Skeptics’ alert: Why studies on booze, cats, and anger need careful parsing

Red_Wine_GlassMedia outlets got some recent, perhaps excessive, mileage out of two different research studies with populist appeal—one seemed to re-address the question about the harms or benefits of moderate alcohol consumption; the other revisited the concern as to whether a virus common in cats, and sometimes spread in their litter, infects humans’ brains and makes them angrier.

Both these reports need to be taken with a grain of salt.

The booze stories trace back to the publication of a “meta-analysis.” That’s a well-known method in which researchers pull together previous studies, assess where these might be right and wrong, stronger or weaker, and, with some statistical analysis, see what the mass results suggest. So far, OK.

But a catchy headline—isn’t that what that display typography is supposed to do?—got this work from a peer-reviewed medical journal more attention, suggesting: “A little alcohol may not be good for you after all.” That in turn led a solid columnist who writes on health issues to revisit the issue in a long article, in which he concludes, as he had before, just the opposite. A little alcohol, not too often, is OK, maybe even a little healthy.

Confused? I’ve just written in my monthly newsletter about why consumers of health information need to be more savvy and skeptical than ever. The media watchdogs at HealthNewsReview.org offer some good insight for health information consumers whip-sawed by reports on research reports that pop up and seem to conflict. In the case of the latest alcohol and longevity meta-analysis, the site’s blog says the discerning use care about “observational” studies, research that does not involve direct testing or experimentation that can show cause-and-effect versus correlation.

The site points to a pithy quote the lead investigator in the alcohol study made in an interview: “The research on potential health benefits of alcohol needs a more skeptical evaluation, by scientists, journalists, and the public alike. In fairness to the journals, this is a contested area, and it’s an illustration of how subjective the peer review process is. We hope our contribution is to put the skepticism back in there.”

Cats, litter boxes, and angry people

Such critical thinking, the site notes separately, may have gone on holiday for many media outlets that reported on research published in a respected, peer-reviewed medical journal on cats, a virus they carry (toxoplasma gondii) and aggression in humans, specifically psychiatric patients.

The study clearly warns that it does not address whether the virus makes humans, in general, more angry—and therefore that they should get rid of their pets and their litterboxes. The university news release that went out about the study underscored the same point.

That didn’t stop a lot of fantasy reporting about outraged humans, felines, and, um, cat poop.

The less attention such clickbait gets, the better. Shame on those who spread bad information.

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