Scientific Language in the Media

Another thing (previous post) that bugs me is when so-called scientists fail to use error-bar language when they talk to the media.  They speak with such certainty that the public automatically accepts their conclusions without considering the limits of the research.

Over-certainty may lead the public to believe that the science is settled, that the scientific community is in agreement (consensus) on the topic.  Often this is NOT the situation.

EXAMPLE:  One research study says drinking a glass red wine every day may decrease your risk of ….  The next week a different research study says that drinking a glass of red wine every day may increase your risk of ….

What the public may take away from these conflicting messages is that science is illogical / not dependable / hokum.  They may tune out and ignore all recommendations.

When you read an article on research,
look for uncertainty cues and
be skeptical about articles lacking them.

I recently read an article that clearly displays how these ‘error bars’ SHOULD be incorporated in scientific language, especially when addressing the public.

The Ultimate Alzheimer’s Fighting Diet

Eating the right foods may cut your dementia risk by 40%

Marwan Sabbagh, MD
Banner Sun Health Research Institute

Can you really prevent Alzheimer’s disease by eating certain foods?  Research is not yet definitive, but there is mounting evidence that certain foods can indeed reduce dementia risk or delay the onset of symptoms.

[NOTES: Conveys uncertainty (‘may,’ ‘can,’ ‘not yet definitive’).
Explains type of effect (‘reduce risk’ or ‘delay onset’ — ‘prevent’).
States amount of effect.]

NEW FINDING:  In a recent analysis published in Annals of Neurology, researchers who reviewed the diets of more than 2,000 older adults discovered that those who ate ample amounts of fatty fish and certain vegetables, such as leafy greens, were about 40% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s or some other type of dementia than those who ate less of those brain-healthy foods.

[NOTES:  Cites source so interested readers can find more info and to add credence.
States sample size and amount of effect.
Indicates there may be other methods to investigate.
States control group conditions (‘those who ate less,’ not ‘average’).]

The sooner you start eating a brain-healthy diet, the better — Alzheimer’s is believed to develop over decades.  But even if you’re an older adult, I firmly believe that eating the foods described in this article is one of the best ways to improve your odds of staying mentally sharp.

[NOTES:  More uncertainty, another nod to other methods, and the type of effect.]


Alzheimer’s disease seems to be caused, in part, by oxidative stress — the disease-causing cellular process triggered by unstable molecules known as free radicalsOne way to decrease oxidative stress is to eat antioxidant-rich foods.

[NOTES:  More uncertainty, another nod to other methods, and the type of effect.
Defining terms and brief overview of method of causation.]

In laboratory studies, animals that have been genetically engineered to develop Alzheimer’s disease show lower rates of cognitive decline when they consume more antioxidants.  It is likely that humans get the same benefits.

[NOTES:  More uncertainty and the type of effect.
Explains research methodology (in animals or people? in the lab or real life?).]

For overall health, researchers recommend a daily diet that includes 3,000 to 5,000 oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) units (a measure of antioxidant activity).  Where to start….


[NOTE:  Clear recommendation, further explained in the rest of the article.]

Bottom Line/Health, February 2013, Vol. 27, No. 2, Pg. 1


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