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that chocolate milk study: can we blame the media?

A specific brand of high-protein chocolate milk improved the cognitive function of high school football players with concussions. At least that’s what a press release from the University of Maryland claimed a few weeks ago. It also quoted the superintendent of the Washington County Public Schools as saying, “Now that we understand the findings of this study, we are determined to provide Fifth Quarter Fresh [the milk brand] to all of our athletes.”

The problem is that the “study” was not only funded in part by the milk producer, but is unpublished, unavailable to the public and, based on the press release — all the info we’ve got — raises immediate methodological questions. Certainly there are no grounds for making claims about this milk in particular, since the control group was given no milk at all.

The summary also raises questions about the sample size. The total sample included 474 high school football players, but included both concussed and non-concussed players. How many of these got concussions during one season? I would hope not enough to provide statistical power — this NAS report suggests high schoolers get 11 concussions per 10,000 football games and practices.

And even if the sample size is sufficient, it’s not clear that the results are meaningful. The press release suggests concussed athletes who drank the milk did significantly better on four of thirty-six possible measures — anyone want to take bets on the p-value cutoff?

Maryland put out the press release nearly four weeks ago. Since then there’s been a slow build of attention, starting with a takedown by Health News Review on January 5, before the story was picked up by a handful of news outlets and, this weekend, by Vox. In the meanwhile, the university says in fairly vague terms that it’s launched a review of the study, but the press release is still on the university website, and similarly questionable releases (“The magic formula for the ultimate sports recovery drink starts with cows, runs through the University of Maryland and ends with capitalism” — you can’t make this stuff up!) are up as well.

Whoever at the university decided to put out this press release should face consequences, and I’m really glad there are journalists out there holding the university’s feet to the fire. But while the university certainly bears responsibility for the poor decision to go out there and shill for a sponsor in the name of science, it’s worth noting that this is only half of the story.

There’s a lot of talk in academia these days about the status of scientific knowledge — about replicability, bias, and bad incentives, and how much we know that “just ain’t so.” And there’s plenty of blame to go around.

But in our focus on universities’ challenges in producing scientific knowledge, sometimes we underplay the role of another set of institutions: the media. Yes, there’s a literature on science communication that looks as the media as intermediary between science and the public. But a lot of it takes a cognitive angle on audience reception, and it’s got a heavy bent toward controversial science, like climate change or fracking.

More attention to media as a field, though, with rapidly changing conditions of production, professional norms and pathways, and career incentives, could really shed some light on the dynamics of knowledge production more generally. It would be a mistake to look back to some idealized era in which unbiased but hard-hitting reporters left no stone unturned in their pursuit of the public interest. But the acceleration of the news cycle, the decline of journalism as a viable career, the impact of social media on news production, and the instant feedback on pageviews and clickthroughs all tend to reinforce a certain breathless attention to the latest overhyped university press release.

It’s not the best research that gets picked up, but the sexy, the counterintuitive, and the clickbait-ish. Female-named hurricanes kill more than male hurricanes. (No.) Talking to a gay canvasser makes people support gay marriage. (Really no.) Around the world, children in religious households are less altruistic than children of atheists. (No idea, but I have my doubts.)

This kind of coverage not only shapes what the public believes, but it shapes incentives in academia as well. After all, the University of Maryland is putting out these press releases because it perceives it will benefit, either from the perception it is having a public impact, or from the goodwill the attention generates with Fifth Quarter Fresh and other donors. Researchers, in turn, will be similarly incentivized to focus on the sexy topic, or at least the sexy framing of the ordinary topic. And none of this contributes to the cumulative production of knowledge that we are, in theory, still pursuing.

None of this is meant to shift the blame for the challenges faced by science from the academic ecosystem to the realm of media. But if you really want to understand why it’s so hard to make scientific institutions work, you can’t ignore the role of media in producing acceptance of knowledge, or the rapidity with which that role is changing.

After all, if academics themselves can’t resist the urge to favor the counterintuitive over the mundane, we can hardly blame journalists for doing the same.

Written by epopp

January 18, 2016 at 1:23 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] Exceptions exist, of course; see  epopp’s recent post on the media’s circulation of questionable studies.  In a related vein, check out these past posts by fabio on public sociology: maybe public […]

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  2. I agree with everything you wrote above.

    And here’s something constructive that you sociologists could do . . . any chance the American Sociological Association could take back that “Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues” award they gave to Malcolm Gladwell a few years back? Talk about perverse incentives . . .

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    Andrew Gelman

    January 19, 2016 at 3:19 am


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