Newsweek's cover story this week addresses the confusion that has resulted from recent stories which claim that scientists have been contradicting
themselves when it comes to fat and its effect on one's health.
You couldn't miss the headlines. The New York Times: LOW-FAT DIET DOES NOT CUT HEALTH RISKS, STUDY FINDS. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: REDUCING
FAT MAY NOT CURB DISEASE. The Boston Globe: STUDY FINDS NO MAJOR BENEFIT OF A LOW-FAT DIET. The Los Angeles Times: EATING LEAN DOESN'T CUT RISK. When
the results of a massive, federally funded study were released last month, TV, newspapers and, yes, magazines around the country trumpeted what seemed
to confound conventional wisdom and standard medical advice. Fat, these articles seemed to say, wasn't so bad for you after all. In fact, the results
of the study, the Women's Health Initiative (WHI), were actually more complex—as all these articles explained to readers who got beyond the
It wasn't (as many of us might have hoped) a signal to rush out and gorge on cheeseburgers—especially if you're a man of any age or a woman under
50. That's because the study involved only older women—from 50 to 79. And the primary goal was far narrower than those headlines implied: to test
whether cutting fat would reduce the risk, specifically, of breast cancer. After an average of eight years, researchers found no statistically
significant difference in breast-cancer risk between women on a low-fat diet and women who had made no changes in what they ate. But that is not the
bottom line. The results showed what researchers call a "trend" toward a low-fat diet reducing breast-cancer risk; this effect was actually
significant in those who started with the highest levels of fat. Scientists will observe the women until 2010, when we could hear a whole new message.
"I wouldn't worry about the headlines of today as far as low fat and breast cancer are concerned," says Dr. Jacques Rossouw, the WHI project
officer. "They may be wrong."
To those of us without an M.D., it sometimes seems as if scientists are deliberately trying to mess with our heads—especially when it comes to
nutrition research. The WHI study is the latest in what appears to be a series of dietary flip-flops. All fat was bad; now some fat is good. Eggs were
bad; now they're OK in moderation. Nuts were verboten; now their fats are beneficial. Coffee has been up and down more often than hemlines. We've
even been reading that chocolate could be a health food. (We've got some bad news on that. Read on.) Meanwhile, Americans are getting fatter and
fatter. Two thirds are overweight or obese, and we're shelling out millions annually in a futile effort to shed those excess pounds.
Please visit the link provided for the complete story.
Check out that third paragraph - not only are the pointy-headed scientists releasing contradictory information, it's their fault that so many
Americans are fat!!
First of all, when is the last time you picked up a paper or a magazine that didn't have a "corrections" section? How often do you see a newspaper
story with endnotes or a bibliography that lists sources that support the numerous claims found in the story? When is the last time you saw a
journalist cite other articles that tended to disagree with the thesis they were trying to sell (as is nearly always the case in scientific journal
In any case, I think that most scientists work very hard NOT to purposely mislead or obfuscate their results - they leave that to the media. The real
story, imo, is that journalists are ignorant and too often revel in their ignorance. They don't understand the narrow points that most research is
about and in an attempt to make a bigger story out of incremental steps make claims that end up making scientists look like they are being
duplicitous. When a new article is published that appears to contradict the "big story" (but not the actual primary source on which it was
supposedly based) they cry foul.
Most of the time, when I read articles of a scientific nature in the popular media, I am appalled at the level of ignorance, misunderstanding, and
sheer laziness on the part of the reporter. They make blanket statements that are clearly unsupported by the primary source or paper they are
attempting to summarize. They fail to mention up front the clear and unambiguous caveats that nearly every scientific paper points out - usually in
the first few pages.
This seems particularly true when it comes to medicine. Medical research is extraordinarily complex because there are so many uncontrollable
variables. Experiments and studies that attempt to establish causality between a potential health hazard and actual health problems are darn near
impossible and in the end often become more of a study in applied statistics than actual medicine. Furthermore, medical research does not often lend
itself well to pithy news stories that have to get the point across in as few words as possible.
Personally, I think that journalism schools ought to start establishing more rigorous coursework requirements - particularly in the sciences, and that
reporters should allow the authors of the work they are reporting on to review the stories prior to publication.