How are we supposed to know what to make of news about the science of wine and health, with seemingly contradictory reports becoming the norm? Is the French Paradox still a thing or is all alcohol bad? Does wine have the same benefits as exercising? In my upcoming book Wine & Health: Making Sense of the New Science and What it Means for Wine Lovers, I take a skeptical approach, looking for the truth behind the clickbait and the hyperbole. The way that studies on health are published, promoted, and perceived has changed dramatically in recent years, and the savvy news consumer needs to be wary.
The first thing to know is that most research of this type is conducted in academic institutions, funded by grants, and so the grant recipients are expected to produce publishable findings. The mantra “publish or perish” has long been true in academia, but competition for grants has increased. There is little incentive to do studies that confirm other work, as the scientific method requires; you’ve got to come up with something original, like this recent zinger: “An antioxidant in red wine might power astronauts on Mars” even if it was a preliminary study in earthbound mice.
Where science reporting goes wrong
But don’t blame the researchers; often now the problem is the University’s PR department, eager to show the world (and grant underwriters) the cool stuff they are doing. As one editorial dryly put it, “The art of amusing the public while conducting research may be fruitful.” The problem could equally well come from the scientific journal itself; these publications are lucrative for-profit enterprises and always looking for ways to expand their readership.
A glaring example comes from the vaunted medical journal The Lancet, which touted the results of a global study on alcohol consumption with a proclamation that “no amount of alcohol is safe.” We soon began to see headlines such as “a drink a day is as bad as smoking for your health.” The problem is that the study did not actually show that; depending on the condition being tallied, small regular drinking either had minimal or no effect, and for some conditions a net positive effect. Further, there was no accounting for drink preference, pattern of drinking, and many other confounding factors. Studies on the influence of wine on health are especially plagued by these types of biases and inconsistencies.
This phenomenon of misreporting science has itself been studied and reported. An analysis published in the British Medical Journal called “The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases” looked at hundreds of press releases on biomedical and health related science studies and compared them to the source articles, concluding that more than a third of them contained exaggerated advice, causal claims, and/or exaggerated inference to humans from animal research. This translated into inaccurate and misleading media reporting.
That said, we shouldn’t be too surprised. A piece in Vice tantalizingly titled Hyper-Intelligent Space Dinosaurs Drink Red Wine for Health: Science Reporting Is Broken described the challenging task of University PR staff as having “the unenviable position of getting the wild, esoteric ramblings of the nerds out into the non-academic world.”
Volunteer readers of my posts sometimes gently point out that they can be a bit, um, technical for the average reader (not you of course). I too am in the position of sluicing out the useful nuggets from sometimes abstruse topics, and I believe it is important to not compromise. If that makes me another rambling nerd, I can live with that.
- Asbjorn J. The art of amusing the public while conducting research may be fruitful. Clin Exp Dent Res. 2018 Apr; 4(2): 37–39.
- GBD 2016 Alcohol Collaborators. Alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories,1990–2016: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016. Lancet. 2018 Sep 22;392(10152):1015-1035.
- Sumner P, Vivian-Griffiths S, Boivin J, Williams A, Venetis CA, Davies A, Ogden J, Whelan L, Hughes B, Dalton B, Boy F, Chambers CD. The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study. BMJ. 2014 Dec 9;349:g7015.