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Thursday, June 15

Reductive ad absurdum

From Sy Mukherjee's "Does Eating French Fries Really Double Your Early Death Risk?" for Fortune today:
... To be fair, the researchers did conclude that people who ate fried potatoes two to three (or more) times per week were at an elevated death risk. But that topline result doesn't delve into the numerous caveats that could contribute to that trend. For instance, what else might a person who eats french fries three times per week be consuming in his or her diet? How much do those people exercise? Does the sample contain people who have elevated genetic risk of heart disease or other health problems?
Those sorts of details are critical to accurate science. But much of the coverage surrounding scientific studies tends to be reductive. The last time a click-y nutrition study was in the news, diet soda was the villain (apparently it can triple your stroke risk and raise the chances of developing dementia—except all that is a massive simplification).
Making science palatable to the masses can be difficult. And sometimes, stories do go on to mention caveats and confounding factors, and clarify that correlation isn't the same thing as causation. But as we've come to learn, in social media, headlines are often the only words that readers take away with them.
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