The science of health is so, so confusing, I almost wonder if it wouldn’t be better for journalists to stop writing about health altogether. Or at least to dramatically change the way we do it.
Take one of the biggest health stories of the last decade: resveratrol, a compound found in certain red wines that has been shown to extend lifespan and/or curb disease in yeast, fruit flies, fish, worms, and mice.
Searching the New York Times archives for “resveratrol” gets you 156 items. Here’s a sampling of the headlines:
November 2006: Yes, Red Wine Holds Answer. Check Dosage.
January 2011: Doubt on Anti-Aging Molecule as Drug Trial Stops
November 2012: Resveratrol Ineffective in Normal-Weight Women
March 2013: New Optimism on Resveratrol
Is your head spinning yet?
From what I can tell, there’s nothing overtly wrong with the journalism in any of these stories. Most are based on a new study (or studies), and include varied perspectives of scientists who had nothing to do with the research. The reason the stories contradict each other is because the studies contradict each other.
This happens in science all the time; it’s even supposed to happen. Think of all those models of the atom you learned in chemistry class: from Thomson’s plum pudding to Rutherford’s nucleus to Bohr’s energy orbits to Pauli’s electron spin. Two steps forward, one step back, science moves along.
But when it comes to writing health stories, it’s hard — really, really hard — to include that slow scientific progression in a way that a reader will absorb. And I think that’s because readers don’t seek out health stories to satisfy abstract intellectual curiosities. They want to glean some kind of practical knowledge. How can I avoid sickness / lose weight / feel better / live longer?
For some messy health issues — such as whether it’s dangerous to drink while pregnant, say, or whether to get screened for cancer — the stakes are high. Resveratrol is not as serious. For most people, drinking a glass of wine or taking a daily resveratrol supplement is not going to do any biological harm. But there are other kinds of harm. Searching amazon.com for “resveratrol” gets you 2,186 health and personal care items, including supplements costing dozens or even hundreds of dollars.
I got thinking about this because of a study on resveratrol that came out today in a solid medical journal, JAMA Internal Medicine. Fifteen years ago, researchers collected urine samples from 783 older people who live in the Chianti region of Italy, where drinking red wine is common. It turns out that the level of resveratrol in the participants’ urine could not predict anything about their health outcomes. Those with the highest levels were just as likely to have inflammatory markers in their blood, and just as likely to get heart disease, cancer, and to die.
So I read that study and thought, this is important: My readers who buy or are thinking of buying resveratrol might appreciate knowing that its benefits haven’t panned out in people, at least not yet. Sure, a future study in people might report some benefit of resveratrol, but for now all I can do is offer the current state of knowledge. And that’s better than nothing, right?
But then…maybe it’s not. Take a look at those headlines again. I suspect a general reader is not coming away from those saying, “Gee whiz, look at the long and bumpy road to scientific progress!” They’re more likely to be saying, “When will those scientists get their act together?” Or worse, “Why do we keep dumping money into this capricious discipline?”
I don’t have any grand solution to this. I’ll undoubtedly keep covering health stories, because I believe in the public’s right to accurate information. And I believe in the process of science, however slow, to ultimately figure things out.
Still, is there a way that journalists could do this better? How should I have covered the latest resveratrol study? Should we switch to a more explanatory, wiki-like model, so that a single study’s results are more fully contextualized? Should we be writing stories about batches of studies — maybe the last 10 studies of resveratrol, as opposed to the single newest one? Are headlines the real problem?
If you have any preferences or suggestions I’d love to hear them. I’m not likely to change the Health Journalism machine, but I’m more than happy to experiment on this blog.