Friday, November 20, 2009

On the Popular Press

Does the popular science press help us all by spreading the word about new research? Or is it causing harm by distorting the facts?

I spent 8 years as a reporter/editor working for a small daily newspaper in Vermont, and I'm familiar with the stock complaints about the press. We heard them every day.

"You're blowing it out of proportion." Or "You just want to sell papers." Or "You misquoted me." I was once accused of misquoting a politician because I reported only what he said at a meeting and not what he had intended to say!

So I hate to jump on the "tar the press" bandwagon myself. But sometimes things really go too far.

One thing that has angered me lately is the tendency of the popular science press to blame everything on fast-food gluttony. Whenever there's an article about overeating, for example, they illustrate it with a gargantuan cheeseburger accompanied by a bucketful of French fries. Don't they know it's possible to overeat on chicken and tofu as well?

A recent Science Daily article here really went too far. This one concerned a study showing that a high-calorie diet may accelerate age-related disease. The article was illustrated by a man with a huge plate of french fries. He was eating with his hands, which were covered in catsup. There was also catsup on his face, as if he'd been grabbing the fries and stuffing them in so fast that he got catsup all over everything.

Apparently I wasn't the only person who was fed up with this sort of thing. I see that the current iteration of the story illustrates the other extreme: a plate with very little food: one shrimp, a third of a spear of asparagus, and a mushroom.

And it's not just the popular press that blames everything on fast-food gluttony. Scientists themselves tend to single out those factors.

This Science Daily story was about a study showing that people in their 60s today have more disabilities than previous generations. What do the researchers blame this situation on? Immigrants and fat people, of course.

They say that "disabilities may be linked with the changing racial and ethnic makeup of the group that recently reached or will soon be reaching its 60s, with the most rapid growth projected to be among African Americans and Hispanics -- groups with significantly higher rates of obesity and lower socioeconomic status, both of which are associated with higher risk for functional limitations and disabilities.

It's true that very extreme obesity would be likely to make people less likely to walk a quarter of a mile or climb steps. But a lot of people in the "obese" category of BMI are as fit as their thinner counterparts. Maybe the real change is that no one, thin or fat, tends to walk anywhere these days when most people have cars.

And finally, popular science writers obviously don't do any fact checking of science press releases at all. A currently hot topic in the popular press is a recent study in which some researchers did MRI on some mummies and found evidence of heart disease, as reported here. The reporters were agog.

As one said, this new study challenged "longstanding assumptions that cardiovascular disease is mainly a malady of modern societies." But low-carb author Michael Eades discussed the evidence for cardiovascular disease among ancient Egyptians in his book Protein Power, first published in 1996. And apparently the first report of aortic calcification in ancient Egyptians occurred in 1852, as a result of a study by a scientist named Czermack, as discussed in the book Mummies, Disease, and Ancient Cultures.

Let's see. That's only about 150 years ago, but scientists continued to believe that cardiovascular disease is "often attributed to urbanization, fast-food diets, smoking and sedentary lifestyles characteristic of Western societies," according to the Wall Street Journal article. Notice the reference to fast-food diets again. The assumption of the reporter is that all of society's ills are caused by fast food.

Because the Egyptians didn't have fast food, as far as we know, however, they then blame it on the fact that the upper classes (and of course the lower classes, who ate mostly bread and onions, weren't mummified) ate meat "from cattle, ducks, and geese." Again, the bias is that the only healthy diet is one devoid of meat.

I'm quite aware that the reporters who write these popular science article are most likely under tight deadlines. Maybe they have to produce X number of stories per day in order to keep their jobs, so they don't have time to do even quick Internet research on the topic, and they simply print the press releases that flood in every day.

Nevertheless, the biases that are so obvious not just among the science reporters but among the scientists as well (surely they knew that finding evidence of cardiovascular disease in mummies was nothing new; what was new was the technique they used to find it) makes the rest of us sceptical about anything we read.

I think the science reporters and even the scientists who do the research are shooting themselves in the foot.

1 comment:

  1. YES!!! To be 'sanely' informed one really must learn to filter through the misinformation and verify the nuggets of true news - a task too few of us take the time to do. Thanks for often doing it for us. Jude