On Irresponsible, “Click-Bait” Science Journalism

You’ve all seen these articles.  They circulate Facebook, and are propagated by television personalities (Oprah, Dr. Oz, I’m looking at you), blogs, and aggregator sites such as Elite Daily (and others).  The headline will usually be something flashy ending in a question mark.  “Can eating a bar of chocolate every day prevent diabetes?”  Or “Is this new compound discovered at University X the cure for cancer/HIV/obesity/other?”  You get the gist of it.

The latest offender claims something along the lines of red wine being a substitute for physical exercise.  Wouldn’t that be nice?  If you could down a bottle of cabernet sauvignon instead of hitting the treadmill?  The headline, in its various forms claims a generalized version of the following “Scientists determine red wine better than exercise,” brazenly implying that we all got together and agreed.

Faux-science journalism keeps popping up.  It’s misleading at best, and unethical, deceptive, and manipulative at worst.  It’s a disservice to the actual scientific discoveries being pursued; not every study needs to cure cancer, nor does every new compound need to be a miracle weight-loss drug.  I’m going to take you through how real research turns into the abomination that is click-bait journalism in this post.

To the Source!

First thing’s first.  We need to go to the source of the reported claim.  I’m going forward with the red wine/exercise claim here.

Interestingly (but perhaps not surprisingly), you need to click through several links that claim to be the source until you get to the actual peer reviewed scientific paper from which this crazy claim is derived.

I started at an Elite Daily article titled “OMFG: Science Says A Glass Of Red Wine May Be Equivalent To An Hour At The Gym” [1] (protip: real scientific articles rarely have “OMFG” in the title).  Clicking the link to their source, I was taken to another article, this time at Science Daily.  Clicking the source link on SD led me to the actual paper, a full-length article published in the Journal of Physiology, a peer-reviewed academic journal.

Let’s examine how the claims evolved from science to complete bullshit over three iterations.

The Peer-Reviewed Paper

The actual paper is published in the Journal of Physiologyand is available to read for free on the publisher’s site.

Let’s examine the claims and methods of the paper.  I’ll keep this concise.

  • Resveratrol is a natural product found in red wine, many fruits, and some other plant matter
  • Supplementing rat’s diet with resveratrol resulted in a statistically significant increase in exercise performance
  • Skeletal muscle force, cardiovascular performance, and metabolism were all boosted in rats whose diets were supplemented with resveratrol

So, some scientists added this compound, resveratrol, to the diet of test rats, and maintained a group of rats without resveratrol as a control group.

The natural product resveratrol

Important to note is the dose of the compound given: 146 milligrams per kilogram of body mass per day.  Speaking from a pharmacokinetics perspective, this is a HUGE dose.  Most drug-like compounds are given in doses 10-1000x lower than that.  To put that in perspective, the dose of Tylenol for an adult male is about 10 milligrams per kilogram of body mass.  146 milligrams per kilogram of Tylenol corresponds to 20 extra-strength capsules, and would most likely destroy your liver.

So, after eating this resveratrol-rich diet, the rats were examined for exercise capacity.  How was this done?  With tiny treadmills, of course.  No, I am not joking.

SCIENCE

Rat treadmills, a real thing

And what exactly was concluded from this effort?

  • The performance of rats on the resveratrol diet was 21% better than the rats without resveratrol (at 99.9% confidence interval)
  • Rapid (twitch) muscle forces increased 1.8x, and endurance (tetanic) increased 1.2x over the control group (at 95% confidence)
  • A measure of cardiovascular efficiency (ventricular ejection) increased 10% (95% confidence)
  • Fatty acid oxidation (a measure of metabolism) increased by a factor of 1.2x (95% confidence)

Looking good so far!  I think this paper reaches some interesting (though not exactly earth-shattering) conclusions.  Apparently they are moving onto limited clinical trials to see if resveratrol helps patients with impaired heart function.  However, I would not be at all surprised if resveratrol is cytotoxic or even carcinogenic at the doses given to rats in the study.  My own skepticism aside, the paper has valid methodology, reaches real, statistically significant conclusions, and demonstrates potential for further study.

You may notice, however, that nowhere does anyone related to the study claim that red wine somehow equals exercise.  Nor do they suggest a diet including red wine is a viable way to ingest resveratrol in biologically relevant concentrations.

So where did we go wrong?

Iteration Two: Science Daily

Science Daily is a scientific news aggregator site.  They compile recent scientific articles, and summarize them for a non-technical audience.  Generally speaking, they do a pretty decent job of maintaining the conclusions drawn in the original paper without sensationalizing the results.  Their articles are short, generally include no data, and tend to over-emphasize the results.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  At least they cite the original paper.

The first line of the article states “A natural compound found in some fruits, nuts, and red wine may enhance exercise training and performance, demonstrates newly published medical research from the University of Alberta.” [3]  That claim is not at all false.  However, you can probably see how without the underlying context, this claim could be blown out of proportion.

Iteration Three: Elite Daily

Here we go.

The title of the ED article claims that a glass of red wine is equivalent to an hour at the gym.  First off, no one ever mentioned anything about equivalence.  Who came up with the “one glass equals one hour” thing?  Certainly not the authors of the paper.  The article goes on to say that “the benefits only come from one single glass,” citing another (even more sensationalized) article at the Latin Times [4].

Let’s first examine the resveratrol content of red wine.  Red wine contains between 1 and 13 milligrams of resveratrol per liter [5].  Let’s be generous and assume the upper end.  To reach the same dosage of resveratrol given to the rats, an adult male would need to consume about 11 grams of pure resveratrol.  This corresponds to 730 liters of wine.  For those of you metrically challenged, that’s just shy of 200 gallons.  Of wine.  Per day.  Do not try to drink 200 gallons of wine per day.

Or do.  Whatever, I'm not a doctor.

Or do. Whatever, I’m not a doctor.

The claim that exercise could be substituted, in part or in whole, by drinking red wine is clearly complete fabrication; there is simply no way a human could consume enough red wine to intake a comparatively useful dose of resveratrol.

 In Conclusion

  1. Be wary of scientific news coming out of aggregator sites.  The best place to get the real deal behind a paper is, unsurprisingly, to read the paper itself.  That’s not always and option for a large number of reasons.  However, the abstract is always free to read, and any major conclusions are always (at least in well-written articles) stated upfront in the abstract.  If it was discovered that exercise could be substituted for red wine, you better believe the first of second sentence of the paper’s abstract would say as such.
  2. Check the sources!  If a news release links to another news release as its source, you’ve most likely entered the realm of unverified speculation, or complete fabrication.
  3. Even the more reputable news sites (like Science Daily) generally sacrifice scientific rigor for the sake of clarity.  While fabrications are rare, conclusions can be exaggerated, or key details omitted in the name of brevity.

Sources:

[1] http://elitedaily.com/news/world/glass-wine-equivalent-going-gym/770635/

[2] http://jp.physoc.org/content/590/11/2783

[3] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/06/120619225941.htm

[4] http://www.latintimes.com/drinking-wine-better-going-gym-according-scientists-yes-261496

[5] http://etd.lsu.edu/docs/available/etd-01202006-082858/

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