Mixed report card: only some news orgs emphasize association not causation in ibuprofen-Parkinson's study

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We’re delighted to see that USA Today, Reuters and WebMD were among the news organizations that included what an editorial writer said about an observational study linking ibuprofen use with fewer cases of Parkinson’s disease.

All 3 news organizations used some version of what editorial writer Dr. James Bower of the Mayo Clinic wrote or said:

“Whenever in epidemiology you find an association, that does not mean causation.”
“An association does not prove causation.”
“There could be other explanations for the ibuprofen-Parkinson’s connection.”

Kudos to those news organizations.

And some praise goes to the journal Neurology for publishing Bower’s editorial to accompany the study. His piece was entitled, “Is the answer for Parkinson disease already in the medicine cabinet? Unfortunately not.”

Unfortunately, not all news organizations got that message. Because many don’t read the journals, so they certainly never get to the editorials. Instead, they rewrite quick hits off a wire service story. As a result, we end up with some of the following.

A FoxNews.com story was particularly deaf to Bower’s caveat, stating:

“That bottle of ibuprofen in your medicine cabinet is more powerful than you may think.”

A CBSNews.com story never addressed the observational study limitation, instead whimsically writing:

“Pop a pill to prevent Parkinson’s disease? A new study says it’s possible, and the pill in question isn’t some experimental marvel that’s still years away from drugstore shelves.

It’s plain old ibuprofen.”

A KGO-TV (San Francisco) web story is wrong when it headlines: “Ibuprofen can help fight Parkinson’s.”

So is a Montreal Gazette online story headlined: “Parkinson’s: Ibuprofen cuts risk.”

And a Toronto Sun online story falsely states: “Ibuprofen cuts Parkinson’s risk.”

And a BBC News online story misses the mark with its headline: “Ibuprofen ‘cuts Parkinson’s disease risk’ “

These headlines are all inaccurate. You can’t “help fight…or cut the risk” of something for which no cause-and-effect has been proven. And an observational study can’t prove that connection – something the editorial clearly explained.

For more than a year, we’ve offered a brief primer on HealthNewsReview.org about the language journalists should and shouldn’t use when reporting on observational studies.

And if they still can’t get it right, they’re better off not reporting on this stuff at all. Because these are the kinds of stories that give readers reason to question the credibility of journalism – and, unfairly – of science.

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Comments (4)

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March 3, 2011 at 7:37 pm

If observational studies can *never* prove causation, how can we be so sure about smoking causing cancer? In some cases, I think the evidence eventually can make a causal relationship the best explanation of a lot of associations of the right sort.
Things like dose-response and so on an lend weight to causal hypotheses.
But in general, your advice regarding this is right.

Michael Kirsch, M.D.

March 4, 2011 at 9:08 am

Medical associations generate headlines and sound bites every day that mislead the public. This is irresponsbile journalism and needs to be exposed.