What does “linked” mean in an alarmist headline?

There it is, in black and white, the word “linked” in a headline. It screams for your attention but what does it really mean? What will a casual reader extract from this?

I’ve seen this so often before but I’ll rant about it again. In my Google News sidebar, there it is:

Diet drinks linked with heart disease, death

Pretty scary, eh? If you just read this much what would you think. Any headline that includes “death” and “linked” sounds really bad. There’s probably no point in ranting about journalism that has always lived by the “if it bleeds it leads” motto to get attention. But how many people follow the link at Google to the article to actually learn something. I did and here the article repeats the screaming headline:

Diet Drinks Linked With Heart Disease, Death

Maggie Fox of NBC News might as well write this in red ink with blood dripping off it, just to get a little journalistic sensationalism, but what good/harm is this doing to the public. Does it matter that the article itself says:

“We only found an association, so we can’t say that diet drinks cause these problems,” Vyas said.

buried below the fold in the 9th paragraph!

When dealing with life and death I think the press has an obligation not to be alarmist and to present “news” (brief report of a study) with some caution and circumspection. But no, alarmist headlines sell, even if these days it’s not papers and just ad clicks.

NO!

Diet drinks don’t kill. Somehow the press will repeat the gunnuts assertion that “guns don’t kill” but they don’t show that caution when it comes to a soft drink.

Now among the geeks the phrase “association is not causation” is oft repeated but probably rarely really understood. But the headline didn’t even say association, it said “linked”. Now what is a casual reader expected to think about the word “linked”. A link in a chain is certainly a serious thing (the chain breaks without the “link”). A link in an online article is certainly a real thing with a definite action. It is entirely reasonable that the causal reader associates the word ‘linked’ was ’causes’ given that is what it usually means. But of course, that is false, that’s not what the study says.

In an era of widespread ignorance about science and even greater ignorance about statistical inference the ordinary words used matter because they will be interpreted from the reader’s POV, not some statistics textbook that only a few people understand.

So this article, like many others of its kind, do a serious disservice and feed the frenzy of the nutrition nuts and scolds and scare the public. I’m sure Pepsico and CocaCola hate these headlines too, but of course they’ll be dismissed since they’re part of the evil food conspiracy to kill us all. So how does “truth” get to the public with this kind of nonsense.

Now this article is one of zillions I’ve read, all with the same message, now even known as the “Big Mac and Diet Coke” phenomenon. Yep, people who are overweight and possibly also unhealthy tend to try to make up for excess calorie consumption by diet drinks. OTOH, what should they do – drink sugared drinks, I’m sure that would help. Of course the scolds probably demand they drink water (undoubtedly some trendy and expensive bottled type, what about all those plastic bottles, folks; or maybe green tea, or some other alleged “healthy” alternative).

In short, this article (and the underlying study it reports) show absolutely no causation between diet drinks and DEATH. But of course you have to read a bit to get that and few people have the patience. But then, so what – most diet drink drinkers could care less about this and the non drinkers wouldn’t consider diet drinks anyway, so who cares, who changes their behavior with stories/studies like this. Unfortunately, some people do, plus this just contributes to the steady drip-drip of nutrition nonsense that does get implanted in many people.

I recently read (no citation available) a report of how the required diet compares to the actual diet in the U.S. It is bad: everything you should eat, people do, and what they should eat, they don’t. So much for dietary advice. But that’s what alarmism does, it contributes to a general cynicism that the “experts” have no idea what they’re talking about and/or that all advice is just part of some agenda, usually a nefarious plot of the food companies to kill its paying customers (instead of just rip them off, which is more credible).

I’ve said (and a few of the sensible nutrition “experts” say), eat less and move more. Calories do matter and they’re aren’t good or bad calories, just calories. And yes, too much fat is bad for you and can actually cause DEATH. But to combat this we need sensible, correct, and helpful information, not sensationalism. There is so much noise and uninformed junk info about nutrition and diet that the public just tunes it all out and that’s bad. The public does need a kick in the butt, but with good and helpful information, not sensationalist propaganda.

Full disclosure: I drink diet drinks and have since they were first invented (I actually prefer the taste). And yes, I was over-weight and taking meds. And yes, finally I did something about it, so I lost 60lbs (while drinking diet drinks) and I’m glad I did. But what losing weight took was way less calories and way more exercise, not switching from diet drinks to green tea (or even water, which would, of course, accomplish absolutely nothing in terms of weight). So if I actually believed and paid attention to articles like this I’d still be way too fat. So much for any “study” and its popular press misinformation actually helping me with a health concern.

So if any of you nutrition scolds actually want to help people (which thus far you have miserably failed to do), why don’t you try serious and useful information instead of alarmist misinformation or stupid dietary fads. Oh I guess you could never do that since it wouldn’t sell papers or blog posts or diet books, so are you nutrition scolds any different than Coke or Pepsi. Give me a break!

About dmill96

old fat (but now getting trim and fit) guy, who used to create software in Silicon Valley (almost before it was called that), who used to go backpacking and bicycling and cross-country skiing and now geodashes, drives AWD in Wyoming, takes pictures, and writes long blog posts and does xizquvjyk.
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One Response to What does “linked” mean in an alarmist headline?

  1. dmill96 says:

    Of course I’m not the only one ranting about this general issue, but here’s one of the food scolds who wants to rant on the other side. Recently a large study demonstrated that all the craziness about fat was just that, craziness. Which type of fat (with only a tiny possibility of trans-fats) doesn’t matter. Which, btw, doesn’t mean that fat doesn’t matter – it just means there aren’t good fats or bad fats, but any fat can be too much. Fat is bad because it’s calorie-dense and we eat too much of it (because evolution programmed us to since fat used to be scarce and high energy food was useful and not over-consumed). But, of course, the scolds don’t like that idea since they want avocado fat or olive oil fat to be “good” (even superfoods, silly, eh!) and industrial fats to be “bad”. They’re all equal and excess consumption of any of them is “bad”.

    So here we go with spin. This author, plugging his book and pet theories, naturally doesn’t like the study. Now the only part I agree with (esp. given my post above) is the popular press’s sensationalism and misleading headlines about the study. Ever since this study was made public (the study itself is obtuse and hidden) the opponents of fat and shils for olive oil have been going crazy trying to denounce the study and continue to peddle their favorite (and unsubstantiated) schemes.

    What’s the “real” link of fats and health – too much fat is bad, eat less if you can and no fat is magic or evil.

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