More Reasons Why Health Hype Stories Are Bad Reply

In response to my post yesterday about why health stories should nearly always be received with caution, I received the following comment from a distinguished cardiovascular researcher:

One lost point is the role of the investigators and media in hyping their research. Hazen (principal investigator of the first study) is a bright and thoughtful guy, but through the Cleveland Clinic PR department, his nice hypothesis-generating research got turned into the missing link between red meat and heart disease, which obviously is a huge leap. The paper itself is much more measured than the press release and subsequent coverage. Same for the carnitine meta-analysis It is a meta-analysis of small studies published in a 3rd tier medical journal. I haven’t read the original article, but I bet it is pretty measured in its discussion and conclusion. But then comes the press release and the media, and boom, we have a cure for heart disease that conflicts with a cause for heart disease. Both studies are hypothesis-generating and non-conclusive. They are important additions to our medical knowledge base, but offer nothing for the public right now.

So here I blame the PR departments, but the investigators go along with this, so they get some of the blame, as well as the media who hype it. By the way, from the standpoint of the investigators, the institutions, and the journals they published in, this media frenzy was considered a huge success. For the rest of the medical community and the patients, it was a nuisance, a distraction, led to confusion, and then phone calls to doctors.

Hype shot glass

I’d like to offer one additional caveat about the L-carnitine metaanalysis. This is a perfect example of a topic that might be seriously distorted by publication bias. In other words, a potentially important finding– in this case, a result showing that carnitine is beneficial after a heart attack– is much more likely to be published than a negative finding. This doesn’t mean that the metaanalysis is necessarily wrong, but it does provide yet another reason why we should always be careful when looking at studies like these.

 

 

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