The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Archive for March 4th, 2009

More Media Fail: TV Causes Asthma!

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 4, 2009

Every day, when I get a break from teaching, I like to sit down at the computer in my room and read through some news. Today, I saw a headline that made me roll my eyes: “Too much TV linked to higher asthma risk”

The problem that I have with this article is mostly with the title, because due to the way in which it is set up, it gives the impression to the uninformed reader that TV causes asthma or if you allow your kid to watch TV they could develop asthma. In fact, the article states in its opening paragraph…

Children who watch television for more than two hours a day have twice the risk of developing asthma, British researchers reported Tuesday.

Now, to be fair, later in the article – right at the end – was further clarification on the research…

“The findings add to a wealth of evidence linking a lack of exercise and being overweight with an increased risk of asthma,” Elaine Vickers of Asthma UK, who was not involved in the study, said in a statement.

“But this study is the first to directly link sedentary behavior at a very young age to a higher risk of asthma later in childhood.”

Aha! So it isn’t watching television that actually causes kids to get asthma, but it is a sedentary lifestyle (due in part to a lack of exercise & being overweight) that leads to an increased risk of kids developing asthma. But the trouble is that you have to dig all the way to the bottom of the article in order to get that information, and in the meantime many people will come away from this report with the misconception that TV causes asthma in children.

This is a classic example of the media getting hold of a medical or health related story and doing a sloppy job of reporting it. In reality, what the research found is a correlation between the amount of TV watched by kids and them developing asthma. But, as skeptics are often heard to say: correlation does not necessarily imply causation!

Just because there seems to be a relationship between two variables – in this case the amount of TV watched versus the likelihood of a child developing asthma – doesn’t mean that one causes the other! There could be other relevant variables, and often there are other variables, that flesh out the picture in more detail. In the specific case here, that is the connection of a sedentary lifestyle. But does this mean that if you have a kid who both leads an active lifestyle (lots of exercise) and watches a lot of TV that they’ll still get asthma, just by watching the TV? I think you see my point.

I’m making such a big stink about this particular point because this is something the media screws up all the time. They take a bit of news about some health-related research and present it completely out of context with some headline that gives an incorrect view of the science involved. And since most people don’t go around reading medical journals for their health news, they have to rely on the media to get the story right. But if the media doesn’t get the story right, as is too often the case, then people start to make poor decisions regarding their health.

Now, if you don’t think this is a serious issue, consider how sloppy reporting has affected health issues in the past – a perfect example is the piss-poor job the media did reporting the results of Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s bogus research supposedly linking childhood vaccines with the incidence of autism. At best, Wakefield discovered a correlation between the two (actually he didn’t even discover that because it’s been revealed he faked the research), but due to the rotten job done by most media outlets in getting the story out many people were left with the false impression that vaccines for kids cause childhood autism! And now, we are having to deal with all manner of problems due to the subsequent anti-vaccination movement that has popped up, which is convincing scared parents not to vaccinate their kids. Some of the results of this combination of an irresponsible media and opportunistic pseudoscientists & conspiracy theorists are not pretty.

So there are real-world, tangible consequences for the media not doing a proper job of reporting science & medical information. Not that I’m worried that there is going to be an “anti-TV-death-ray” movement popping up anytime soon due to the crummy job of reporting this story or anything stupid like that…

… but then, again due in part to improper reporting by the media, there is a movement in the United States of people who refuse to allow construction of vital infrastructure projects like power lines because they think electromagnetic emissions from power lines cause cancer! This, of course, is dead wrong – that whole “correlation is not causation” thing again – but the media messed it up way back when, and now we’re stuck dealing with the situation.

It would be nice if the media could do a better job of reporting on such topics in the beginning, so that pseudoscientists and fear-mongers wouldn’t be able to so easily manipulate & distort science to suit their own agendas.

But these days, when many in the media seem to be more interested in sensationalism as opposed to factual & accurate journalism, I think it will be left up to skeptics to set the record straight. If we don’t, who will?

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