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.