Opinion: Misleading coffee studies have hidden consequences

Noah Haber
The following is the opinion of the author, and does not necessarily reflect scientific findings or theory.

A few weeks ago, Alex and I broke down why a study on coffee and its related media articles were misleading. While it might seem obvious that bad studies are bad for our health, the real damage that studies like this do is much deeper, though harder to see and measure. To understand why, we need to start from the obvious.

Direct impact: weak and misleading medical science leads to bad medical decisions

In 2015, two studies came out claiming that they found that statins, drugs typically used for high blood pressure, cause deadly side effects. The papers were both severely misleading, later resulting in retractions to statements in both papers, but before that happened media ran with their claims. A 2016 study led by Anthony Matthews looked at statin prescription and refill rates in the UK, and found compelling evidence that these two studies and their media coverage caused huge disruptions in statin refills and prescriptions, resulting in over 200,000 people ceasing taking their statins for a few months. I have plenty of nits to pick with this study, but the my biggest is that they probably underestimated their estimates of the total impact.

It is remarkably difficult to find the causal effect of weak and misleading causal evidence, but occasionally we get some hints. The example of statins is a particularly dramatic story for which we have the rare privilege of having strong evidence, and you can imagine that this sort of thing happens all the time and goes unmeasured.

Which brings us back to the coffee study in question. You would be right in thinking that coffee studies probably little to no direct harm or help. It’s just coffee. However, you would be wrong to think the problem stops there.

Weak and misleading articles crowd out rigorous ones

That headline space is precious. In principle, every one of those articles could have been about better studies that could be more useful to decision makers. Even better, those media articles could have been written about topics on which there is scientific consensus. Similarly, the time and funding those researchers spent on this misleading coffee article probably could have been put to better scientific use, although worth noting that many of the proposed mechanisms to achieve more intense control of scientific studies would probably do more harm than good.

However, headline space, scientific progress, funding, and consumer exposure are not really zero sum games. Taking away one headline does not automatically mean that it will be replaced with a better one, or replaced with anything at all. Further, while this may be a particularly expensive coffee study due to the genetics aspect, most are dirt cheap. If I had to guess, putting the time and money spent on those to other studies would probably not result in a huge net gain for public health.

The most important and impactful reasons why these studies and their media coverage are damaging are far more subtle, and far more insidious.

Weak and misleading science erodes public trust and discourse in science

As usual, a comedian is the one that described it best: Lewis Black’s late 90’s rant on scientific studies flip-flopping on eggs.

As we showed in CLAIMS, the majority of what people see of health science is weak, misleading, and/or inaccurate. These headlines make up nearly 100% of almost everyone’s exposure to health science. While that represents only a fraction of health science, extremely few are privileged with getting to see the big picture, and most of those people are not writing for mainstream news. If the near entirety of what people see of studies looks like scientists flip-flopping on eggs, it shouldn’t be surprising that trust in scientific institutions is cracking. If people only see the least reliable health science, distrust is a reasonable response.

Unfortunately, many of us were indeed caught by surprise over the last few years as we watched severe backlash against scientific thought and institutions coming from news outlets and political rhetoric. When it is difficult for people to distinguish scientific strength, and people are used to weak science, it allows anyone with sufficient lack of knowledge and/or willingness to take advantage of the situation to more easily reject scientific consensus without cause.

We own this, and we need to fix it

A study like the one we saw a few weeks ago should never have entered into the public sphere, and maybe should not have been done at all. It adds little to nothing of note to our scientific knowledge, misleads health decisions, and continues the erosion of public trust in our institutions. Other studies, such as the statins example, have more immediate consequences.

We have a responsibility as scientists to educate, collaborate with, listen to, and intervene in public discussion. We also have a responsibility encourage our best science, and reject our worst. Sometimes, that means trying things that are uncomfortable and risky.

The family of projects starting with CLAIMS are explicitly intended to be used to intervene and change the interaction of scientific institutions, media, and social media. Many of them are based in critique. Critical scientific review is an unusual thing to be doing at a time when trust in scientific institutions is low, and it makes for some strange (and severely mistaken) bedfellows. It’s a risk which we hope produces net positives for scientific progress and its impact on human lives.

Thoughts and comments welcome