Once again the mainstream media shocks by covering a health study with a degree of actual seriousness.
This time the object under scrutiny is coffee, a beverage that, according to conflicting research, is both a godsend and a curse. The "good" coffee, "bad" coffee dueling studies have become such a bore it is surprising that ABC News bothered to cover yet one more. Perhaps the European cachet attracted the reporter. In any case he covered the press release from the Spanish and American researchers with an acuity that does him credit. As with a similar item we posted recently, the coverage of the study is far more interesting than the conclusions of the study itself.
This study, actually an examination of 20 years worth of surveys, concludes that drinking coffee won’t kill you. Grandma knew that but she wasn’t the beneficiary of a system that nourishes itself on the manipulation of data derived from examining mundane activities that really shouldn’t concern scientists or health professionals. Grandma also wasn’t buffeted by the contradictory conclusions that seep into the public consciousness whenever a researcher utilizes a hook to replenish his bank account.
The reporter’s main thrust is how people become confused whether drinking coffee is good for them or whether it has a negative effect on their health. Both conclusions, after all, have been reported. By necessity he puts epidemiology on display, a rarity that is shameful considering all such studies are conducted under that discipline. Although he doesn’t thoroughly define or explain what epidemiology is he is to be praised for not only mentioning it but for also putting its limitations before the public. A comment from a university professor who has studied the effects of coffee on health stands out:
"Epidemiology is attractive to the general public and the media because its findings are directly relevant to free living humans. It is also true, however, that epidemiology is crude and inexact, as observations of free living humans can never take place under the controlled conditions in a laboratory."
Elsewhere other comments on the limitations of epidemiology, including one on a bias known as "reverse causation," provide a context to the blizzard of studies that permeate our health obsessed world. In short, the message from this story is one that should be adopted by all health and medical reporters. That message is don’t worry and obsess over the conclusions derived from epidemiology. Epidemiology, after all, isn’t science.