Health News Review

For years we have been coaxing and educating journalists – and the general public – to understand that the language used to describe studies – especially observational studies – is important. We have published a primer, “Does the Language Fit the Evidence?  Association Versus Causation.

Well don’t feel picked on any longer, journalists.  Some journals are now coaxing and educating scientist-authors of papers to learn the same lesson – and act on it

Editors of the HEART Group journals (they’re all listed on this statement of ethics from 4 years ago) issued a statement today that “inappropriate word choice to describe results can lead to scientific inaccuracy.” And they give examples almost identical to those we’ve posted in our primer for years.

They say that that the language used to describe an observational study should only make claims such as:

  • “a lower risk was observed”
  • “there is a relationship”
  • “there is an association”
  • “correlates with”
  • “is associated with.”

And they say that it is incorrect to describe such studies with language such as “reduced risk” or “lowered risk” or “benefitted.”

We applaud this move, don’t know why it took so long, and don’t know why other journals haven’t done the same thing.

A Reuters Health story captures the essence of the statement and quotes me:

“But this is a serious matter, said Gary Schwitzer, the publisher of HealthNewsReview.org, which critiques reporting on health and medicine. The language journals use, said Schwitzer, can affect the way journalists cover these studies.

“It leaves many in the general public feeling as if they’re watching a scientific and editorial ping-pong game,” Schwitzer told Reuters Health. “One day, we’re on this end, where coffee is protective against diabetes, and then the next week, we’re at the other end of the spectrum, and coffee consumption raises the risk of stroke.”

Schwitzer welcomed the journal editors’ efforts. Research and journalism – two intertwined industries, he said – “had better be concerned about credibility and public perceptions of what’s going on in the dissemination of information.”

“We’ve got a public that is dying for well explained, balanced, navigable information that includes caveats and context,” he said. “As somebody who looks at this every day, we’ve dug a very big hole that moves like this will help us start to crawl out of.”

Addendum on December 2  See two other recent articles:

(Hat tip to Ivan Oransky for these.)

 

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