A few years ago, the website Hairpin.com posted a photo essay that captured a slice of the silliness of some stock photo collections. Under a headline, but with no other words, there were simply 19 photos that matched the headline, “Women Laughing Alone With Salad.”
But salad silliness isn’t limited to stock photo images. Last week, in a fitting wrap-up to another year of miscommunication about observational studies, many news organizations went nuts with headlines like Newsweek’s:
Newsweek can’t lay sole claim to miscommunicating to the public about this study. To begin with, the journal Neurology is partly responsible for the bad journalism that ensued because it allowed a causal statement to appear in the abstract of the manuscript reporting the results:
Consumption of approximately 1 serving per day of green leafy vegetables and foods rich in phylloquinone, lutein, nitrate, folate, α-tocopherol, and kaempferol may help to slow cognitive decline with aging.
The emphasis is ours. We further emphasize that whenever you hear or read may help, feel free to substitute may not help because it is also accurate.
But in the journal manuscript is the following disclaimer, which shows several things: the journal allows inconsistent messages to be published even within the same manuscript, and Newsweek either didn’t read the following disclaimer (most likely) or chose to ignore it.
The study findings were based on an observational study and as such, confounding bias can never be ruled out as an alternative explanation of the observed relations. Further, results of the study may not be generalizable to younger adults or to nonwhite or Hispanic populations.
Let me emphasize that the staffs behind the journal Neurology and Newsweek are far bigger than ours at HealthNewsReview.org.
The Los Angeles Times had no such disclaimer, but, instead projected a hypothetical prediction as if it were fact carved in stone.
ABCNews.com, which gushed all sorts of causal hype (may help prevent dementia…just might keep your brain 11 years younger) nonetheless included this disclaimer:
The design of the study could only show an association, not that eating these vegetables actually causes the lower rates of dementia. Additionally, much of the data is based off the reports of study participants, a possible source of bias or inaccuracy because few people can say for sure how many kale salads they ate in the past year.
That wasn’t so difficult, was it? Even a subpar story can include that important piece of consumer education.
HealthDay put its disclaimer up high, starting in the fourth sentence of the story:
The findings, published in the Dec. 20 online edition of the journal Neurology, do not prove that greens, per se, slow down brain aging.
“You can’t make that kind of conclusion based on studies like this,” said Keith Fargo, director of scientific programs and outreach for the Alzheimer’s Association. Rather, the study results suggest an association between the two.
The New York Times included this caveat:
The study controlled for smoking, physical activity and other factors, but it is observational, and does not prove cause and effect.
One of the most striking things that jumped out from this slice of the 24-hour news cycle is that we didn’t see a single story connect this study with what was reported the same week – that four studies in the Annals of Internal Medicine reported that there’s no proven way to prevent Alzheimer’s. Here’s the opening graf from Los Angeles Times:
What’s proven to prevent the development of dementia after the age of 80?
Not brain training, not medication, not regular exercise, not a healthier diet and not a busy social calendar, according to a series of reports published Monday.
But on Twitter, @rufovillosum nailed it:
How could the big boys and girls in journalism fail to connect the dots as this Tweep did?
Read our primer on the language that should be used to describe observational research results. It could prevent a lot of miscommunication, confusion, and harm.
Other holiday time filler crap:
Scientists reveal why this ONE salad dressing could help fight dementia – great news from the Daily Mail for mice using salad dressing.
Experts say these two things are the secret to living a longer life – Medical Express
Don’t read their secrets. Here is one of ours: be a healthy skeptic when you read daily mainstream news media health news.
Happy New Year.