Thursday, May 18, 2017

science is my bag

In his Annie Hall opening monologue, Woody Allen imagines how he will age. The balding virile type as opposed to the distinguished gray. He then fires off one of my favorite movie lines.

"Unless I'm one o' those guys with saliva dribbling out of his mouth who wanders into a cafeteria with a shopping bag screaming about socialism."

That is the guy I have felt like these past couple of weeks. I just noticed a number of my essays have a patina of grumpiness about them. Andy Rooney without the charm.

I am about to do it again.

Earlier this week, I ran across a headline: "Stomach acid drugs can cause serious gut infections." I have a special interest in such stories. I use omeprazole, one of the most-prescribed acid inhibitors, to keep food from ending up like Mama Cass dying with a grilled chicken stuck in my throat.

So, anytime I see the word "cause" associated with omepraziole and some disastrous outcome, I pay attention. I did the same thing two years ago when the newspapers were ablaze with warnings like "Heartburn drugs linked to heart attacks."

The heart attack warning turned out to be uneducated journalists auditioning for the role of the shepherd boy in "Waiting for Lobo." Most of newspaper scribblers stated that the use of acid inhibitors increased the chance of heart attacks by 16%. Scientists would call that statistically significant. Normal people would call it frightening.

That story disappeared when doctors pointed out the studies found no such thing. The risk factor was almost infinitesimal. Even if the data was correct (and there is some doubt a bout that), 99.98 percent of people who take the inhibitors are not a risk of having a heart attack.

The latest scare turns out to be far less frightening than the headlines would have us believe. It is true that, after reviewing medical records (there was no blind study), it appeared that there was some form of causal relationship between the use of the heartburn medications and a recurrent gut infection of a rather nasty kind. 22.1 percent of the users, to quote the study, were gut busters.

That number was about enough to make me run the risk of choking to death rather than suffering bouts of diarrhea. That is, until I read further. It turns out that 17.3 percent of non-users also suffer from these pesky infections. That rather puts paid to the "causation" fear.

Now, that may look like the use of the drugs increases the risk of infections by 5%. But that would not be true, either.

And, maybe because of the scandal of fake news generated in the 2015 article, journalists simply noted the two figures and said nothing more. Of course, they should have. They could have asked the study authors what it all meant.

They didn't. They had met their mission of scaring the infection out of their readers. And, the nutrition nazis, who considered science to merely be another tool to scare people, will interpret the study to keep the burn alive.

Whenever people ask me why I am always skeptical of what journalists have to say about issues scientific, I will pick up these two headlines as a bludgeon. I keep hoping the truth will out.

But that is not the nature of journalism.

As for me, I am going to get myself a drool cup and a shopping bag. I already spend a lot of time screaming about socialism.    

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