Brigham and Women’s Hospital recently retracted a press release regarding a new study on the link between drinking diet soda with aspartame and blood cancer. This is a great illustration of the crazy state of health-related journalism, science publications, and manipulation.
What should BWH have expected when a press release stating this link was released? A couple of things are obvious:
- Any media coverage would be overly simplistic. It would omit important details that don’t fit into a short headline. It would omit important details that aren’t as good at increasing media ratings. It would omit important details that might be over the heads of the readership, even if they are important to the applicability of the study.
- Once the mainstream media gets it, it moves to the media’s social channels. Even reputable and well-meaning journalists are limited to 140 characters in their tweeted headlines. Many of them use a blog strategy that uses a short format so they can get out several per day and serve their readers with broad news coverage.
- Then the general public gets their hands on it and reblogs, retweets, and otherwise circulates it. Their headlines are shorter, omitting more details, unrepentantly inciteful rather than insightful.
- Soon the meme is viral and the intentional manipulation comes in. How hard is it to take a scary medical finding or a promising health link and create the “New Alaska Diet” plan, blog, eBook, and then bestseller? Or the snake oil to ward off blah blah mutations for only five easy payments of $29.99?
What was really the finding?
- The finding was only found for men. The researchers don’t know how aspartame can affect one gender over another. Without a scientific explanation, the statistical association is questionable.
- There are lots of ingredients in diet sodas. Any other one of them could also be the cause. Or it could be a combination of several ingredients that are all required to elicit the effect. There is no way to know. Each one has different implications for what should be done about it. Aspartame might be fine as a sweetener if you take out some other chemical that is not necessary.
- The size of the increase was lost in communication. What if your risk of blood cancer (non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma to be exact) goes from 1 in a million to 2 in a million? Would you care?
- There are other possible effects of switching sodas. What if you switch to regular soda as a result and your risk of Type II Diabetes goes up to 10 in a million and complications of Diabetes to 3 in a million? On net, you made yourself worse.