Michael Joyce is a writer-producer at HealthNewsReview.org and tweets as @mlmjoyce
Take two topics well known to generate clicks: alcohol and longevity.
Find a study that suggests alcohol increases longevity.
Fail to mention the study is observational but still emphasize cause-and-effect language in your headline.
Here’s what you get:
Drinking Alcohol Key to Living Past 90 (NY Daily News)
But it gets worse.
Other unpublished findings from the “90+” cohort project at UC-Irvine — presented at this past weekend’s American Association for the Advancement of Science in Austin, Texas — led to even more sensationalistic headlines. Not only did their survey find that drinking the equivalent of two beers or two glasses of wine per day was associated with 18% fewer deaths, it also found that daily exercise of around 15 to 45 minutes was only associated with 11% fewer premature deaths.
TechTimes opted to blend these two findings into a single whopper of a headline:
Not only is this language unjustified in referring to a study that can only show association, not causation, but the survey did not directly compare alcohol and exercise. So the headline is very misleading.
But, on a very encouraging note, most of the news outlets we regularly review chose not to cover the preliminary findings of this unpublished, observational study. At least not yet. We encourage them to join the “Just say no to clickbait” movement.
Other reported findings of the study included:
But these are observations and nothing more. Furthermore, they are based on self-reporting by the study subjects. That’s a notoriously unreliable way to get accurate information regarding people’s daily habits or behaviors.
The following widely used quotes by Claudia Klawas, MD, one of the UC-Irvine co-leaders, did not help matters:
“I have no explanation for it, but I do firmly believe that modest drinking improves longevity.”
“It’s not bad to be skinny when you’re young but it’s very bad to be skinny when you’re old.”
A co-leader of a 15-year-long cohort study should know it’s irresponsible to use such declarative and cause-and-effect language with the press when your data can not support it.
So, to summarize, here’s what you need to know:
Addendum, February 21, 2018:
Just after we published this piece we heard back from Dr. Michael Bierer, MD, MPH — one of our regular contributors — who we had reached out to for comment. Bierer is an internist with a special interest in addiction who’s affiliated with Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. Here’s some of his commentary:
I worry that the forces supporting the message that “moderate drinking is healthy” continue to out-shout (and out-fund) the scientific community. Readers should note that the moderate drinking levels endorsed by this observational study, can also be linked to negative health outcomes, such as breast cancer and osteoporosis.
Observational studies that demonstrate benefits to people engaged in a certain activity — in this case drinking — are difficult to do well. That’s because the behavior in question may co-vary with other features that predict health outcomes.
For example, those who abstain from alcohol completely may do so for a variety of reasons. In older adults, perhaps that reason is taking a medication that makes alcohol dangerous; such as anticoagulants, psychotropics, or aspirin. So not drinking might be a marker for other health conditions that themselves are associated — weakly or not-so-weakly — with negative outcomes. Or, abstaining may signal a history of problematic drinking and the advice to cut back. Likewise, there are many health conditions (like liver disease) that are reasons to abstain.
Conversely, moderate drinking might be a marker for more robust health. There is an established link between physical activity and drinking alcohol. People who take some alcohol may simply have more social contacts than those who abstain, and pro-social behaviors are linked to health.
So you can see that if you select a group within a large population who differ from the rest on one behavior, they may just represent a different sub-population. The challenge here is the near impossibility of controlling various (and varying) confounders that influence your outcome of interest in such an observational study.