Daryl Ilbury

Posts Tagged ‘causation’

Everything gives you cancer, and cures it.

In Eish!, Science on May 21, 2012 at 9:05 am

…er, no, it doesn’t make you live longer

As a science journalist with a social science background I hold a sliver on envy for those colleagues who have degrees in pure science and who write pieces for other scientists to enjoy. It’s like walking into a party, pointing to a budgie in cage, saying loudly “this is an ex-parrot”, hooking up with all the people who laugh, and then spend all evening exchanging Monty Python anecdotes.

One of the biggest challenges for science journalists such as myself – ¬†those who dabble at the interface of science and society – is that every time we write something, we have to win over an audience who may not necessarily be interested in science. We have to do so by writing wonderfully engaging copy and surreptitiously slipping in a little science. It’s like wrapping a pill in bacon so that the dog will eat it.

I have been writing science stories in my columns for the last couple of years in a way that the readers – and my editors – wouldn’t really notice. I feel both excited and dirty with my subterfuge. But every now and then I read something that threatens to blow my cover. And so it was with this past week when the media ran with various aberrations of a study finding that people who regularly drank coffee seemed to have a lower risk of death. “Coffee makes you live longer!” screamed the headlines.

The reality of course is that coffee doesn’t make you live longer. Nothing in the world makes you live longer. A healthy lifestyle will increase the possibility of you not suffering the ill-effects of living an unhealthy lifestyle; but that doesn’t mean that if you eat fresh fruit and vegetables and exercise daily you won’t have a heart attack or stroke.

Stories such as these spin serious scientific research out of control, frustrate scientists, and fuel the belief created in Daily Mail readers that everything gives you cancer, while it’s also a cure for cancer

It also makes make my job to enthuse and educate non-scientists that much more difficult.

If you want a relatively straight-forward explanation of the story in question, click here, but bear in mind that the study shows a measure of correlation, not causality. BIG difference.