence to be passed along as "the truth" in such cases. If you're not seeing any discussion of the methodology of a study, you'll have no idea if it had a small sample size, or a control group, or even whether it was based on animal and not human tests.
"It seems monkeys hate being hit by paintballs." "Fascinating. But we're still years away from the FDA permitting human trials." "We'd better do the monkeys again then. Tighten up those error bars a bit."
Just to show you an example of advice you can
trust, let's look at another field where there isn't just a single study pointing at something, where the literature is comprehensive and the science conclusive: ear science. "Don't put that in your ear!" is almost always a correct thing to say. At any moment during human history, saying "Don't put that in your ear!" is accurate advice and can't get you in too much trouble.
Maybe not all the time.
Although Cracked isn't a "proper" newspaper, due to the general decline in quality, respect and readership of those "proper" newspapers, Cracked has somehow become the foremost respected media source available today, right up there with Yahoo! Answers. This means that my experience, however limited and possibly fictional, permits me to speculate about why mainstream health reporting is so terrible. #5. Lack of Knowledge
Earlier I talked about choosing proper methodologies, and cost/benefit analysis, and literature review. These are just some of the terribly boring chores
that are a sad but necessary part of being an expert in a field. That's why we can't expect reporters to be experts in all the areas they're covering; it's often the case these days that a new reporter who a month ago was writing the "Tides Update" on page G18 is promoted to covering something actually useful, even if he doesn't know the first thing about it. And the easiest way for this reporter to write about something he doesn't know is to find and cite an expert. It's a safe play for our young reporter; by simply describing the expert's credentials and then relaying what they're saying, the reporter's young, soft ass is covered. It's the expert telling the story, not the reporter. So it's up to the audience to figure out if the expert is: - actually an expert. - a hired stooge. - two children atop each other's shoulders in a long coat. And even if our young reporter finds an actual, respectable expert who isn't trying to do anything sneaky, he can still mess up if he happens to know not a single goddamned thing about how science works
. For example: There are big differences between "a study" and "a good study" and "a published study" and "a study that's been independently confirmed" and "a study that's been independently confirmed a dozen times over." These differences are important; when a scientist says something, it's not the same as the Pope saying it. It's only when dozens and hundreds of scientists start saying the same thing that we should start telling people to guzzle red wine out of a fire hose.
"Please never do that."
But, as discussed, these subtleties aren't really obvious, and if they are, they're really really boring.
Which is why, in reality, the first time a single lab rat parties so hard it forgets it has cancer, the newspapers dash off another batch of red wine stories. #4. Lack of Space
It is of course possible that our reporter is fully aware of the limitations in the evidence he's reporting on, or how his expert is literally a puppet being manipulated by a shady oil executive.
"Drink two barrels of Brent Crude every day to reduce joint wear during cold-weather start-ups!"
And maybe this reporter would love nothing more than to lay out a well-reasoned discussion of what this study means and how we should responsibly incorporate its lessons into our lives. And then his editor tells him, no, he can't have 3,800 words for his article on pears, and to stop asking such stupid fucking questions. This can even happen semi-accidentally, thanks to something called the inverted pyramid format, which is how most articles for mainstream newspapers get written. The idea behind this is to have the most important point of the article written first, followed by the next most important ideas, and so on.
Compare with the inverted rectangle format we use at Cracked.
This way, if an editor ever needs to trim an article quickly to save space, she can just lop off the bottommost words and leave a shorter but still generally readable product. And seeing as caveats and limitations are the kinds of wienery, unimportant items that can get stuffed toward the bottom of an article, this occasionally makes them the first on the chopping block. This is how a well-reasoned treatise on pear health tips gets turned into a 300-word summary, and how reporters grow disillusioned with the industry, and how the pear-wine industry thrives thanks to the thirsts of disillusioned reporters, and how everything else in the world gets just a bit shittier. _______________________________________________________________________ #3. Lack of Giving a Damn
It is also possible that maybe our reporter knows what's what, and even has space to tell us what's what, but he simply doesn't give a damn.
That sounds harsh, but once you realize a couple points about newspaper writing, you can see how this can happen: - Writing a 500-word story that involves three interviews and five hours of background research is hard. - Writing a 500-word story that regurgitates someone else's news release is easy. - Both pay the same. I'll be as fair as I can here: I honestly think most journalists get into their profession because of a genuine desire to write honestly and relate "the truth" as best as they can. And most of the time, they try to do just that. But some days -- about 1 in 5, I suspect -- it's Friday goddamned evening
and these journalists just want to go home and pour a nice tall bowl of pear wine, and maybe do a bit of live reporting from the scene of a pile-up between their mistress' thighs. Remember that reporting is still a job, and if you've ever had one of those, you'll know that some days "good enough" sure as fuck feels good enough.