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University of Twitter? Scientists slam latest alcohol consumption scare study

Twitter has now spawned the ‘Tweetorial’, a new form of tuition that reaches more people than any university lecture ever could. Here’s one that reveals scientists’ frustration with a recent and much-publicised alcohol study…

​”Glass of wine a day could shave years off your life,” one recent headline warned. “Just five alcoholic drinks a week could shorten your life,” said another.

Similar headlines appeared all over the world following a study published last month in The Lancet that concluded there might be no safe level of alcohol consumption.

It was typical of the media frenzy that seems to accompany any study showing that a common food or beverage is hazardous to our health. But some scientists squirm when they see those headlines because they don’t trust the science.  

The news coverage of the alcohol study was the last straw for Vinay Prasad, an Oregon oncologist and medical policy researcher who fired off several colourful tweets

“I apologise to people who don’t like that language,” Prasad told CBC News. “But it reflects the frustration many of us feel.”

Rise of the ‘tweetorial’

What happened next could only occur in the age of social media.

Prasad went away and prepared a seminar complete with data slides and references. He returned to Twitter two weeks later with a tweetorial — a series of tweets forming a mini-lecture — to explain why he believes this type of nutritional research is deeply flawed.

“Lots of us secretly feel this way about this branch of research,” he said. “It is a field with fundamental structural problems that make drawing conclusions from it incredibly unreliable.”

Prasad’s tweetorial critiqued a specific area of science called nutritional epidemiology. People fill out questionnaires reporting what they eat and drink and then researchers analyse the data searching for links with long-term health outcomes.

The studies often end up in the news under contradictory headlines suggesting coffee or red wine or some other nutrient has been found to be either healthy or deadly.

I never believe any headline that says ‘X’ foodstuff is associated with ‘Y’ outcomes in health terms. The science is almost always rubbish.– Christopher McCabe,  Institute of Health Economics

“Not a week that goes by that we don’t read about one of those things,” Prasad said. “For those of us who follow the health news, it seems as if doctors can’t get anything straight because one week coffee’s good for you and the next week it’s bad for you.”

In Edmonton, health economist Christopher McCabe joined the Twitter classroom from his couch.

“I thought it was an excellent tweetorial,” said McCabe, who tweeted that any associations that appearing in those studies should not be reported until they are specifically tested in randomised controlled trials.

“I never believe any headline that says ‘X’ foodstuff is associated with ‘Y’ outcomes in health terms. The science is almost always rubbish,” he said.

‘Nutritional epidemiology is a scandal’

Prasad presented slides citing research by John Ioannidis, a Stanford professor of medicine who has published a series of papers exposing weaknesses in nutritional epidemiology.

One paper chose 50 food ingredients from randomly selected cookbook recipes and found that 40 were linked to cancer in the medical literature.

“That’s an insanely high amount of ingredients and that I think suggests there is an underlying bias to find causal links that don’t really exist,” Prasad said

“Nutritional epidemiology is a scandal,” Ioannidis told CBC News. “It should just go to the waste bin.”

More carrots, fewer carrots, no carrots?

One of the biggest problems with nutritional epidemiology is that there are too many confounding variables between people in the studies.

“They would vary in age, in gender, in socioeconomic status, in their occupation, in their other habits and in their lifestyle, in a zillion things,” Ioannidis said….. Read the full article here