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Archived Posts from this Category
This is gonna sound cliché, but while I’ve been a longtime fan of Jon Stewart, I never quite warmed up to John Oliver.
Oh sure… on his new show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, now in its third season, Mr. Oliver can amp up the incredulity and indignation, throw in contrived comedic riffs, and preach to the choir of his liberal-minded audience as Mr. Stewart did for years on The Daily Show. But Mr. Stewart was always so much more adept at it.
Even if Mr. Oliver is trying a bit too hard to follow in Mr. Stewart’s Daily Show footsteps, there are times — like his rant on FIFA — where he can nail a topic with obliterating precision. This week’s episode on scientific research in the media did exactly that, where coffee-related medical research is one of the more popular topics among cited studies.
Readers of this ancient blog may recall many past rants of mine on many of the identical issues raised in this short — from a 2006 story about caffeine studies on rat libido to my 2008 calling out of the media-medical-research complex to a 2014 lament on the scientific shallowness of TED talks.
As Mr. Oliver says in the video:
Coffee today is like God in the Old Testament: it will either save you or kill you depending upon how much you believe in its magic powers.
Reading news headlines on my Flipboard these days has been an exercise in dismay for the future fate of the species. “Science” is regularly quoted in headlines as if it were an individual person, spouting off the most inane opinions on the most vapid subjects. But these opinions are treated as fact — as if chiseled in stone and handed out from high atop the mountain.
Yet study after cited study is inevitably flawed, distorted, and/or spun as click-bait. And no matter what, each and every study is almost certainly unverified — each a quotable example of what has been brewing as science’s massive replication crisis that’s been quietly underway for the past decade. The lone hope is that the scientific process can still call out these replication gaps. But as Mr. Oliver points out:
There is no reward for being the second person to discover something in science. There’s no Nobel Prize for fact-checking.
We’ve ranted against the Medical Infotainment industrial complex more than enough times here on this blog. You know the weekly stream of pop medical news headlines: alternating manic depressive cycles of “coffee kills”, then “coffee gives you immortality”, then lather, rinse, repeat. Billions of dollars wasted on decades of coffee medical research, and all we have to show for it is a see-saw of paranoid news bites and the sneaking suspicion that, after a millenium of epidemiological evidence, coffee really doesn’t matter to your health.
This week we witnessed media coverage of a New England Journal of Medicine study that suggested a “lower risk of death for coffee lovers.” Misleading false conclusions aside, no sooner did this news fill media columns and airtime than we were bombarded by press releases emailed from Big Coffee — with various purveyors citing this study as a rationale to sell more of their product.
In other words: drink our coffee, or you will die. Call it ultimatum marketing.
When did coffee become so horrible that its consumption had to be driven by death threats? Instead of appealing to a sensory enjoyment of coffee, we’ve reduced it to the utility (and sexiness) of cod liver oil. Rather than treat coffee as a reward, it is now a self-inflicted punishment. Do these coffee companies really want customers who think, “I don’t like coffee and would never drink it before, but since I don’t want to die…”
Meanwhile, the wine industry can only look on in wonder at just how badly the coffee industry can screw itself over.
When I was a biomedical engineering PhD student at Berkeley, a wise veteran lab partner once told me, “Statistics allow you to suggest anything you want. Just start with a conclusion and find a pattern in the data that fits to confirm it.” I’m reminded of that every time I read about research studies published in the media, and when it comes to coffee there are plenty of examples.
Of course, there’s all the health-related coffee research — which, with each decade of fabricated conflict and controversy, grows ever more dubious. However, this time we’re talking about the popularity poll. Our self-curious society loves to play Family Feud with itself, and, in terms of ready-made readership and distribution, these popularity polls rank up there with those “which U.S. states are the most obese?” articles. (As if to prove this point, we’re going to add to that phenomenon here.)
In just the past week, we learned from a poll sponsored by the Wi-Fi Alliance that “a week without Wi-Fi would leave us grumpier than a week without coffee or tea.” Meanwhile, we also learned from a survey sponsored by Filterfresh Coffee Service Inc. that most people would “give up their cell phone before their coffee.” But rather than connecting the two to suggest that we’d dump our cell phones in a heartbeat for a week of Wi-Fi, about the only reliable conclusion you can draw from these surveys is that the mobile phone lobby was behind on their research study suggesting the opposite.
This past week were also treated to market research from Mintel suggesting that future coffee consumption is in for a major decline because the younger generation doesn’t drink the stuff. Quoting the cited article in the UK’s Independent:
To target younger drinkers Mintel’s senior analyst Bill Paterson suggests new products are needed to “convert these younger drinkers to everyday users”; otherwise, “long-term growth may suffer.”
The research shows 40 percent of 18-24-year-olds “prefer sweetened coffee drinks to plain coffee… compared to only 22 percent of 45-54-year-olds.”
If this reads like a lame retread of the 1980s, which spawned “innovations” like flavored coffees made to appeal to younger consumers hooked on sugary soft drinks, it’s because it is a lame retread. But should this honestly come as a surprise? Whether it’s the 1950s or the 2010s, how many older adults do you know still eat Super Sugar Bombs™ cereal as a breakfast staple? Or still consume alcohol in the form of drinks with names like “Sex on the Beach” or “Purple Hooter”? The favored flavor palate of younger people has always been different from that of older adults, but if you’re selling product research and advice… if it’s new to you, right?
I am pleased to report that in my own informal survey, 100% of respondents believe that you can construct your surveys to pretty much say anything you want to say — while meanwhile being at liberty to ignore reporting anything you might discover to the contrary.
All of which leads us to only believe more in this 2006 piece: Consumers Rebel Against Marketers’ Endless Surveys | News – Advertising Age.
You can make coffee hot or cold, weak or strong, and even good or bad. But one thing you shouldn’t make coffee is scary. And what’s making coffee scary today — in a way that mysterious substances such as Jamba Juice‘s “immunity boost” only used to scare us — are con artists who now target coffee with health claims as varied as weight loss to Viagra lattes.
It’s probably too much to ask of our species to evolve beyond the days of carnival barkers hawking health tonics. Today’s appeals are much the same — just replace the outright fraudulent health claims of yesteryear with today’s more modern implied health claims, “backed” by the medical-research-du-jour on single molecules or ingredients “as seen on Oprah” and the subject lines of countless spam e-mails. (Açai berry colon cleanse, anyone?)
Which brings us to a newer café in the Metreon called Bean Island. Perhaps fittingly, its name — when combined with the promoted health claims of its coffee roaster — suggests the location of a sinister, science-gone-wrong, H.G. Wells horror novel.
Bean Island replaced a former Starbucks kiosk next to Chronicle Books as part of the Metreon’s post-recession retail space scramble. The Metreon, once under Sony branding, has since resorted to filling their vacant space with things like the sad, sprawling, flea-market-like Island Earth Farmers Market — and their switch from a weak Starbucks to Bean Island appears to be part of that shift.
The café itself is by no means comfortable, as any seating is limited to the “mall food court” in front of you. But what disturbed us most about this café was its over-the-top health marketing pitch from its roaster. The coffee, from SoCal’s The Bean Coffee Company, comes emblazoned with a snake-oil-like “100% organic antioxidant rich coffee” come on. There is even signage telling us that their coffee has “500% more antioxidants” than regular coffee.
Perhaps anti-oxidants are like inflating your car tires: if a little is good for you, a lot can only be that much better. But we can imagine that if this were 20 years earlier, the people behind The Bean would have been selling oat bran shakes.
Even if we could possibly stomach coffee that’s sold like a pharmaceutical, what we cannot tolerate is coffee of meager quality — and this is where Bean Island particularly fails. If you’re going to make the delivery mechanism for our medicine so inferior, please — just hand out syringes and skip the coffee.
The problems started with the single-group Astoria machine they first used here — which they did at least recently replace with a two-group Bravo. But while the shot sizes got smaller with the machine switch, they still serve it out of 12 oz paper cups.
The machine upgrade also seems to have completely obliterated what little crema that was once there. The body is still thin with the smaller pour size, and it has flavors of primarily smoke and tobacco (how ironic for coffee sold as a health elixir) — and no sweetness nor roundedness to the cup to speak of.
The result is a place that’s no better than the Starbucks kiosk it replaced, but with a lot more health claims. Coffee that is almost as annoying as the nearby electronic train whistle on a kid’s ride.
Read the review of Bean Island.
This past week, most of the coffee discussion around the Internet involved the subject of caffeine. Talk about caffeine seems to bring out the worst in people. Too many act as if coffee and caffeine are synonymous and interchangeable — whether it’s scientific research on the effects of caffeine or some lame riff on coffee lovers being “caffeine junkies”.
By the same token, why wine lovers aren’t so readily called “alcoholics” is beyond us. But in the medical research on caffeine category, the study-de-la-semaine involved a mix of mice, caffeine, and Alzheimer’s symptoms: Caffeine Reverses Memory Impairment In Mice With Alzheimer’s Symptoms. So, naturally, this triggers bad science reporting in the mainstream media with unsupported conclusions based on leaps of faith, as in this headline from the otherwise-respectful BBC News: BBC NEWS | Health | Coffee ‘may reverse Alzheimer’s’.
It’s the same old story: lab mice are equated to humans, caffeine is equated to coffee, and the next thing you know we have media companies insinuating that Maxwell House cures Alzheimer’s Disease. If only this were one instance — this type of thing happens on an almost weekly basis.
We have some 1,000 years of epidemiological evidence to prove out any nominal linkages between coffee consumption and human health. Despite the study-de-la-semaine drumbeat of the past few decades — a mystical health obsession that Western civilization has not experienced since Europeans wrested the bean from the hands of Ottoman Turks in the 17th century — there’s little or no evidence to show over the past 1,000 years that coffee has any significant relevance to our health. That includes good or bad health implications. So why the continued, obsessive curiosity?
The myth that there is somehow a meaningful connection is largely perpetuated by two groups, each which stands to benefit most from the continued belief that there’s any real debate about this:
Telling us that normal coffee consumption really doesn’t make a difference to human health would be killing the golden goose.
Over the past few months, Jerry Baldwin, co-founder of Starbucks, has authored an interesting series of articles on coffee in The Atlantic. This month he took up the topic of decaffeinated coffee: In Defense of Decaf – The Atlantic Food Channel.
Like Mr. Baldwin, we question those who don’t see a point to coffee without the caffeine. Because we see two kinds of coffee drinkers: people who are driven more to the taste of coffee, or coffee enjoyers, and people who depend exclusively on its chemical effects, or coffee users. (Really, go straight to the vein if you must.)
We even used to think that decaf coffee fans were the truer fans of the beverage. But given the role caffeine plays in heightening the awareness of taste receptors, and how Duncan Hines got to become one of the largest corporate purchasers of purified caffeine, we’ve come to the conclusion that coffee’s caffeine and taste are not entirely separable.
Mr. Baldwin goes on in the article to mention Swiss Water-process decaffeination, its namesake company’s current consumer scare tactics, and other decaffeination processes.
Earlier this week, we caught a radio broadcast of NPR’s “Fresh Air” where the program’s host, Terri Gross, was interviewing an entomologist named Douglas Emlen: The Fascinating World Of The Dung Beetle : NPR. About 34-35 minutes into the audio program, Mr. Emlen introduces an anecdote about cockroaches and coffee that even manages to gross out Ms. Gross.
The story goes like this… In the late 1980s, Mr. Emlen traveled the countryside in search of bugs with his academic advisor/professor, a renowned entomologist named George C. Eickwort. Mr. Eickwort apparently became heavily dependent upon a steady stream of coffee throughout the day, but it had to be whole bean, fresh-ground coffee. And back then, good quality coffee was much more difficult to find than today. So they often had to drive 45 minutes out of their way to satisfy Mr. Eickwort’s coffee habit.
Mr. Eickwort needed whole bean, fresh-ground coffee because he, with his many years of entomology experience, developed an allergy to the cockroaches he often used in his studies. And because pre-ground coffee is processed from huge stockpiles of coffee that typically get infested with cockroaches, it’s next to impossible to keep the roaches — and their, uh, “byproducts” — out of the coffee supply to avoid an allergic reaction to the stuff.
As if the staleness of the pre-ground coffee in pod machines wasn’t enough to turn our stomachs. Of course, to be fair, pretty much everything we consume comes with some non-zero level of contamination. Whole bean coffee comes with its own set of contaminations (the least of which includes rocks).
But it’s interesting to note that people with cockroach allergies can be a sort of canary-in-the-mine when it comes to coffee quality.
We’ve been harping on the ethically and intellectually bankrupt medical infotainment industry for years now. Publicity stunts masked as science are bad enough (see: Tuesday’s example). But bad science transformed into a publicity stunt is far more irresponsible. A textbook example came to us all this week in the form of a flawed study linking heavy caffeine consumption to hallucinations: Bad Science » Drink coffee, see dead people..
Newspapers, Web sites, and bloggers went ga-ga over the story. And when stuff like this inevitably happens, there are no two blogs we value more than the UK’s Bad Science and Neuroskeptic. In the U.S., we’ve been encouraged by a special weekly feature in Discover Magazine online, who once again didn’t get caught napping: Worst Science Article Of The Week: Too Much Coffee Will Make You Hallucinate? | Discoblog | Discover Magazine.
Rather than beat that dead horse further, we strongly encourage anyone even remotely curious about the “Drink coffee, see dead people” study to read the above-cited article. It’s a bit of an eyeful, depending on your tolerance for statistical analysis and critique. But it provides insight on the fraudulent underpinnings behind much of the study-based medical reporting we read — and willingly share as if it were fact — today.
And we quote:
According to experts who study disease and risk: You can pretty much ignore almost all of these health bulletins, with a few exceptions:
Exercise, eat a balanced diet, don’t be fat, drink only in moderation and, whatever you do, don’t smoke.
There’s nothing more to see here, folks. Everyone, please go back to your homes and worry about something else worth worrying about.
Why we entertain the unscientific musings of a discount health care company is beyond us. It’s probably because we’d rather report on it before much of the local press undoubtedly picks this bubblegum lifestyle piece up and makes it out to be something remotely substantial: Caffeine Survey Reveals Most, Least Caffeinated Cities.
A year ago we reported on their “first [sic] annual” survey, and we surprisingly get a second. Whereas San Francisco was ranked the least caffeinated city in America in 2007, we’ve apparently dropped off the Top 5 list in 2008. Curiously enough, we are now ranked #3 for the most coffee consumption after being unranked in 2007.
Of course the real question — after checking out the survey’s home page — is why Peggy Fleming got the can as their spokesperson. Apparently nobody’s job is safe in this economy.
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 – NYTimes.com. 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…
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?
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?
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?
We should all feel thankful that, once in a rare while, the confusing morass of pop medical journalism is broken by the occasional intelligent voice of informed reason. Last month, the media had a feeding frenzy over a lone medical study linking caffeine to increased risk of miscarriage: Pregnancy Problems Tied to Caffeine. Today’s New York Times published a doctor’s rebuttal to this study, admonishing the media for their unbridled circulation of unmerited medical scares: Coffee and Pregnancy – New York Times.
The inexcusable state of medical journalism is a long, old rant of ours: rooted in the media’s egregious lack of knowledge or understanding of the scientific method, statistical analysis, and comprehension of the holistic health implications for any one-off, myopic study. Without any real capacity for this, the media simply spits out whatever medical research comes at them. An unquestioning public then treats this flawed information as gospel. The bloggers spread it. The general public responds with exaggerated binging or purging alterations to their diets. And then we complain that we don’t know what to trust when the next reported study comes along.
Peter Klatsky wrote the New York Times:
As practicing obstetricians, we are concerned about the extensive reporting of a small study that linked caffeine with miscarriages (“Pregnancy Problems Tied to Caffeine,” news article, Jan. 21).
Unfortunately, findings like these generate more media coverage because of the interest and fear they generate, rather than the quality of the evidence (this study has profound methodological limitations).
A more robust and better designed study was also released this month that found no association with coffee consumption and the risk of miscarriage. Sadly, the press ignored this study while every major news outlet aired the less rigorous, but frightening findings.
Together this practice scares our patients, misinforms the public, and places physicians in a difficult position in counseling our patients.
The result is a freaked out public that now worries that their double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato may as well be a dose of RU486 for inducing the abortion of their fetuses.
Not that we feel a reason to defend coffee or caffeine. More to the point, we feel a reason to defend reason. And for some reason, the obsessive preoccupation with coffee in pop medical journalism remains a hot topic even after hundreds of years of safe human consumption of the beverage.
Meanwhile, in the past couple of decades we’ve witnessed the American diet overtaken by unprecedented, massive doses of high-fructose corn syrup and other processed foods. All of which has been been linked to our obesity epidemic and implicated in the first-time decline of the average American’s life expectancy.
But never mind that. Keep an eye on that morning cup of coffee. Clearly, that’s our real concern. Now please pass the corn flakes.