Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Science and Headlines

Given our new president's promise to make science a mainstay of his administration, I thought an article tucked away on page 3 of today's Science Times was in the right spirit, even if it did sport a misleading headline - Another Potential Benefit of Cutting Calories: Better Memory. The headline just gets away with not being an outright fib with the word 'potential.' What the article is actually about is two studies - one with adults 50-72 whose reduction in portion-size reduced calories consumed by 30%. A second group increased consumption of unsaturated fat by 20% without changing overall consumption of calories. A third eats just the way they always did. The result was an improvement in remembering lists of words for the first group. So far so good. A second study tested 20-50 year-olds who cut calories and found no change in memory, although their tests were less rigorous.

So what's to like? That is science. Do two studies, get two conflicting results. Every study done does not instantly lead to advice that makes a succinct headline or a product you can market. I really like the fact that the article reported about the process in the context of what would be big news if it turns out to be correct. However, two conflicting results means the story is that more work is necessary. In science, if you want to know about the influence of one thing on another, you have to come up with a way to isolating that factor from all the other things that could also affect the result, it's known as a control. I wish science in popular news venues would write a little more about the controls. For instance, in the first study mentioned, it would be useful to know the experimenters controlled for the effect of age and exercise, which are both known to effect memory. I like the fact that the reporter, Pam Belluck, mentioned one hypothesis held by the first lab that did not work out. Great! Searching for the answer to a mystery is a great story. If people were pitched a little more about process, they might develop greater understanding and less fear about the subject. Flashes of great insight is not the whole story. Maybe editors can take a cue from our new president and report a little more on the science. How about: Two Studies Create a Debate About The Effect of Diet on Memory. I know. It's not sexy. It won't sell papers.

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