In an astonishing demonstration of the evils of Marketing in a Research University Context, the University of Leicester today announced that an upcoming research project would find a link between coffee consumption by pregnant women and leukemia to develop later in their offspring.
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This is a statement made by scientists involved in the Research That Has Not Yet Been Done:

Although there’s no evidence at all of a link between caffeine and cancer, we’re putting two and two together and saying: caffeine can induce these changes and it has been shown that these changes are elevated in leukaemia patients… I wonder if caffeine can somehow sensitise cells or increase the risk of leukaemia? The idea seems plausible.

I’m glad scientists have thee thoughts. Taking a shower, sitting on the water closet, on the tube heading for work, thoughts like this should be rolling around in the heads of researchers, who then take them, critically evaluate them, and turn some of them into hypotheses, operationalize the hypotheses, test them, and move us incrementally (or more) in the direction of greater knowledge and deeper understanding. Of stuff.

Or, alternatively, you can take the random sciency thoughts floating around in the head and turn them into press releases which produce media statements like this:

Women should avoid drinking coffee while pregnant as it may increase their unborn child’s risk of leukaemia

Which, in this particular case, is positioned under a photo of a woman drinking from a Starbuck’s cup, RUINING HER CHILD’S HEALTH!!!!!

Now, to be fair, there is something to this. Caffeine can be shown to mess up DNA in some situations. The exact reason a child develops leukemia is not fully understood. There have been previous links made between caffeine and cancer, but as far as I know these links have all failed to pan out. It does not seem entirely unreasonable to conduct the study that is proposed here.

But it is utterly unreasonable, misleading, exploitative, and dishonest and probably highly unethical to convert a grant proposal into a press event that literally tells people that there is a link between a particular behavior and substance and a horrific childhood cancer, when there is no known link.

Shame on the Leicester press office.

Sources:

Press release

Comments

  1. #1 T. Bruce McNeely
    January 26, 2009

    This is completely irresponsible! I couldn’t help notice that it was the “researcher” who is doing the extrapolation. The reporter appears to be simply reporting what he said.
    Dr. Cooke needs a good smack upside the head.

  2. #2 Sigmund
    January 26, 2009

    Research funding in the UK depends on the private sector far more than the communistic style state funded NIH system you have in the USA. Its not uncommon in the UK to have these sorts of press release hinting at particular dangers or claiming spectacular breakthroughs. It’s done for the simple reason that it is useful for attracting research funding. One can get all prissy about the ethics of the matter (although I’m not sure they are simply sailing close to the edge on this one rather than blatantly lying) but is it really their fault that the general public don’t understand ‘correlation and causation’?
    Personally I’d prefer the occasional press release of this sort and continuing research rather than no research and no press releases.

  3. #3 ThirtyFiveUp
    January 26, 2009

    Year one, “Do not drink coffee because the caffeine is bad for you. Decaf is OK if you like the taste of coffee.”

    Year two, ” Oooops, do not drink decaf because the method of removing caffeine introduces harmful chemicals.”

    Year three, “Do not drink cow’s milk, use soy milk.”

    Year four, “Ooops, only drink rice milk, soy has problems.”

    Get the picture? Danger, danger!! Do not eat, do not drink, do not breathe; that way you will live forever. Not much fun, but hey, you can’t have everything.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    January 26, 2009

    Sigmund, I think a major contributor to the general public not getting science, and not understanding the nature of scientific research in the broader social, political, and funding structure, is this sort of bs. There is not really less of it in the US than in Britian (and a lot of our research is publicly funded) so I’m not sure the difference is that important (though it may be).

    The fact that there is a funding mechanism that relies on keeping news consumers stupid is a bit of a problem. Not an explanation for problem. An actual problem in and of itself, don’t you think?

  5. #5 Stacy
    January 26, 2009

    Starbucks should sue someone.(whoever is responsible for using that picture)

  6. #6 zombie_bot
    January 26, 2009

    maybe this headline is rubbish, but people shouldn’t consume caffeine as it makes them moody morons, prone to annoyingly happy and over the top whining outbursts.

  7. #7 Romeo Vitelli
    January 26, 2009

    “Starbucks should sue someone.(whoever is responsible for using that picture)”

    Forget Starbucks, Juan Valdez’s mule should be paying them a visit. One well-placed kick from a back hoof should solve the problem. That’s what mules are for.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juan_Valdez

  8. #8 Irene Delse
    January 26, 2009

    Oh, the irony! A few months ago, there was a lot of media noise about some exciting new study connecting coffee drinking and protection from dementia, especially in women… http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/6930114.stm

  9. #9 Sigmund
    January 26, 2009

    Greg, its clearly a problematic and far from ideal situation.
    On the other hand I don’t think these sort of press reports by themselves contribute much to the lack of understanding by the public of scientific methodology. They are symptomatic of a widespread ignorance of things like statistics and evidence but I sincerely doubt that simply changing the few research headlines the public is likely to hear to more scientifically accurate ones will do much considering the ocean of nonsense they have to contend with every day.

  10. #10 Lilian Nattel
    January 26, 2009

    And I bet you anything the headline and photo will sink into public consciousness and in a little while everyone will “know” that there is a link between pregnant women drinking coffee and increased risk of leukemia in the children. Now if only we could harness this for good and produce a headline like: “Although nobody has studied this yet, we know that there is life expectancy and there is racism and it is certainly plausible that eliminating racism could increase life expectancy by five to ten years.”

  11. #11 Joshua Zelinsky
    January 26, 2009

    There’s an additional problem created by these sorts of stories. People pay less attention to science news in general or messages about what they should or should not eat. When junk like this gets through the response is to just tune everything out.

  12. #12 Katkinkate
    January 26, 2009

    Science by media release. They’ve been doing it for years in the “obesity causes every disease under the sun” cause for years and the ‘diet breakthroughs’. Usually the actual research, if it is ever done, don’t support the sensationalist claims, but the negative results never make it into the news.