News Analysis by Kip Hansen – 21 April 2021
Journalism: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How
The journalist‘s job is to find out : Who, What, When, Where, Why and How and then to explain them to the audience – readers or viewers — in a comprehensive, even-handed and unbiased account, worded in such a way as to enable the readers to understand the subject and to form their own opinions about the meaning and applicability of the subject of the news report
In today’s case, I look at The New York Times headline that reads: “Brisk Walking Is Good for the Aging Brain“ this at the top of recent story in the Phys Ed column. Phys Ed is a feature of the Move section, which is a subsection of the Well section – these all seemingly falling under the general Health section. It is authored by Gretchen Reynolds. [ see end-note on the timing of this piece ]
The sub-title reads as follows:
”Older people with mild cognitive impairment showed improvements in brain blood flow and memory after a yearlong aerobic exercise program.”
While the lede states:
“Brisk walking improves brain health and thinking in aging people with memory impairments, according to a new, yearlong study of mild cognitive impairment and exercise. In the study, middle-aged and older people with early signs of memory loss raised their cognitive scores after they started walking frequently. Regular exercise also amplified the healthy flow of blood to their brains. The changes in their brains and minds were subtle but consequential, the study concludes, and could have implications not just for those with serious memory problems, but for any of us whose memories are starting to fade with age.”
The only problem with this report is that it is not true. The study being discussed did not find that brisk walking (in the study designated as Aerobic exercise training (AET)) improved brain health or thinking in older people with early signs of memory loss. So, what did the study really find?
“AET [ Aerobic exercise training ] effects on cognitive performance were minimal compared with SAT [stretching-and-toning ].”
WARNING: These are the results directly quoted from the journal itself, in “journal-speak”:
“Results: Total 48 patients (29 in SAT and 19 in AET) were completed [sic] one-year training. AET improved VO2peak, decreased carotid β-stiffness index and CBF pulsatility, and increased nCBF. Changes in VO2peak were associated positively with changes in nCBF (r=0.388, p=0.034) and negatively with carotid β-stiffness index (r=-0.418, p=0.007) and CBF pulsatility (r=-0.400, p=0.014). Decreases in carotid β-stiffness were associated with increases in cerebral perfusion (r=-0.494, p=0.003). AET effects on cognitive performance were minimal compared with SAT.
Conclusion: AET reduced central arterial stiffness and increased CBF which may precede its effects on neurocognitive function in patients with MCI.”
Abbreviations used: SAT = stretching-and-toning; AET = Aerobic exercise training (in this case, “brisk walking”); VO2peak = peak oxygen uptake; CBF = cerebral blood flow; nCBF = normalized CBF; MCI = Mild Cognitive Impairment. ( some explanatory links added – kh )
What does all that mean? In a very small study, 48 people suffering from “mild cognitive impairment” – which generally means getting a bit forgetful, misplacing items, trouble finding the right word etc. – were assigned to do a regular program of “stretching-and-toning” or “aerobic exercise training” (in this case, “brisk walking”) for the period of one year. Various blood flow tests were performed throughout the year and they were tested for cognitive performance.
Those of you who are older and go to your physician for yearly checkups probably experience the simplest cognitive tests there – “I’m going to tell you three words, I want you to remember them and repeat them back to me later”. “Here is a drawing of a circle, write in the numbers as if it were a clock and set the time to 10 after 11.” Participants in this study did much more thorough tests, but you get the idea.
When all the results were in, the researchers found that exercising in either program improved blood flow to the brain – “reduced central arterial stiffness and increased CBF [cerebral blood flow]“ — which they believe would or might help to improve memory. “Stretching-and-Toning” did seem to improve cognitive function somewhat, in three of seven specific tests, but was not found significant enough even to mention in the conclusion of this study, and aerobic training, the “brisk walking” touted by Reynolds, not-so-much . .. “minimal” is the word used.
Why discuss this study at all?
The purpose of writing about this is not to criticize the study – it was small but well-done. And its findings were wholly expected. Compared to sitting and watching TV or playing bridge, dominos or canasta, encouraging the elderly to get up and move about is better for them (and for me). Moving “gets the blood flowing” (literally) and that has been proven over and over to have a positive effect on subjective physical, mental and emotional health, especially for those in institutional settings.
But biased “advocacy science” journalism is bad for its readers – it feeds them false and misleading information. It makes them stupider and ill-informed instead of smarter and more knowledgeable.
Gretchen Reynolds is a long-term advocate for “more exercise for health” – which is generally a good thing. But when she misrepresents the findings of a study to advocate for her favorite health-lifestyle hobbyhorse, she does herself and her readers a disservice. She says “The changes in their brains and minds were subtle but consequential, the study concludes…” but only the first part is true. The changes were very subtle indeed but the study did not conclude that they were “consequential”. (We just read the conclusion above…)
Not only that but in regards to cognitive functions (memory etc.) the study was most supportive of “stretching-and-toning” exercise and not “brisk walking” – “AET effects on cognitive performance were minimal compared with SAT” — the newspaper report on the study actually reverses the findings.
This is an analysis of a newspaper report about a scientific finding. And my purpose of analyzing it is to illustrate that even the simplest of scientific findings are often, I might say almost always, sadly misrepresented and so many times presented solely through filter of the bias of the journalist.
Now, in this case, the point that Reynolds is advocating is worthwhile, probably not-harmful, and is a helpful and good thing. She advocates “Get Moving” for almost everyone and she is right on that. You want to feel better? Get the generally recommended “20 to 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days.” [The current recommendation has been recently upped to “30 minutes five days a week” – in an escalation pushed by advocates, but the change is not actually based on any new scientific understandings.]
[Note: a nice purposeful walk with the dog, chasing kids around the park or around the house trying to catch them for their baths, vacuuming, raking the yard, bicycling to the shops, a quick five-point round of basketball with the neighborhood boys – all these count – it doesn’t have to be, and in my opinion, shouldn’t be, “exercise-for-exercise-sake”.]
So, if I agree with her position, why do I complain?
Journalism: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How
Let me repeat: The journalist‘s job is to find out those six things (Who, What, When, Where, Why and How ) and then to explain it to the readers, in a comprehensive, even-handed and unbiased account, worded in such a way as to enable the readers to understand the subject and to form their own opinions about the meaning and applicability of the subject of the news .
Science Journalism is Hard.
It is hard to do right and thoroughly in the space provided by publishers. Science journalism (including health reporting) has a special edge to it, as often a topic has steep prerequisites for understanding the new information.
We need good careful science journalists to make all the new information coming out of science research and discovery available to the general population, as appropriate. There used to be some really excellent science journalists but they are a rare breed today. Those that might have become great science journalists are being taught instead that their job it to convince the general public to believe this-or that scientific hypothesis or support this-or-that environmental, health, science, social or climate fad.
This is where great science communicators have a place in the pantheon of Science. People like Isaac Asimov and Dick Feynman. Carl Sagan started out great, but some believe, as I do, that he got carried away by his own celebrity. The Greats came before the current crop of self-promoters masquerading as Science Communicators — the new crop of Science-as-Issue-Advocacy Celebrities.
These Science-Celebrities include self-promoting scientists, politicians-turned-science-celebrities, TV-announcers-turned-Science-Experts (based mostly on their melodious oh-so-British voices), and, not to be left out, Movie-Stars-turned-Science-Experts.
Everyone has biases and everyone who writes, including myself, allows some of that bias to come though in their writing. It is nearly impossible to keep one’s writing perfectly pure — free from bias. But the effort has to be made if one is to even pretend to be a journalist.
Opinion writing is important too – but the job of an Opinion Columnist is far different, a universe away, from that of a news journalist. And the two should never be mixed without good cause and without absolute transparency – opinions clearly and openly labelled and separated from facts — and opinions of the journalists never mixed into a news report.
So, how does a reader protect themselves from the biases of the journalists? Let me say simply: It Isn’t Easy.
The best protection is to be, first and foremost, generally well-educated with a solid background in all of the Liberal Arts subjects, including at least a couple of years study introducing the basic concepts all of the sciences. It is my opinion that this should be accomplished in the first 12 years of pre-university level education. However, anyone at all familiar with the educational system in the United States is aware that this level of education is seldom achieved except for the top-tier level STEM students. And in many cases, not even for them.
[True story: I had a friend, in the top 1% of high school students from Los Angeles, who, only as a sophomore at an elite California university, discovered that all those lights in the sky – the stars — were actually suns, just like our own Sun. ]
For many, maybe most of us, that train left the station long ago and we simply can’t all go back to school and make up our deficits. But we can make a dedicated effort to fill in some of our educational blank spots. There are so many resources online offering the basics of math, science, art, music, politics and almost every other topic one would care to study. We must train ourselves to be truly critical thinkers, subjecting all incoming information to an analysis for the major fallacies, unsupported claims and at least the most easily-spotted outright falsehoods.
Warning: The hardest fallacies and falsehoods to spot will be those that agree or align with our own pre-existing biases —the “I want to believe” factor.
Many times, however, a news report will be false because it omits important information. A recent example [18 April 2021] is this in the NY Times: “Despite Tensions, U.S. and China Agree to Work Together on Climate Change”. If you have time, take a quick peek. The answer – what is omitted — is in this Reuter’s report: “China’s new coal power plant capacity in 2020 more than 3 times rest of world’s – study” — “China approved the construction of a further 36.9 GW of coal-fired capacity last year, three times more than a year earlier, bringing the total under construction to 88.1 GW.”
1. It is the journalists’ responsibility to do good, honest journalism – to tell the truth without bias.
2. It is the readers’ responsibility to read carefully, widely and critically and to ensure, to the best of the readers’ ability, that information taken into one’s understanding is as close to the truth as possible under existing circumstances.
3. Everything that you believe or understand to be true that is Not True – that does not accord with the greater reality – makes you stupider and less informed, more prone to errors in other types of judgements and decisions in your everyday life.
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End-note: The original NY Times/Gretchen Reynolds article appeared 31 March 2021. I delayed posting this piece until I after I had written to the study authors to request and receive, by return email, a full copy of the study and supplemental materials. I did this on the chance that the full study might have included important information not in the news report or abstract that would have justified Reynold’s claims for the study. It did not. Those who are truly interested can email me and I will forward a copy of the study.
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“He that is without bias among you, let him first cast a stone….” That disqualifies me from making final judgements of other authors – I am certainly not bias-free but I am not shy about stating my opinions. I have written often here about journalism – and the lack of it – and about Climate and related topics. My understanding of the Climate Issue can be found here and here.
Readers can contact me at my first name at the domain i4 decimal net.
Start comments with “Kip…” if addressing me.
Thanks for Reading!
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