Tom Chivers is a journalist and science writer, formerly of the Telegraph and currently for BuzzFeed. As a man who is partial to a rigorous debunking now and again, we asked if he could shed some light on why so much of health science reporting makes our heads hurt.
Why are papers filled with health and fitness stories?
The phrase I keep hearing is “News you can use.” People like stuff that relates to them and their lives.
Even when that’s all depressing findings about things causing cancer, dementia or heart disease?
People worry about their diet. They worry about their health. Newspapers are selling cheap fixes: “Eat this superfood and it will cure you!” There are no superfoods. It’s a short cut – and that’s appealing.
A lot of stories seem quite sensational. Is science really that dramatic?
I have a theory which is that if a study is interesting, it’s probably wrong. What’s often going on is not that a journalist has totally misreported the study; it’s that they’ve taken one study out of context. And science isn’t about one study. Any one study only adds to the mass of data. Because there are hundreds of studies being done, there’ll always be one or two that say something dramatic. If you’re being unscrupulous or lazy or don’t understand the system, you can find these things that say “RED WINE CAUSES CANCER!”
What might cause a journalist to be unscrupulous or lazy?
The pressures of a daily newspaper, the pressure of filing for deadline – especially when there are cutbacks on staff. You’ve got the news desk shouting at you: “So, this means red wine causes cancer?” You try to explain that it’s a bit more complicated than that but they need a headline so bam! That’s the headline.
What are some of the tricks of the trade to make a headline more juicy?
Often you’ll find that a story that says something like: “Ice cream sales are linked to drownings” – which they are. Now, the story might carefully explain that that’s because sunny days cause both, but the headline might say “Ice Cream Causes Drowning”. Another is that alcohol is linked to lung cancer. That’s because people who drink are more likely to smoke. You can find a study which says that, then write it up to say that it is “correlated with”. Then a sub-editor or news editor might write alcohol “causes” lung cancer because they’ve misunderstood that correlation doesn’t mean causation.
What sort of effect is social media having on all of this?
I think there’s more holding to account than there was. A lot of scientists I’ve spoken to say that it’s forced them to up their game, because if you release a shoddy paper it no longer disappears into obscurity. It will get brutally torn apart in a public arena.
It also applies to newspaper coverage, too, as you can’t just put your short story on page three claiming that red wine causes cancer. Now that gets screen-grabbed and put all over the internet. At BuzzFeed what we’ve noticed is that debunking bad science in the papers really goes viral. People like it and share it.
Any final advice to bear in mind when reading these stories?
A lot of dietary science is very complicated and any story with a firm result beyond “You should eat your greens and do your exercise” is almost certainly going to be based on very weak science.
Be careful who you believe
Even “scientific studies” may require a pinch of salt
“Dark Chocolate And Green Tea Is The Perfect Concentration Combination” announced the Telegraph in May 2015. The finding was made by researchers at Northern Arizona University. By happy coincidence, dark chocolate and green tea was exactly the same combination being considered by Hershey’s product development team. And who sponsored the NAU’s scientific study? Why, that would be the Hershey Company.
“Nature’s Viagra: The Surprising Way You Could Reduce Your Erectile Dysfunction Risk” was blueberries, according to the Express, which told us that their flavonoids can help with this rather delicate problem. Though the paper reported the findings, it failed to include this possibly pertinent detail: two of three researchers working on the study declared they’d had financial support for previous projects from... the US Blueberry Highbush Council.
“Is Working Out Making Us FAT?” asked the Mail Online last April. According to a survey conducted by the Weightloss and Health Institute, yes it was. How lucky, then, that the founders of that very institute just so happened to be the same people who had recently developed a subscription-based app that was designed to help you lose weight with diet tips and low-level walking programmes. Hey, what are the chances?
“E-cigarette users trying to quit smoking should vape every day,” said The Guardian in April last year. The article cited a statistic that e-cigarettes were estimated to be 95% less harmful than tobacco, but the “95%” figure has come under fire more recently as it supposedly came out of a meeting that was sponsored by two companies that had separate links to two different e-cigarette manufacturers.
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