When great apes reason, part 1: Is Aaron Carroll an employee of the New York Times?
We aren't exactly sure. He has an Upshot feature in today's Times, but his formal identity line at the Times reads exactly like this:
Aaron E. Carroll is a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine who blogs on health research and policy at The Incidental Economist and makes videos at Healthcare Triage. He is the author of The Bad Food Bible: How and Why to Eat Sinfully.Does he also work for the Times? As usual, we can't quite tell.
That said, Carroll is no ordinary journalist. As you can see, he's a med school professor—and he generally seems to know what he's talking about!
He tends to display basic nuance skills! His analysis piece in today's Times starts exactly as shown below, hard-copy headline included:
CARROLL (8/29/18): A Measured Look at a Study That Alarmed Some DrinkersOof! Carroll even provides a link to this live report from CNN. He has accurately quoted its headline:
Last week a paper was published in The Lancet that claimed to be the definitive study on the benefits and dangers of drinking. The news was apparently not good for those who enjoy alcoholic beverages. It was covered in the news media with headlines like “There’s No Safe Amount of Alcohol.”
The truth is much less newsy and much more measured.
CNN: There's no safe amount of alcohol, study saysSimilar headlines appeared elsewhere. Below you see two examples:
New York Daily News: Consumption of alcohol is never safe: Brit studyWe're even willing to tell you this. Online, though not in print editions, the New York Times reported on the study under this headline:
Philadelphia Inquirer: There’s no ‘safe’ level of alcohol consumption, study finds
New York Times: How Much Alcohol Is Safe to Drink? None, Say These ResearchersThere's no safe amount of alcohol? The New York Times ran a version of that headline itself!
We'll say, right now, that this topic rings bells because it so closely resembles the journalism concerning lead exposure which emerged from events in Flint. But for the moment, let's take a quick look at what Carroll says about alcohol and safety.
In essence, he says these headlined claims are overwrought and in that sense misleading. When he starts "interpreting the results," this is his first example:
CARROLL: The news warns that even one drink per day carries a risk. But how great is that risk?It's true! Based on those data, zero drinks a day per year would (apparently) be safer than one drink a day per year. (Before he gets to this material, Carroll cites some methodological concerns.)
For each set of 100,000 people who have one drink a day per year, 918 can expect to experience one of the 23 alcohol-related problems in any year. Of those who drink nothing, 914 can expect to experience a problem. This means that 99,082 are unaffected, and 914 will have an issue no matter what. Only 4 in 100,000 people who consume a drink a day may have a problem caused by the drinking, according to this study.
That said, the difference is extremely small—several light years beyond tiny. Does it make sense to broadcast scary headlines about "no safe amount" based on such tiny additional risk?
Full disclosure! The safety risk does increase with increased consumption. Carroll continues as shown:
CARROLL (continuing directly): At two drinks per day, the number experiencing a problem increased to 977. Even at five drinks per day, which most agree is too much, the vast majority of people are unaffected.Let's stick with people who quaff two drinks per day. Out of 100,000 such people, 977 will will experience some health problem of the relevant type. But that's compared to the control group, in which 914 total abstainers will experience some similar problem.
Based upon these data, it's true—it's safer not to drink at all. That said, it doesn't seem to be much safer, at least not at moderate rates of consumption.
What would be the sensible way to report such findings? In line with other observations about the limitations of the type of study in question, Carroll argues that these screaming headlines cause people to misunderstand the seriousness of what is being reported.
According to Carroll, "Too many people interpret" these studies "with panic-inducing results." He says those headlines stood atop reporting which was admittedly "newsy" but insufficiently "measured."
The New York Times done good today in publishing Carroll's analysis. For ourselves, we were instantly struck by the contrast between the headlines Carroll cited and the underwhelming data he soon provided.
As noted, this recalled the reporting out of Flint—the reporting out of Flint, and the unfortunate propagandization.
Again and again, we were told, concerning Flint, that there is "no safe amount of exposure to lead," especially for children. The people who kept saying this were generally the ones who kept saying, excitingly, that a whole city had been "poisoned."
Rachel Maddow was a prime offender. In fairness, she was trying to please us liberals as she tried to get the governor of Michigan thrown into jail.
Over at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum kept presenting the actual data. It's true that any exposure to lead can have negative effects, especially for children. But at the level of exposure at issue in Flint, the likely effects were remarkably small.
The likely effects were very small! But apes like Maddow kept disappearing such facts, leading to the "tragedy" Drum reported in this January 2017 post.
Drum's post was based on a report in the New Yorker. Kids in Flint kept hearing that they'd been "poisoned." Sensibly but inaccurately, some concluded that their lives had been ruined. When great apes attempt to reason, children like these get hurt.
Again, we want to be fair. Maddow's endless propagandization probably helped her ratings. This put more money into the hands of her corporate owners. It also increased her fame.
That said, there were downsides. Her viewers got made extremely dumb, and a bunch of kids got grossly abused. (So did their parents.) According to leading anthropologists, this sort of thing happens, again and again, when members of our floundering branch of the great apes try to reason.
This afternoon, or tomorrow, we'll offer "When great apes reason, part 2." A warning to those who may tend to get upset:
The Times has done "deseg" again!