In Science Headlines, Should Nuance Trump Sensation?

Aug 3, 2015
Originally published on August 3, 2015 3:46 pm

A new paper, just published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, provides insights into the risks and benefits of coffee consumption.

It's the latest scientific study to hit the media. But different headlines give a very different picture of what the study found.

Some headlines depict good news:

"Here's More Evidence That Coffee Is Good For Your Brain" (Forbes.com)

"Coffee Guards Against Mild Cognitive Impairment, Says Study" (Bustle.com)

"Drinking Coffee In Moderate Amounts May Protect Your Brain From Cognitive Impairment, Alzheimer's" (MedicalDaily.com)

Others, not so much:

"Study: Increasing Coffee Intake Harmful To Brain" (CBS Atlanta)

"Here's why that extra cup of coffee is bad for your brain" (India Today)

What the study actually found was a reduced risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) among adults who regularly consumed 1-2 cups of coffee a day, relative to those who either consumed no coffee (so coffee is good!) or who increased their coffee consumption over time (so more coffee is bad!). You can read a short summary of the study in the Washington Post, whose more judicious headline reads: "Yesterday's coffee science: It's good for the brain. Today: Not so fast...*"

This is only the latest demonstration that the path from scientific discovery to media sound bite can be perilous, and that it should be traversed with care. Most of these headlines weren't actually false, but they generated different expectations about what the research found — and they had different implications about whether you should increase or curtail your coffee consumption.

It's no surprise that media headlines sometimes err toward the sensational, and that they sometimes tell a different story from the articles that follow. But research also shows that misleading headlines — those that aren't false but that skirt the main point — can have significant consequences for people's subsequent memory and reasoning about the story's content.

It's nice to see diversity in how a story is covered. But, as with coffee, you can have too much of a good thing. When it comes to science headlines — especially those with implications for people's health and behavior — I think the Washington Post got it right. Sometimes science is nuanced, and the corresponding headlines should be, too.


Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

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