Health Headlines May Distort the Truth

by updated 2011/01/12


Seemingly every week I see headlines about some health issue in Google Reader that read like the following: “Asthma rate in US Up to 8.2%”. These articles always have an attention grabbing headline, that seems to indicate doom and gloom, but then contain the truth buried deep within the story. For example, below this week’s asthma headlines, you can find the following details. The rate for the past 4 years has been steady at 8%. The “increase” to 8.2 % may be statistically insignificant. And, even if the rate is not statistically insignificant, the increase may be due to better diagnosis and reporting.  Also treatment has been improving and there has been a corresponding 13% drop in the number of people reporting having an asthma attack in the past year.  Specifically, 52 of 100 asthma patients report having an attack, down from 60 out of 100.  So overall the news about asthma is pretty good, not what the headlines are saying.

How many times have you seen a health news story with an attention grabbing headline and so many qualifiers in the story that you are left wondering if there was really any story to begin with?  Now of course Asthma is a serious health issue in the US and the rest of the world, but is it really increasing?  As just one example, my 85 year old mother has been diagnosed with asthma.  If she had developed this problem 20 years ago, would she have received the same diagnosis?  Probably not.  At that time the doctor may have just indicated respiratory health issues due to age.

I don’t know if there is really anything to be concerned about in these stories.  Maybe anything that draws attention to our health increases awareness and understanding.  But maybe the increase is not only in awareness and understanding, but also in worry and paranoia?  Or maybe it does not matter at all.  Maybe these stories are just fillers meant to sell newspapers and get people to watch the evening news.

Will Sig
1 JD Thomas

The effectiveness of this type of reporting is an excellent indicator of how far the US news consumer has fallen in terms of either mathematical literacy or in a willingness to hold the press accountable for the presentation of scientific information. I suspect the former.
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2 Steve

Will,
I gave up trusting news headlines a long time ago. :)
At least this isn’t as bad as a few years ago when the AP reported a woman had swum across the atlantic in record time, and then later retracted the story when they did the math and calculated to go that distance in the number of days she claimed, she would have had to swim something like 35 miles a day, everyday. Turns out she didn’t (I think she only swum something like the first fifty miles and then took a boat the rest of the way), and apparently the reporter didn’t do the basic math to check the initial story (now wipe egg off face :) ).
Steve
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3 Will

I vaguely remember that story, I think? You would expect someone trying a hoax like that to do the calculations better. The headline thing is even more “sinister” because it is deliberate to draw attention to the story which does not support the headline.

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4 Binky

I often find it difficult to determine the truth from such stories. Is the incidence increasing, is it better diagnosis or reporting, is it a statistical fluke, or is it paranoia? And if you ask five experts, you’ll probably get five different answers. The truth is out there, somewhere. I think . . .
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5 Gail Gardner

Hi Will,

In order to get people to read all authors use the most compelling title they can come up – and YES, the titles are often very misleading. It is up to each person to read the details and put the information in the proper context. That said, I hope everyone remembers that we should NOT believe everything we read.

I just dropped by to test the GrowMap anti-spambot plugin in your blog. No matter how many times I don’t check the box I just get the usual message here and elsewhere.

I have had javascript problems on a specific PC or browser so it might be only one browser or one PC. Do you still see the problem? Do you have other PCs you could test with?
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6 Will

Hi Gail – I will email this also in case you are not subscribed. I have turned the plugin back on for now but….

I have now heard from other bloggers having similar or the same issue with the plugin. One thing that has happened is that when a person is leaving a comment, the box is displayed, they check it and then they get the Java error message. If I understand correctly this makes no sense based on how the plugin is supposed to work. I thought the box was not displayed if Java was off? If the box is there to check, why would the Java message sometimes come up after checking the box and submitting the comment?

I logged out of this site and was able to duplicate that issue. The first few times I commented it worked, then it started failing as described above. There were also times when the box was not displayed and when I clicked submit I got the Java message. Then I would immediately try again and sometimes get the box and the comment would go through. So it is erratic for some reason.

I have had a few regular commentators contact me to complain about not being able to leave a comment with the plugin activated. Unfortunately I have also had issues with the great “Cookies For Comments” plugin. Recently some people who do have cookies enabled have been blocked by the plugin anyway. This spam thing is a horror. We need to be able to depend on something to reduce spam count, but can’t be having legitimate people being blocked. With all of Akismet’s problems, at least it provides a bin where incorrectly blocked comments can be retrieved.

Another concern I have is that when people get the Java error message, most of them have not idea what is going on, what Java is, or even how to enable or disable it.

This is all relayed with a constructive intent. I remember emailing back and forth with Andy way back in the early days of being online and really like his approach and manner of dealing with things. I would love to be able to use another one of his plugins with confidence.

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7 Keith

Will,
You won’t find the truth in most newspapers and magazines and certainly not on the evening news. They usually just publish pablum for undeveloped minds. Their job is to sell the publication and the viewpoints of their handlers. The truth is usually incapable of both, especially at the same time.

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8 Mark

I have come to really distrust main stream media/news in recent years. It all seems to be about sensationalism and fluff while real news that we could use gets buried. Real news has been dead ever since the 1970’s when the media started to realize that news was a big money maker.
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9 Chung

Sometimes headlines make things far more worse then they really are. I know
asthma isn’t a good thing, but headlines sometimes thicken things that aren’t there.
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