Rayburn, Barkley, and Reporters

Unhealthy Diet of Obesity News

John Ziman, a philosopher of science, once suggested that 90% of what we read in scientific journals is incorrect. This harsh assessment is worth bearing in mind when the subject is obesity. Obesity news presents an unhealthy diet of conflicting information analyzed in two recent publications in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Dave Freedman reflected on the media’s attraction to health news stories that contradict current thinking, noting the studies that spark them often turn out to be controversial. Freedman’s observations bring to mind the media blitz when David Allison and colleagues published “Myths, Presumptions, and Facts About Obesity” in the New England Journal of Medicine. It was like candy for the health news media, but obesity researchers had a more mixed reaction. Some cheered the careful analysis of facts and myths. Others wondered why “NEJM plucked it out of the pile” for publication.

As a follow-up to Freedman, Gary Taubes zeroed in on obesity news, wondering how to make sense of thoughtful journalism that contradicts itself, as well as the conventional scientific wisdom. He concludes that journalists must recognize “we’re all biased, just as scientists are, by our perspectives, our experiences and our preconceptions.” The standard that should apply to good health reporting should follow two principles articulated by physicist Richard Feynman for good science:

  1. Honesty in reporting results. The results must be reported without somebody saying what they would like the results to have been.
  2. You must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.

Click here to read more from Taubes in the Columbia Journalism Review, and here to more from Freedman, also in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Rayburn, Barrkley and Reporters, image from the Harris and Ewing Collection / Library of Congress

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