Here are five disturbing medical reports that got a lot of attention but probably shouldn’t have. One of them came out this week, and that prompted me to look through the Tracker’s archives to find others.
Here are the studies, and the reasons you should be suspicious:
1. “Nickel in early iPad likely triggered allergy in boy: study,” Reuters reported on Monday.
Two dermatologists “studied severe skin rashes afflicting the unidentified 11-year-old boy for more than six months, before discovering that his daily use of an Apple Inc iPad may have brought on the condition,” Reuters reported in an unbylined story.
Here’s the problem: It wasn’t a study. It was a report of a single case. The authors of the report in the journal Pediatrics didn’t look at any other individuals with allergies, nor did they test iPads. “It’s unclear if all iPads contain nickel, or just the first generation,” Reuters reported.
The report’s abstract–in most studies, a fat paragraph that includes a description of the work, the principal findings, and some of the numbers–said only this: “We discuss allergic contact dermatitis to the iPad to highlight a potential source of nickel exposure in children.”
It’s not a study and not even much of a discussion. I don’t understand how anyone could conclude anything from this, yet it made a lot of news.
2. “Teaching parents to switch channels from violent shows to educational TV can improve preschoolers’ behavior, even without getting them to watch less, a study found,” was the lede on a story in 2013 by Donna Gordon Blankinship of the AP. As I wrote on the Tracker at the time, “she did a wonderful job of explaining why she should not have written the story.”
She went on to write that “the results were modest and faded over time, but may hold promise for finding ways to help young children avoid aggressive, violent behavior, the study authors and other doctors said.” Not likely–a study with modest results that quickly faded probably doesn’t offer the promise of anything.
3. When a researcher in New Zealand decided to look at changes in the faces of LEGO minifigures over the past 35 years, he inadvertently made a stunning and unexpected finding: Angry-faced LEGO minifigures can prompt a lot of bad journalism.
Arielle Duhaime-Ross at Scientific American collected some examples of bad journalism spawned by the study. “Are Angry LEGOs Harming Our Children?” asked Popular Science. Medical Daily was more declarative: “Legos Study Reveals Angry Faces On Toys Could Influence Your Child’s Negative Behavior,” it wrote.
As I wrote on the Tracker, the stories “missed only one small detail: The study in question had nothing to do with children. There were no children in it. No children were asked about it. It was not done by children. I’m guessing that not many children read it. No children were harmed during production.”
The researchers who did the study were interested in changes in LEGO minifigures, not in children. Any effect of the LEGO minifigures on children was a question neither asked nor answered by this study.
4. Here were some of the headlines on a breastfeeding story in 2011:
BBC News: Weaning before six months ‘may help breastfed babies.’ The Los Angeles Times Booster Shots blog: Breast may not be best for the first six months of life, some experts say. msnbc.com: Study: Babies may need more than breast milk. AOLNews: Breast-Feeding Exclusively Not the Best for Babies After All? CBS News Healthwatch: Breast-Feeding Advice Wrong? What Should Moms Do? Nature news: Is breast not best for babies?
Disturbing stuff, especially if you’re pregnant or nursing during the first six months.
The study itself was far less disturbing. It raised questions about a World Health Organization recommendation that infants be exclusively breastfed for six months. The title of the study was, “Six months of exclusive breast feeding: how good is the evidence?”
“That’s reasonably neutral,” I wrote on the Tracker. “And the study’s conclusion is also tempered. Rather than concluding that breastfeeding is good or bad, it says, simply, that ‘complementary foods may be introduced safely between four and six months.'”
Ignore those headlines, and, unless you’re with the World Health Organization, ignore the study.
5. In 2010, the journal Science published a study that claimed to find genes whose frequency appeared sharply different in people who were beyond age 100, compared to those who weren’t. As Charlie Petit pointed out on the Tracker, the study had a potentially fatal flaw. Citing an article by Mary Carmichael at Newsweek, he wrote that “some geneticists found the results almost too good to be true.” The results could be due, in part, “to use of two different chips and not in equal proportion among centenarians and controls, and that one of the chips is know to be prone to systematic errors in handling some of the genes reported.”
Maybe the genes have something to do with aging; maybe they don’t, Carmichael wrote. But from this study, we can’t tell.