Shut up and sip your coffee – says Slate

Brian Palmer of Slate sounds like he’s as fed up with observational studies about coffee’s benefits and coffee’s harms as we are.

He published a piece, “Shut Up and Sip: Coffee is neither good nor bad for you.  Now you may go.”  It makes me think of the book (cover image at right) written by my friend, Robert Davis, PhD.  You should read Palmer’s entire Slate piece yourself, so I’ll only offer this one excerpt:

“A century’s worth of research proves that coffee’s effects on human health are marginal at most. Unless you belong to some particularly sensitive group, the choice to drink or abstain will neither shorten nor lengthen your life in a noticeable way. If there’s a lesson to be had from 100 years of studying this question, it is this: Look hard enough for something to worry about, and you’ll find it—even if it’s not there.”

Why does this matter?  Maybe it was best summarized in a comment left by a Slate reader:

“I’m so tired of “studies” showing this or that is either good or bad for you. The yin & yang of these studies, coffee is good, coffee is bad, tea is good, tea is bad, egg were virtual poison during the 80’s & 90’s and now  that everybody is on a protein kick, eggs are manna from heaven. Now carbs are evil but there for awhile bagles are the choice de jour for a “healthy” post workout meal, now people would shun you and run skreetching into the streets if you offered them a refined carb.”

The credibility of the science – and of the journalism – is threatened by miscommunication of observational data.

We’ve written about media claims about coffee more than 50 times on this website.  If you want to get specific, check out some of the returns on this search results page. 

OBSERVATIONAL-STUDIES-298x300We’ve coined the “coffee club – in which association ≠ causation.”

And we’ve referred to coffee becoming “the poster child for abused translation of observational research.”

The importance of getting this correct is explained in our primer:  “Observational Studies – Does the Language Fit the Evidence? Association Versus Causation.”

After reading all of this, as Slate’s Brian Palmer wrote, “Now you may go.”   Thanks for listening/reading.

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Comments (5)

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July 2, 2015 at 2:09 pm

Here is my conclusion: I drink coffee because I like it. I rely on the caffeine boost. I don’t smoke despite loving it. I also at one time relied on the nicotine stimulation. I would stop drinking coffee if observational studies where as consistent in showing harm as observational studies for smoking clearly showed harm of tobacco. Good observational studies are useful but bad observational studies are harmful. Often the problem is not the study but the the conclusions, or in most cases the interpretation by the media. Keep up the great work!


    July 6, 2015 at 7:54 am

    I would also add to Flem’s comments– I would stop drinking coffee if studies consistently showed a medium or large potential harm from small amounts of coffee. Otherwise, I’ll take the benefits (alertness, morning routine, etc) over small (or nonexistent) risks.


July 2, 2015 at 6:20 pm

The #1 problem with health-related coffee studies is that it has cost us decades in research opportunity costs and billions of dollars in time and energy. And for what? For the pathetic return-on-investment of “maybe it’s healthy, maybe not, but not so much in either case”. That ROI is worse than the Vietnam War.
The public has to believe that continuing to beat this dead horse further with studies is either a measure of how incompetent the research community is … or how corrupt it is by feigning controversy to continue to receive funding, publish papers, get news coverage, and for zero human benefit.

Laurence Alter

July 6, 2015 at 7:34 am

Dear Gary & Staff:
The problem is that caffeine is not labelled a ‘drug’ and getting off the drug causes habitual users serious (reported) problems. Any potential value with this drug, caffeine, can be found with other foods (ex.: cocoa, if you’re careful in the brand of chocolate you select). There’s no real reason to ‘chance’ matters and drink coffee.



    July 6, 2015 at 10:07 am

    There’s no real reason to “chance” the risk of a car accident in heading to the movies, either – unless you enjoy it. If so, you accept the risks in daily living and the things you enjoy. I do so with coffee (and many other things) because the risk/benefit ratio to me is low IMO. Those who drink enough to actually have problems that affect their lives should wean off of it and avoid it afterwards, but the same can be said of everything from risky behaviors to junk food.