The Dangers of Believing in ‘Sensationalist Science’


We've all seen the headlines: "5 Scary Facts About Microwave Popcorn," "Study Claims WiFi Is ‘More Dangerous' to Kids," "Long-term cellphone use linked to brain cancer." The list of scary science in the news is ever-growing. But does the data behind these fear-inducing arguments really hold up?

"People often publish these claims, even though the scientific data doesn't always support them," says Dr. Joseph Perrone, Chief Science Officer at the Center for Accountability in Science. Though the Internet provides us with unprecedented access to information about our world, the distribution of this knowledge has become one big game of Telephone where people rapidly share the latest news in fragmented, incomplete snippets.

Is cancer really just bad luck?

For example, a recently-published Johns Hopkins University study inspired a series of shocking headlines:

"New Research Shows Bad Luck Causes Cancer" (Wall Street Journal)

"Most Cancers May Simply be Due to Bad Luck" (Forbes)

Countless publications have since released articles under similar headings, causing many people to question whether practicing positive lifestyle habits such as quitting smoking, eating healthier and avoiding excess exposure to UV rays really makes a difference in their cancer risk. After all, if cancer truly comes down to the luck of the draw, why even bother trying to avoid it?

But a closer look at the data reveals a far more complex scientific picture of cancer.

"These are purely sensationalist headlines," says Perrone, who explains that the Johns Hopkins study essentially says that human beings, like machines, have parts (cells) that wear out over time. These cells must be replaced by DNA replication. If a person's DNA starts to make errors during the replication process, then they may go on to develop cancer or certain types of autoimmune conditions.

As the authors of the investigation point out, DNA replication errors are often determined by genetics and are thus out of our control. But that's not the end of the story. In response to the overwhelming number of articles reporting that cancer is just "bad luck," lead investigators Cristian Tomasetti and Bert Vogelstein offered this explanation on the Johns Hopkins website:

"Getting cancer could be compared to getting into a car accident. Our results would be equivalent to showing a high correlation between the length of trip and getting into an accident. Regardless of the destination, the longer the trip is, the higher the risk of an accident.

The road conditions on the way to the destination could be likened to the environmental factors in cancer. Worse conditions would be associated with a higher risk of an accident."

These dangerous environmental factors include things like smoking. "The best way to prevent some cancer types is by eliminating environmental factors and by changing lifestyles," the authors state.

Long story short: keep those New Year's resolutions to quit unhealthy habits and adopt new ones. Even if eating healthier, exercising more and staying away from cigarettes can't prevent you from getting cancer, you'll still be better off.

Separating fact from falsehood

Most of us don't have access to the scientific journals where scientific studies are published, so we turn to our preferred blogs and news outlets for the latest need-to-know information. But relying on online sources for accurate information on the latest research findings can be a tricky endeavor.

When confronted by this seemingly unnavigable maze of confusing health information, what's a curious consumer to do?

Strategies for Separating Fact From Falsehood

  • What's the source? Who is the author of the story and what is his or her background? Do they have the necessary level of knowledge about the subject matter on which they're reporting? Are they writing for an unbiased media outlet or a partisan activist group?
  • Do they have an axe to grind? An organization that has cause for bias against a particular person, group, food, drug, etc. isn't a great source of unfiltered information.
  • Is the study peer-reviewed? Research studies that have been published in peer-reviewed journals (e.g. JAMA, BMJ) tend to be more trustworthy because they have been examined and vetted by a group of subject matter experts for sound methodology and logical conclusions.
  • Have the findings ever been replicated? Studies that haven't been duplicated should always be considered suspect. Perrone uses an example of an investigation that linked childhood vaccinations to an increased risk of the person becoming homosexual later in life. No study has since been able to recreate this conclusion.

To get a well-rounded picture of the findings and implications of a particular study, it's also advisable to read multiple stories from different sources.

And, even though it might be hard, try not to worry too much. "At the end of the day," says Perrone, "if you eat a decent diet and lead a reasonably good life, then you're probably going to live to the age that your genetic makeup has predetermined for you. There's a lot of things you can avoid, but some you cannot."

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