Health News Review

One of our readers tipped me off to the flaws in this recent story posted by PBS Newshour. And if you read the reader comments left online in response to the story, you’ll see that she wasn’t the only one who was troubled.

 

For such a short story, there’s a lot wrong here.

The headline is inaccurate and misleading.

The story’s attempt to link to the journal article goes to a “Page not found” error message.

And the language of the story contradicts itself:  sometimes it refers to a correlation while other times it uses the cause-and-effect language of “increased risk” – something that cannot be established by such an observational study.

The story also contradicts itself by ending with caveats about “potential inaccuracy” in the findings, which were described as “not definitive.”  But these caveats follow the definitive statements about “increased risk” or the statement of fact in the headline – “Study shows prostate cancer risk rises in male cyclists over 50.”   Which is it?  Potentially inaccurate and not definitive?  Or “study shows risk rises”? Did it show the risk rises, or not?  (Answer: no.)

If you read the study, its title delivers an overt message:  “An Observational Study of Erectile Dysfunction, Infertility, and Prostate Cancer in Regular Cyclists.”  (And yes, I’ve provided you the link to the journal article.) You don’t have to guess that it’s an observational study.  The study title tells you that.

And if you read the study,  you find a noteworthy description by the authors of the work’s limitations, including:

  • the fact that the study relied on an online questionnaire means there was no opportunity for interview or physical examination of the subjects.
  • the cross-sectional design limits the ability for the researchers to infer cause-and-effect
  • the use of self-reporting by study subjects may lead to inaccuracies.

C’mon PBS.  If the story is worth reporting at all (debatable), it’s worth more than what you gave it. Some readers left comments like these:

  • “This is a pure observational study, so it provides no insight into whether cycling causes the cancer risk. It’s also missing something very important: What do they mean by “risk for prostate cancer”? Is it just elevated PSA? If so, that means very little. Observational studies that concern cancer, reported this way, can be very misleading.”
  • “Another headline grabber w/o much substance.”
  • “all the researchers thought was this warranted further investigation. In other words, more work needs to be done to determine if there is a correlation.. the PBS headline kinda jumps the gun.”

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Comments

David Most, PhD posted on August 25, 2014 at 9:52 am

When I first heard this report my first reaction was to throw a shoe at the TV. But destruction of the TV wasn’t the answer. This kind of junk “study: can only serve to frighten some men into abandoning one of the most useful recreations they could possible do. The editors of the PBS program are the ones who should be severely criticized for the way they played this piece of garbage (a more polite term than what I really wanted to call it).