One of the reviewers of my proposed book (heavy emphasis on the proposed) asked me, “Why should readers care about science communication?” I take it for granted, I guess, that knowing how we think about risks to ourselves and others, how we negotiate our environment, whether we trust what scientists tell us, and how we interpret information that links to our health—all these issues are important to how we cope day by day.
My assumption is there’s a link between what we hear and read in media (and from other folks) that frame our understanding and even our actions about risk, the environment, health and science. For example, a story this week emerged that drinking lots and lots of coffee—more than 5 cups a day—is associated with lower prostate cancer.
One of the hundreds of news stories—this one from NBC—ended with this observation: “men can go ahead and enjoy a daily cup of coffee or two.”
Problem is that the study isn’t prescriptive: it wasn’t designed to tell us whether men should drink coffee. And more importantly, it doesn’t mean drinking lots and lots of coffee will reduce your own personal risk to cancer.
The research that gained so much currency in the news is about a long-term Harvard study of thousands of men, tracing their health over time. The researchers ask a boatload of questions and then, as the men age, examine what lifestyle and other factors are associated with wellness and illness.
When the researchers looked at prostate cancer among the men, they compared those who had no cancer and those who had cancer and saw that drinking lots of coffee was correlated with lack of cancer.
Similar studies have been published about associations (correlations) with drinking red wine (heart disease), eating nuts (breast cancer) and sipping green tea (lung cancer).
The problem is that media messages tend to take the next step—what critics call the ecological fallacy—and encourage readers to drink more coffee, tea, red wine, etc. The fallacy says that you can’t assume that the results of any study about a group of people apply directly to you. So, drinking more than 5 cups of coffee may not protect you against prostate cancer.
What interests me—and why I think studying science is important—is that as consumers we should come to understand that a news story that encourages us to adopt certain behaviors could be offering faulty advice.
It is fascinating how our own minds work: how we figure that drinking wine and eating a handful of almonds will be beneficial. But we still eat bacon packed with carcinogens, thinking, “This won’t kill me!” So, studying how we interpret science, and how others communicate about science, is a worthy endeavor.