Eat meat and die

This is definitely a pet peeve, about journalism and numbers. But honestly, today's Ottawa Citizen reports on a new Canadian Cancer Society study: "Eating large amounts of red or processed meat increases the risk of dying, new research involving more than half a million people shows.... The new study found men and women who eat about four ounces of red meat per day — the equivalent of a small steak or quarterpound of meat — had a higher risk for overall death..." Folks, the risk of overall death is the same for everyone: 100 per cent. OK, we might get quibbles about Enoch or Elijah but I'm assuming neither of them is reading this blog at the moment so everyone else listen up. When scientists talk about the "death rate" or "mortality", both terms (I checked) refer to a number of deaths over a specified period of time. And while I can't find the study on the CCS site I'm sure that's what it said. So why doesn't the story? This is not an isolated example even of this trivial error in our newspapers.

Nor, I maintain, is the complaint petty. I think newspapers have a responsibility to report science better than they do. And when we muff the simple stuff readers may well wonder: What else do we get wrong or leave out? Well, today's National Post has a tragicomic story about Canadian medical students getting faulty ideas about how to perform "intubation," an important emergency procedure that lets you breathe, from TV shows, most often the hit ER. The story adds that the main problem is positioning the head incorrectly... but then doesn't say how to do it right.

Why not? Reporters and editors must know what a head is, and what breathing is, just as they must know everybody dies. Why not say?

If nothing else, in these troubled economic times, newspapers have to focus on quality or face an elevated risk of bankruptcy.