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I’m With Stupid – January 13, 2017

by Todd Hartley

Some of you may remember that a couple of weeks ago I went on a rant about how news outlets are constantly reporting conjecture as fact to rile up their bases and increase sales. In that particular case, it was the New York Post basically insinuating that we’ve made contact with aliens, but the problem is rampant media-wide and contributes mightily to the astounding level of stupid in America today.

Here’s the way I see it: If you routinely fall for fake news and start sharing it around on social media and referring to it in your conversations, then you were probably afflicted with stupid to begin with. No amount of real journalism was going to save you.

But if you see a tantalizing headline in a respected newspaper (it’s not just tabloids doing it) and then read only the first few paragraphs, you could be plenty smart enough and still come away from the story with no idea what the truth of the matter really is.

It’s a controversy that I find especially peevish, but I’ve often wondered if I was the only one who was concerned about it. Unlike fake news, this type of mostly untrue news doesn’t seem to be drawing much public ire.

Thankfully, it seems I’m not alone. I have a doctor friend who is a noted authority on things like health care costs and medical practices. After reading my column from two weeks ago, he emailed me with a most intriguing response.

“On a not-so-funny note,” he wrote, “some really interesting medical research studies showing that doctors and universities consistently overstate the findings of their research to attract media (journalists). … If you’re interested, I can track down some references for you. It ain’t just the astronomers and New York Post, my friend. Be safe.”

When I followed up with him, he sent me a link to a list of U.S. National Library of Medicine online articles. I don’t know what keywords my friend used, but they resulted in headlines like “Exaggerations and caveats in press releases and health-related science news” and “Press releases by academic medical centers: Not so academic?”

The gist of the articles on the list was that academic medical centers, in an effort to generate publicity, issue a mean of 49 press releases each year that frequently have no real relevance to human health and often fail to note important limitations. In one study, “40 percent of press releases contained exaggerated advice, 33 percent contained exaggerated causal claims, and 36 percent contained exaggerated inference to humans from animal research.”

These exaggerated press releases then contribute to misleading news stories on the subjects in the media, which leads to people getting the wrong idea about things like illnesses and prescription drugs. I imagine you can see why that might be a problem.

As far as I could tell, there weren’t any articles about what effect misleading news stories might be having on people’s health, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that there’s a study happening right now looking into the matter.

Believe me, I cherish everyone’s freedom to believe whatever the hell they want to believe, and if anyone is going to champion your right to be as stupid as you want to be as long as you obey the law, I’m the guy. But when stupid is being disseminated by institutions and media outlets that we ought to be able to trust and is literally creating a public health issue, something needs to be done.

Academic medical centers have to hold themselves to a higher standard and understand that their research and findings have real-world implications. At the very least, they should consider the kind of attention-grubbing they’re guilty of well beneath them. Leave that nonsense to the tabloids, please, and report your data in the stiff, boring way we all expect you to. If you cure a disease or create a vaccine, that’ll be news enough without any added hyperbole.

And to all you readers out there, both of you, I would caution you to bring more scrutiny to bear on any so-called news you read, hear or see on TV. Even if you trust the source implicitly, get the whole story and double check it before you go acting on it or sharing it on Facebook. You can save yourself from looking stupid, and your life could very well depend on it.

Todd Hartley made a Dr. Johnny Fever-WKRP reference in his headline and didn’t even realize it. 

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