Smoking Causes Brain Damage? Why We Need Better Science Journalism


Smoking is dangerous. Everybody knows it. But on top of causing lung cancer, heart disease, and early death, a new study published Monday suggests that the habit may cause cognitive decline in men. 

Like most controversial health stories, the media absolutely gushed over the possibility that smoking leads to brain damage; they also didn't report the study's limitations. While it wouldn't be surprising to learn that tobacco can damage smokers' health in yet another way, the news coverage of the study was misleading and highlighted why we need better science journalism.

Though the new research received ample attention, few media outlets explained that the study was observational. As the authors wrote, they only examined "... the association between smoking history and cognitive decline in the transition from midlife to old age." This kind of research is good for establishing that a trend exists between a particular behavior and health risk, but it's not good for much else. Also problematic is the quality of the data utilized by the researchers. Participants reported their own smoking habits spanning a period of 25 years. Self-reported data like this can be problematic because there are no controls in place. People can easily misreport how much they smoke in either direction. Additionally, as the authors themselves admit, the data "... cannot be assumed to be representative of the general population," because the participants were white-collar civil servants.

Furthermore, the research on how smoking affects cognitive function is mixed. Various studies of different designs have reached contradictory conclusions. Some support the recent study's conclusion to varying degrees; others find no link between smoking and cognitive decline; still others find that smoking, specifically nicotine, may "... enhance physiological processes underlying performance on intellectual tasks." Ironically, one study found that people with higher IQs are more likely to consume alcohol and drugs, including tobacco. "More intelligent children, both in the United Kingdom and the United States, are more likely to grow up to consume more alcohol. More intelligent American children are more likely to grow up to consume more tobacco."

The authors of the research in question readily pointed out the conflicting conclusions, but the media didn't follow their lead in most instances. Fox News, for example, reported that "Male smokers lose brain function faster as they age." USA Today told readers that "Cigarettes ... are bad for your brain." ABC news, one of the first outlets to cover the study, said that "Smoking Slows Memory, Reasoning in Middle-Aged Men." Beyond a brief qualification at the end of most news stories ("scientists say more research is needed"), analysis of the study was almost non-existent. 

Instead of shocking headlines and cheerleading masquerading as reporting, science journalists need to provide solid coverage of research. Scientists and educators have often speculated that lack of interest in science prevents journalists from stepping up their reporting. PolicyMic pundit Jordan Eipper, for instance, alluded to this possibility when he claimed that better coverage may not make headlines. But that's probably not be the case.

Contrary to the suggestion that the public isn't interested in in-depth science news, they really are. As one science journalist put it, "... not only is there a demand for more science coverage, there is a desire by news consumers to be a part of the conversation." Since people not only want to read science news but also dissect it, reporting the supposedly unsexy details of a study doesn't have to result in a smaller audience.

But beyond concern for maintaining and expanding readership, there's a serious problem with flawed science journalism. While Americans should undoubtedly know more about science than they do, they're not idiots. And they're good at detecting the slant that journalists approach their subjects with. The result of that combination, as many science bloggers have argued, is that the public learns to distrust science reporting, whether it's accurate or not. In other words, reputations matter. And when journalists develop reputations for skewing their stories and failing to ask difficult questions, readers don't easily forget. When the subject is something as important as the dangers of smoking (or climate change, avoiding vaccines etc.), the last thing the world needs is an overly skeptical public.

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