A whiff of bad journalism

We can all agree that one of the best parts about cooking is smelling the meal you are about to partake in. I mean, who doesn’t love the smell of thick bacon strips sizzling on the griddle, freshly cut potatoes cooking in a pleasurable bath of oil, or the fumes exuded from a backyard charcoal grill?

The question is though, can you smell them all in your head without even cooking?

According to Newsweek.com, scientists discovered that being able to vividly imagine how food smells is associated with being obese. However, I’m here to tell you that this is not actually true. In fact, the scientific paper that this Newsweek article refers to never actually states that obesity and imagining smells are related. Rather, the only claim they make is that people with a higher body mass index (BMI) tend to have a greater ability to vividly imagine smells. Thus, what we have here is a classic example of bad science journalism.

The writer’s mistake (intentional or not) was to automatically assume that a high BMI number is the same thing as obesity. In reality, the BMI is a pretty terrible predictor of obesity because it’s a very naïve number. BMI is based solely on one’s height and weight, but does not take into account the sources of your weight.  Are you heavy because you have lots of muscle, or is it because you have lots of fat? Obviously, 20 pounds of muscle and 20 pounds of fat are not the same. This is why Arnold Schwarzenegger, weighing it at 240 pounds and only 6’2 tall, has a BMI of 30.8. According to his BMI number, the Governator should be considered obese and at risk for heart disease. However, anyone who’s seen him on the movie screen knows that he’s quite healthy.

But I digress. The main point here is that one of the major problems with science journalism is that writers often make claims that extend beyond those of the scientists they report on. Sometimes it’s accidental, and sometimes it’s on purpose. Whatever the case may be, here are some reading tips so that you don’t get fooled by bad journalism:

1) Always, ALWAYS check an article’s sources.

All I had to do to know that the Newsweek article was inaccurate was click on the link to the scientific paper they wrote about. The first thing I saw was the paper’s title, “Greater perceived ability to form vivid mental images in individuals with high compared to low BMI”. As you can see, the authors make no claim that obesity is connected to vividly imagining the smell of food! They merely found a correlation between imagining smells and increased BMI.

2) Correlation is not causation!

Whenever you see flashy headlines like “Scientists find drinking beer is good for you!” or “Coffee-addicts rejoice! Research indicates 4 cups of coffee a day reduces risk of stroke!”, you should immediately be skeptical. Most of these are based on correlative data, not causative. Dead giveaways for correlation include phrases like “is associated with”, “correlates with”, and “related to”. Remember, correlation is NOT causation. For example, it may very well be that drinking 4 cups of coffee every day correlates with reduced risk of stroke, but is it because the coffee itself is doing something to you or is it because coffee drinkers tend to have better access to stroke-preventative healthcare? Those are the types of questions you should be asking yourself as you read an article.

3) Watch out for preliminary findings

Everyday it seems like someone has found a cure for cancer, diabetes, or Alzheimer’s. Yet somehow, it seems we have yet to actually cure them. That’s because science journalists know sensationalism sells. Headlines that read something like “Scientists discover a drug that can cure cancer” should really be written as “New drug shows promising results in the fight against cancer”. Whatever the headline is, stories like this are often about drugs that are in the earliest stages of development. Unfortunately, most of those promising drugs never make it to market.  I mean, let’s be honest here. If scientists do actually find a cure for something like cancer, trust me, the media will be all over it for weeks.

While there are many great science news articles out there, there are just as many (if not, more) that aren’t so good. By keeping these three tips in mind though, you’ll be an expert at picking out the good from the bad in no time!


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