public health

Journalists Don’t Know What ‘Studies’ Are

Photo: Ragnar Schmuck/Getty Images

There appears to be a pretty tight link between consuming alcohol and developing certain kinds of cancers. By now, a bunch of research has found this. But this fact hasn’t sunk in — health-communication researchers have found that most consumers don’t understand the link between drinking and getting cancer.

As Ars Technica reported over the weekend, Jennie Connor, “a preventative and social-medicine expert at Otago University in New England,” got frustrated by what she saw as “confusion, ignorance, and skepticism” on this subject, so she wrote an opinion piece for the journal Addiction in which, citing a bunch of past research, she laid out what she argued was a very strong case for believing there’s a sturdy link between consuming alcohol and developing a variety of different cancers.

As if to prove Connor right that the state of scientific communication is a bit of a mess right now, a bunch of outlets proceeded to totally misinterpret her article. “Dozens of news headlines and reports blared that her new ‘study’ found that alcohol causes cancer, suggesting not only that her conclusion was new, but that Connor herself had reported fresh, objective data and/or analysis supporting the finding — neither of which is true,” reported Ars Technica. “One report even called her opinion piece a meta-analysis, others suggested that Connor had multiplied, referring to her as ‘researchers.’”

This is unfortunate, but it isn’t surprising. A lot of health and science writers have the tendency to mix up different sorts of materials: commentaries (opinion articles, basically) and peer-reviewed studies and non-peer-reviewed studies and white papers and “surveys” conducted by marketing companies or startups. Each of these categories means a different thing; a meta-analysis means more than a single new study, which mean (a lot) more than some “survey” presented without any methodological information by a startup selling an “all-natural” sleep aid.

Connor’s article was just her opinion, supported by past research. It didn’t represent anything new. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t important, or that people shouldn’t know about it — it just means that a bunch of people who get paid to write about science aren’t yet familiar enough with some really important categories.

Journalists Don’t Know What ‘Studies’ Are