Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Tea And Prostate Cancer: Keep Headlines Truthful and Stay Out of Advocacy on Points You Don't Know

This post centers around the relatively recent study published on the topic of Tea and Prostate Cancer. If you're interested, here is a link to the actual study: Tea Consumption and the Risk of Overall and Grade Specific Prostate Cancer: A Large Prospective Cohort Study of Scottish Men.

In this post, I highlight something that happens on a nearly daily basis, which oversteps an ethical boundary for me, in the area of popular science coverage by the media. I also examine the way the UK Tea Council reacted to this research, and I urge them to take a different approach, which I think would ultimately be more helpful not only for the tea industry as a whole, but for their own organization, and for the state of popular science in society at large.

Specifically, I call them to focus their efforts on the media, ensuring truthful comments, rather than making statements about scientific studies in which they had not played any direct role.

An article about tea and health, where the headline poses ethical problems for me:

An article was recently published in the Telegraph, a UK newspaper, with the headline "Men who drink 7 cups of tea are 50 per cent more likely to develop prostate cancer". I am not going to link to this article because I have ethical problems with the choice of headline, and I do not wish to endorse it. You can find it in a search engine if you want. Here is a screenshot of the article:

I see a serious ethical problem with the choice of headline: it is less than fully truthful, and, when read in isolation, could be misleading. The objective reality is that a recent study found evidence that men who drink 7 cups of tea are 50 per cent more likely to develop prostate cancer. It is not truthful to state as fact that "Men who drink 7 cups of tea are 50 per cent more likely to develop prostate cancer".

Because a far greater number of people see a headline than actually read the article, even though the sub-heading of the article, and the article's text itself, clarify the more truthful, objective reality of the matter, a large number of people are going to read only the headline, and settle on the piece of information presented as fact (which is the result of a single study, certainly not accepted as scientific fact). I think that, collectively, this sort of simplistic news coverage leads the public consciousness to oscillate between one-sided views, like "tea is healthy" or "tea is unhealthy" rather than thinking holistically, and in more balanced terms.

The fact that this practice is the norm in the mainstream media does not make it ethically okay. Personally, I find it conflicts with my beliefs, as it less than untruthful, and I think that this sort of sloppy choice of headline serves to encourage simplistic thinking and spread misinformation. I would urge all news media to put greater care into maintaining truthfulness in headlines, and I would encourage all readers of media to put pressure on the businesses that run these organizations, to have greater integrity in their choice of headlines.

The UK Tea Council's Reaction:

The Tea Advisory Panel, which is run by the UK Tea Council, issued a statement which was presented in this article, that the "research was flawed and the higher incidence of prostate cancer could be attributed to other factors, such as smoking, stress or diet."

I also have ethical problems with this advisory panel issuing a statement on this matter. Was the person who made this statement directly involved in the research? Did the council include one or more of the scientists who carried out the peer review in the journal in which the study was published? Have they conducted a thorough meta-analysis of the research to date on tea and prostate cancer? I suspect that the answer to all three of these questions is no.

From a scientific perspective, if this person is just making an assertion of fact not backed by any evidence, their statement has no validity whatsoever. I definitely think that scientific research needs to be approached with a critical mind, and I think people and groups outside the scientific establishment often offer valid and useful criticisms of science. But I also think that blind criticism coming from an industry interest group has no role in science, and no credibility in my eyes.

I would like to call anyone who is a member of the UK Tea Council, or who has any sway over them, to ask them to refrain from these sorts of statements, and instead, to focus their efforts on the media, like the Telegraph (and numerous other papers), who have chosen a less-than-truthful headline. The study was just a scientific study, and it found some strongly suggestive evidence, but it certainly did not establish anything as undisputable fact. If there are flaws with the study, it will take deeper scrutiny, considerable time, and possibly further research to uncover them. It is highly doubtful that anyone from the UK Tea Council would have had time to scrutinize this study deeply enough to uncover any serious flaws in it, in the brief time between when it was published and when the advisory panel issued their statement.

What do you think?

Do you agree with me that the original headline, as shown here, is less-than-truthful? Would you prefer media to use greater care in creating headlines that are truthful when read on their own?

How do you feel about the statement from the UK Tea Council's Tea Advisory Panel? Do you think they have also overstepped an ethical bound? Do you agree with me that it would advance the public interest more for them to focus more on the truthful presentation of the study by mainstream media, than to make statements about a study in which they had no involvement and have not taken the time to scrutinize in depth from a scientific perspective?

I think that if the UK Tea Council's Advisory Panel focused on the media in the manner described above, they would ultimately be having much more of a positive impact on the world, in terms of promoting an accurate public understanding of the facts in this case. I also think they would look a lot more credible, both to me, and to the scientific community as a whole.


  1. If the UK Tea Council had no part in the experiment, I agree that their statement is invalid. Although I feel this way, I do think that it is reasonable that they were trying to discuss the experiment's possible flaws, or as you put it, that it is not indisputable. If they were going to continue to make such statements, I would prefer them to say "we believe that this is flawed..."(similar to communications in our religious group, Why This Way). Of course, ideally I also agree that it would more productive for them to address the matter of truthfulness in the headline with The Telegraph - I would like to see news coverage somehow addressing the uncertainty of experiments in their headlines in the first place. I know I'm guilty of skimming headlines on occasion and realize that much information is lost.

    On another note, how do you feel about mainstream media not releasing scientific coverage until it is or is close to be being indisputable? I don't know if there is ever really an instance when something comes that close to being in-disputed as everything can be questioned, but it is often confusing seeing several conflicting articles circulating at once.

    1. I totally agree, that what I'd like to see in the future is that the news coverage addresses uncertainty in the headlines. To not do so, in my opinion, is sloppy journalism. Perhaps we can discuss guidelines for journalism and publishing and media in Why This Way.

      I think the problem is that the way most mainstream media works is that it's hasty, and haste is often mutually exclusive with truth. Science is a bit weighty, as in, it carries weight for convincing people, so when media covers science and medical topics, I think it tends to influence the public perception a lot.

      I think one of the reason the public is so misinformed about science though is that they get most of their ideas about what "scientific truth" is from the media, which is often acting in these sensationalistic ways. I really think the only solution to this is media reform, which we can encourage through multiple angles, such as being selective about which media we read and share, and also from pressure from industry groups like the UK Tea Council, which has resources that it could re-direct from trying to attack the science, to instead trying to come down on media's untruthful headlines. People can also engage by calling media outlets and writing letters to the editor. These outfits are getting away with sloppy work because people are tolerating it and people are still subscribing to them and reading their stories...if they started losing money when they were sloppy like this, they would quickly change their ways.

      About your last question, I don't have a problem with mainstream media releasing science when the science is uncertain. I just have a problem with them presenting things as simple fact when there's just weakly suggestive evidence, like from one single study.

    2. I completely agree with you that all media influences public perception, which is why it's doubly important to present it clearly and truthfully. I really like all of your ideas about media reform. In response to one of them, I've recently written to an outlet about their "sloppy work" and agree that others speaking up and/or not subscribing is one of the many ways that we can change media coverage. I would definitely be up for discussing journalism and media in Why This Way, I feel like it's an important subject. We've also brought up the content of newspapers and channels before - I hope that we can talk about that more as well.

  2. To further muddy the waters keep in mind that there are also recent reports that suggest that green tea might help protect against prostate cancer.

    1. Yes! It's so tricky, there are so many different results out there, and often, one isolated study, even if it has very strong results, does not paint the whole picture.

      Usually, studies are carried out in one particular country, where one type of tea is widely consumed, such as black tea in the UK or India, or green tea in Japan. So, if a headline just says "tea", that might be misinterpreted. I think this is true even in this global day and age...this was a UK study, with a UK-based population, and tended to be covered more in the UK media, but it was still all over headline in the US as well, and many of the UK-based media sites are read globally as well. So even if just saying "tea" is understood as black tea, I still think it can be misleading to make this sort of statement on the internet in the form "tea".

      And when studying something like prostate cancer, certain countries might have more risks than others. Prostate cancer risks vary across different countries, so a study of the same effect in the UK may produce different results from a study. For example, diet and sexual activity are thought to effect prostate cancer risk, and these vary in different countries. Here's a map showing different prostate cancer rates in 2004, showing how hugely variable they are.

  3. The problem is that most people are easily manipulated by emotional rhetoric, and the modern information landscape thrives on releasing such rhetoric at a high and incessant rate, more for the purposes of selling papers (or ads, whatever), than a deep and objective look at "truth." It's not too surprising; I'd say it's the rare person that is more interested in the truth than what a group tells them (in a watered down/filtered message). I'd also argue, I don't think we are evolutionary built to find the objective truth. There's a much bigger evolutionary advantage to simply going with the group/clan and singling out/killing/banishing those who don't fit the picture, than weighing all the information carefully. We are more built for emotional reflexes connected with immediate survival than we are cogitation and objectivity, and being forced to consider multiple viewpoints. Yes, we are much better at these skills than any other organism, and they are much of what differentiates us..but I would say, for most people, it is still the weaker component for survival in their dna.

    1. I think it's not so much a question of some people being easily manipulated by rhetoric, and other people not, as it is a question of all people being able to be both in a state where they are easily manipulated by rhetoric, or in a state where they are not.

      I think part of the problem is a simple "all-or-none" way of thinking about things. We may think that we're above this way of thinking, but if we start doing it ourselves in breaking people into a category of people who think deeply vs. people who judge based on first impressions, then we have ourselves fallen into that same way of thinking. What I think is a more accurate analysis is to say that there are factors or circumstances that can push any person to be more or less easily manipulated.

      I also think that the evolutionary picture you present is oversimplified. We have developed the capacity for both quick thinking / snap judgments, and careful deliberation. I think the problem arises when we're making snap judgments in a circumstance (like reading news articles) when we don't have any reason to.

      I think that in a more natural state, humans would act in a much more rational and constructive way than we do in our current modern society. This is because I think our society has created an artificially fast-paced structure, mainly arising from economic incentives and the restructuring of our society based on the economic system.

    2. Of course, there are many factors both external and internal that affect one's judgement, and it is hard to isolate which is which, I agree with you, something I spend a lot of time thinking about, especially as regards to free will vs "fate," or probability vs determinism!

      Yes, it is a simplification..but I'm writing comments on a blog, not a discourse on Stephen Jay Gould's work. We have both capacities, for sure..but I have observed that most people are slaves to their environment and fairly easily manipulated by cultural messages/patterns on the average; it's the rare individual that is truly able to resist this tide and carve his or her own way without falling much prey to the implicit and explicit work of advertising, media, etc. that is broadcasting, "buy this, think this! etc.."
      This is a complex matter, but it causes me to think quite a bit about epigenetics these days and how the environment affects one. Speaking of which, check out this great interview I read yesterday, it's right up your alley!

      Strong agreement with your sentiments about modern society. Even though I don't really know you, I respect the ways and values you seem to project for yourself and others trying to show a different way to live, and think they are similar to my own in a lot of ways.

      An old, wise zen teacher I used to know were discussing these types of things once over breakfast, and he said to me, "I try to balance my compassion with my misanthropy."
      Sums up my thoughts exactly.