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The 2005 Dubious Data Awards
December 22, 2005
Stats Staff
STATS Sets The Record Straight on the Year's Biggest Science Reporting Flubs

Media Got Hooked on Drug Hype in 2005

WASHINGTON, DC - America’s so-called methamphetamine epidemic was the worst example of media stressing shock over substance in 2005 science journalism, according to the annual “Dubious Data Awards,” issued by the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) at George Mason University.

STATS is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization dedicated to improving public understanding of science and statistics . Each December STATS issues a list of scientific studies that were mishandled by the media during the preceding year. This year’s “Dubious Data Awards” detailing the worst examples of shoddy science reporting go to:

7. Media Gorge on Obesity! - The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a report suggesting that a little extra weight may not always be dangerous - which the media trumpeted as proof that the “food police” were dieting us to death. But some of the results were statistically insignificant, and even the CDC didn’t claim they were conclusive.

6. Toothpaste Terror! - After American researchers found that an antibacterial substance found in toothpaste can produce chloroform, the British press published panicky reports that warned of “depression, liver problems and… cancer.” After supermarkets in England began taking toothpaste off their shelves, the American Dental Association pointed out that the effect occurred only in experimental conditions that placed pure forms of the chemical in very hot and heavily chlorinated water - not the way most people brush their teeth.

5. French Fry Fright - California’s Attorney General inspired a wave of media hysteria by filing a lawsuit against McDonald’s and Frito Lay, directing them to warn consumers that their products contained acrylamide, which is allegedly linked to cancer and birth defects. But the coverage overlooked a major 2003 Harvard study, which found that this chemical didn’t raise cancer rates and may have lowered them.

4. America’s Teens, Dazed And Confused - 2005 saw a spate of alarmist stories trashing teenagers for sex, drug and booze abuse. The New York Times even upgraded the concern to a new “identity disorder,” in which teens are increasingly using illicit drugs, alcohol and sexual activity to remove themselves from reality. Don’t believe the hype. According to the University of Michigan’s long-term “Monitoring Our Future” study, sexual activity, drug abuse and alcohol abuse among teens are all down in recent years.

3. Gender-Bending Babies - Parents across the country were frightened by a study that allegedly linked phthalates (a family of chemicals that make plastic flexible) to gender deformities in male infants. For example, USA Today reported that “a common chemical may cause defects in baby boys.” In fact the children who were studied showed no gender deformities, and a government panel of experts announced they could not validate the study’s findings - which the major media failed to report.

2. Poison Popcorn - “Good Morning America” ran an “exclusive” investigative report on the cancer risks of a chemical found in popcorn bags, fast food boxes, and candy wrappers. The program reported: “The Food and Drug Administration has opened an investigation into its safety, based on new information and the testimony of a DuPont whistleblower” that levels were three times higher than FDA recommended levels. The truth? There is no new investigation, the FDA doesn’t have any recommended levels, and such chemicals are not considered unsafe.

1. Meth Mania - Methamphetamine (known as ‘meth’) was the King Kong of the drug war in 2005 - decried on the nightly news, the newsweekly covers, and the morning news programs . Newsweek called it “ America’s Most Dangerous Drug” (and showed gruesome photos of “meth mouth.”). The New York Times reported that it was more difficult to beat than crack.

But academic research tells a different story. According to the University of Michigan, meth use among high school students has actually declined 28% in the last five years. And the current number of meth users (583,000) is only slightly greater than the number of crack users (450,000), although the “crack epidemic” is portrayed as a thing of the past. As for the claim that relapse rates are worse among meth addicts than other drug abusers, it’s simply not true. Only six percent of those who have tried methamphetamine also reported using it in the last month. Studies find that methamphetamine addicts recover at the same rate as other drug addicts.