Two days ago, the New York Times ran another pop piece of medical journalism about coffee. However, this time they disguised it as a critique of medical journalism: Personal Health – Sorting Out Coffee’s Contradictions – Now we’ve managed to survive a six-month moratorium on pointless medical research articles about coffee — which is about six months longer than just about every major media outlet, including the New York Times. So why break the blissful silence now?

As the article clearly notes, “hardly a month goes by without a report that hails coffee, tea or caffeine as healthful or damns them as potential killers.” However, it disingenuously adds to the very same feeding frenzy of confusing medical information that it reportedly criticizes. The real clue is in the article’s lower right hand column: since its publication on August 5th, this article has been the most e-mailed story on the New York Times‘ Web site — and its most blogged Health story.

But those statistics are not unique to this article; this is actually quite a common phenomenon for many articles on this topic. Media companies, medical researchers, and those who underwrite their research grants all know this. Most consumers, however, do not know this. Therein lies the root of the problem…

The “media-medical-research complex”?!?

As much as I have a distaste for conspiracy theorists (i.e., Hanlon’s razor or “never presume conspiracy where incompetence will suffice”), over the years I have started to believe in the existence of a not entirely benign, self-sustaining media-medical-research complex — analogous to that favorite villain of paranoids everywhere, the military-industrial complex. Although I am no official expert, my credentials at drawing such seemingly silly conclusions are rooted in my experience as a graduate student medical researcher/journal-paper-publisher at UCSF and a twelve-year career working for Internet media companies.

So why such a ridiculous conclusion? As the New York Times article alludes, much of the medical research behind these studies is quite sloppy (poorly constructed scientific studies, etc.). This contributes to the inconsistencies of their conclusions: these studies always seem to suggest that coffee will either kill you or make you live to 150, alternating as regularly as San Francisco’s street sweeping schedules.

However, as is often the case, the truth most certainly lies somewhere in the middle. In fact, it’s been lying there for about 1,000 years — given how that is the volume of epidemiological evidence we have to prove that coffee consumption in moderation is pretty much irrelevant to human health. Case closed, right? The intense scrutiny of modern medicine combined with 1,000 years of data — so why are there always new studies and new controversies over coffee as if it were just invented yesterday?

When ad sales drive medical research priorities

First and foremost, as the New York Times most e-mailed/blogged numbers attest, these medical studies of a beverage that dates back to the Dark Ages keep coming because people read stories about these studies in earnest. They sell newspapers and online advertising. And yes, they even generate enough regular and reliable public interest that they ensure funding for what essentially is a futile medical research effort to continually flog a dead horse. The day we see a final conclusion about coffee and your health will be the day that newspapers give up a reliable supply of potential readers and medical researchers give up an easy stream of potential research grants.

So what’s the harm, you ask? For one, instead of aiding the public good, we are committing significant medical research resources to essentially pointless, Sisyphean exercises. Another major harm is that it essentially gives rise to the fledgling field of medical infotainment: many of the same economic forces and guiding principles that have made media companies turn evening newscasts into “infotainment” are now bearing down on medical research policy.

Honest — do we really need so many studies about coffee, given all the other medical challenges and concerns we have as a society? If the health-related impacts of coffee were anything close to, say, cigarettes — something humans have consumed for only half as long — shouldn’t we have clearly known by now?

Apparently, who cares as long as there is news to sell and research funding to be had. What’s science got to do with it?

UPDATE: Oct. 28, 2008
To illustrate this very point, we offer up Discover Magazine‘s “Worst Science Article of the Week”: Worst Science Article of the Week: Drinking Coffee Shrinks Your Breasts? | Discoblog | Discover Magazine. In effect, a wildly sensationalist and wholly inaccurate story spread throughout the Internet like wildfire over the past week from news media site to blogger and back again. The story suggested scientific research linked coffee consumption to the shrinking of women’s breasts.

As the Discover Magazine article illustrates, the actual science and statistics behind the cited research suggested something far more mundane and generated few, if any, useful conclusions. However, the mad rush to leap to scientifically sensationalist/ignorant conclusions outweighed any checks and balances. In short: who cares if the story is real as long as you get readers?