Wednesday, January 23, 2013

NPR's "Data linking aspartame to cancer risk are too weak to defend, hospital says"

This story from NPR is a good example of 1) the media misinterpreting statistics and research findings as well as 2) Type I errors and the fact that 3) peer-reviewed does not mean perfect. Here is a print-version of the story, and here is the radio/audio version...(note: the two links don't take you to the exact same stories...the print version provides greater depth but the radio version eats up class time when you forget to prep enough for class AND it doesn't require any pesky reading on the part of your students).

Essentially, researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital were studying the relationship between aspartame consumption and certain types of cancers (click here for the actual study). They got some unexpected gender related findings (men who drank both regular and aspartame soda had a higher risk of cancer than women). So, the unexpected story of the research was this gender effect that isn't unique to aspartame consumption.

Anyway, the PR folks at Brigham and Women's Hospital got a hold of the story and sensationalized the findings to the media and hyped up the publication of the manuscript. Which then lead to a big ol' mess as the  authors had to try and stop the speeding train of a news story about how diet soda causes cancer and will make you dead and is evil. The authors also had to admit that the study had been denied publication at at least four other journals before it found a home at the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. And one of the co-authors is on the editorial board for the the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Hmmm...

Do Shweddy Ball's contain aspartame? 
When I present this to my students, I ask them to identify if the authors were trying to prevent a Type I or Type II error, what can be done to keep the media from sensationalizing research reports, and to name an alternate explanation for the findings.