8 Lies It's Surprisingly Easy to Tell as a Health Reporter
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.
SymptomsSpotting 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.
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!
Seriously, fuck you, universe.
Just to show you an example of advice you
"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."
Maybe not all the time.
CausesAlthough 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
But, as discussed, these subtleties aren't really obvious, and if they are, they're
"Please never do that."
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.
"Drink two barrels of Brent Crude every day to reduce joint wear during cold-weather start-ups!"
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. _______________________________________________________________________
Compare with the inverted rectangle format we use at Cracked.
Related: 5 Huge Disasters Caused By Idiots
CuresBecause the overall meta-structure for this column works a lot better if I include a couple of pieces of broad, probably dangerous advice, here's exactly that: #2. Destroy All Newspapers So if you didn't know it already, I think by now I've proven that newspapers are occasionally wrong, or less than completely helpful in certain circumstances. You should stop reading and, I guess, eating newspapers immediately. Most importantly, under no circumstances should you ever again take medical advice from someone who isn't wearing one of those old-timey medical reflectors.
"Ok, Mr Bucholz, I... Where did your pants go? And did you take that out of my cabinet? No, don't give it back. You keep it. That's yours now."______________________
For more from Bucholz, check out 10 Awesome Ways to Quit Your Job and How to Abuse Your Customers And Pass It Off As 'Marketing'.