Last week, multiple news outlets ran stories saying parents who drank alcohol before conceiving their child, put that child at risk for congenital heart defects.
These stories likely led to these reactions: 1) moms furiously trying to remember every sip of wine she had before little Susie or Johnny were born and 2) dads rolling their eyes and muttering something about eggs once being considered unhealthy.
The alarming stories were based on a study from the European Society of Cardiology, which, according to the news articles, showed that men who consume alcohol within six months of conceiving a child and moms who conceived within a year put that child at higher risk of congenital heart defects.
Except…the study didn’t say that at all.
As Joseph Vasquez reported in Newsbusters last week, the researchers simply ignored the study’s findings (their own findings!) and instead injected their own personal opinions into the news release that accompanied the publication of the study. Vasquez notes that several very prominent news outlets–Reuters, CNN, Newsweek and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette–ran with what was in the press release, ostensibly ignoring the actual study.
Luckily, Vasquez points readers to a writer who actually did read the study and found that even the study’s conclusions that are based on data don’t make any sense. Beth Mole at Ars Technica writes:
A closer look at the researchers’ analysis reveals many troubling weaknesses and caveats. For one thing, it’s unclear how a father’s sperm—alcohol-damaged or not—could have any effect on a fetus after fertilization. The researchers also skim over the fact that men in their study who drank up to about 3.5 standard alcoholic drinks a day appeared to have less risk of fathering a child with a congenital heart defect than non-drinkers. And the researchers extended their risk assessment to fathers who might be drinking up to a whopping 500 grams of alcohol a day. Given that a standard alcoholic drink in the US contains 14 grams of alcohol, that’s nearly 36 drinks a day—a life-threatening amount of alcohol.
What we see here is troubling on many fronts. First, it shows just how dangerous a scientific illiterate media can be. Sure, writers like Vasquez and Mole have corrected the story but that’s after major news outlets, like the ones listed above, have spent days sounding the alarm about the normal behavior of having a drink at night.
But that’s the state of media today. Too often now, reporters simply parrot what they see in the press release that accompanies a study’s publication, rather than actually looking at the actual study. What’s worse, it’s very easy to produce a study that says what you want it to say. And it can easily be published in a reputable-sounding journal. These official-sounding journals are what are known as “predatory journals” and they will publish anything for a fee. See this episode of Adam ruins everything for an example of the show’s script being published in an official-sounding nutrition journal.
But there’s another cost here. The cost to couples considering having a baby and the mental anguish to couples who might be having trouble conceiving, who will now feel like they have to abstain from all alcohol prior to having a child. And it adds guilt and worry to couples who may not have planned a pregnancy. One can imagine the fear that you’ve somehow unknowingly harmed your child because you had a beer or a glass of wine six months prior to that child’s birth.
And for couples struggling to have a child, there’s nothing worse than stress. Often doctors will say to a couple that they need to relax, enjoy life and each other. Women are told, if you relax, it will happen. Just relax. Just relax…oh, and while you’re relaxing, don’t EVER drink alcohol….oh, and avoid all plastics, including the plastic in your car and on all modern conveniences, oh, and don’t ever eat GMOs and processed food, etc. etc.
But, ya know, relax.
This sort of thing is bad for society and bad for human mental health. The medical professionals involved on this study should realize the great harm they’re doing by peddling this nonsense and the press should once again remember their duty to report facts, not the ramblings of scientists with an agenda to push.