Is Red Wine the Miracle Fat-Burning Miracle Cure You’ve Been Waiting For?

r0eThere is a debate among scientists, researchers, and journalists that goes something like this:

  • Scientific community: We need better science reporters.
  • Science journalists: Don’t blame us, science is pretty freaking tough and we rely on good press release writers to give us the skinny.

I think there’s some truth to both of these statements, but they are almost certainly incomplete. A recent flurry of new stories on the benefits of wine drinking is a good example of where it falls short.

In a recent press release from Oregon State University they claim: “The findings suggest that consuming dark-colored grapes, whether eating them or drinking juice or wine, might help people better manage obesity and related metabolic disorders such as fatty liver.” Which, of course, earned OSU and the scientists in question many accolades and clogged up my Twitter and Facebook feeds for days with people claiming they can finally start skipping the gym.

But is that what they said? While the headline writers seemed to concentrate on the “fat burning” sentence above, the reporters were pretty keen on adding this line from later in the press release. “‘These plant chemicals are not a weight-loss miracle,’ cautions [study team member Neil] Shay. ‘We didn’t find, and we didn’t expect to, that these compounds would improve body weight,’” he said.”

I have a tendency myself to take science reporters to task, but here’s a good example of science reporters more or less getting it right. Of course, if the story was truly understood from the get-go, it’s hard to see it getting much coverage. So it’s clear that something went wrong, but what? And what has been people’s takeaway? Most of my friends took to Facebook and Twitter in jest, but it was a jest that relied on a misunderstanding of the truth of that first sentence. Can we say that the reporter’s were “at fault” for this misunderstanding?

A part of me says, sure. If a failure to communicate is large and consistent, then it must be the communicator’s fault to some degree. On the other hand, the reporting seems accurate enough that the misreading seems willful, and no reporter should be held accountable for willful misreading.  And in this case, even the press release was not explicitly overblown. The bolded sentence above, the cautionary corrective to the italicized sentence above that, was drawn directly from the press release.

In this case, there was potentially an effort on the part of the press release writer to deliberately persuade reporters to lead with the “fat burning” bit–and to use that in the headlines as well. And this is what seems to have occurred, deliberate or not. (It was deliberate.) In this case then, maybe there’s some room for criticizing the reporters for falling prey to their incentive to make a splash with the headline–an incentive played to by the press release author.

To say “we need better science journalists” in an instance like this, is to say, “we need people who work for newspapers to not care about the incentives of the newspaper business.” It’s true, but it’s also extremely infantile a wish. Most of science isn’t truly headline worthy, in the sense that newspapers look for headlines. To cover science at all we must expect errors like this. It’s up to non-reporters to carry the weight of explaining what is going on and spread the word. Speaking of which…

Thomas Lumley’s post on Stats Chat can help shed some light on what was actually found in this study.