I was excited by a recent article in ScienceDaily (How Red Wine Compounds Fight Alzheimer’s Disease ). I’m quite sure it is all a matter of balance, but I really like red wine, so these research findings really work well for me. I do try to keep informed about developments in nutrition. This is not the same thing as developments in new diets and exercise approaches. These are interesting to me, too, but I am talking about the biology and chemistry of nutrition science. I wasn’t surprised to read that it is the compound called polyphenols. Polyphenols block the buildup of proteins that are the basis for the buildup of toxic plaques that scientists believe contribute to the deterioration of cognitive function. Polyphenols are also good anti-cholesterol compounds for much the same reason.
As I was doing my victory lap around the living room, it struck me that I was committing the same mistake that I was so angry about others making a week or two before. I didn’t read the actual article. I didn’t look at the sample size, the research question, the methodology, the funding of the research project, or anything else other than the Science Daily reporters take on the press release from, in this case, UCLA and Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. The actual article is in the Journal of Biological Chemistry–a fine journal but one where a subscription is required to access the article online. I can, of course, jaunt off to my not-so local university library and see if they will 1) let me in and 2) have the article. But otherwise, I am dependent on the journalist’s interpretation of the public relations officer’s interpretation of the research. Sketchy at best in spite of what are probably pretty good intentions all down the line.
Two weeks ago, I was frustrated by a couple of articles. One was an article in ScienceDaily called Teen Pregnancy Linked To Viewing Of Sexual Content On TV. The second article, well press release really, circulated in the psychology list-servs with the ominous title Rutgers Researcher’s Study Cites Media Violence as ‘Critical Risk Factor’ for Aggression. Both these articles cited research that appears in academic journals not easily available to the public. (This lack of access to the original articles drives me nuts especially when the research is funded by the Federal Government, which is to say, OUR money.)
Anyway, I digress. Neither the journalist nor the public relations person critically reviewed the methodology of the study. There are lots of issues with both of them, frankly. But a larger problem is the use of the words “link” and “critical risk factor.” It is very common to have relationships in research become causality at the hands of journalistic license, researcher enthusiasm, or public ignorance. The TV sex and pregnancy study says:
High rates of exposure corresponded to twice the rate of observed pregnancies seen with low rates of exposure…
Corresponded is not the same as causality. Isn’t it possible that high rates of exposure are due to lack of other things to do? Isn’t it possible that kids who have nothing to do watch more TV and have more sex?
The Rutger’s study is quoted as saying:
…Childhood and adolescent violent media preferences contributed significantly to the prediction of violence and general aggression…
Wait a minute. That’s not what the press release headline says. Violent media preferences are not the same thing as a risk factor. What the quoted sentence says is that people who prefer violent media content tend to be more violent. The headline says violence in the media is a “critical risk factor” in aggression. Does that mean the same thing to you?
There are a host of other issues, such as citing outcomes as “significant” statistically when they are actually not very meaningful. Statistically significant and meaningful are not the same thing, but statistically significant sure sound important! And then there’s the definition of violence. A Google search on TV and movie violence returned Disney’s Prince Caspian.
I think it is important to ask:
- Are these agenda-driven research projects?
- Have the questions and research been designed (intentionally or not) based on some inherent bias of the researcher or funding organization?
There is a lot of “sex and violence in the media” research that is done because of a societal belief that all this media must be harmful. Media is new, it wasn’t like this when the researcher, politicians, and parents grew up, and so it must be bad. Most research (and there are less exceptions than you’d hope) does not examine the experience and meaning of the media from the user perspective. They measure user behavior and then assume experience based on their own experience. Oops. Not exactly the scientific method.
Even more problematic is when these narratives hit Washington. It wouldn’t be fair to call them research at this point, as the original study is long left by the wayside. Legislators, not known for their in-depth analysis, rely on fresh-faced staffers to vet topics presented by lobbyists and identify public hot buttons. Legislators take “research results” to substantiate their how their legislation is going to protect us, children, and society.
This will date me, I know, but I grew up watching Meredith Wilson’s musical “The Music Man.” (n fact, it was so popular in my family that most of us can, sadly, recite the entire sound track.) In the Music Man, Professor Harold Hill, played by Robert Preston, warns River City parents of the dangers of a new pool hall in their community. Well, you’ve got trouble my friends! Watch it sometime and see if it doesn’t remind you of the media violence argument.
But this brings me back to the polyphenols, red wine, and Alzheimer’s. I want a positive connection between drinking red wine and good health because I want to drink red wine and not feel guilty about trashing my health. Even with the article in front of me, I would, perhaps, still be inclined to see the results in a positive light. I, however, would not feel it appropriate to mandate that everyone drink red wine. I don’t, I hope, have the hubris to think that my view is right for everyone. Others are not so generous with our rights. Research can be a very dangerous thing if lose our ability to think and ask questions critically and assume that results are “truth” to show that our point of view is “right.”