Monday, August 3, 2009

Vitamin D deficiancy higher in kids, but the WaPo won't help

Today’s online edition of the Washington Post has a great example of how hard it is to communicate science to the public, especially when you operate under the mis-guided notion of a “fair balance” and thus have an need for two sides to a story.

Titled “Millions of Children In U.S. Found to Be Lacking Vitamin D – Links to Diabetes, Heart Disease Examined” seems, at first read, to be a straightforward report that 9% of children don’t have enough Vitamin D in their bodies to ward off a variety of both early and late life diseases. The WaPo authors note that scientists studying this question point to a decline in the consumption of Vitamin D enriched milk, and the lack of outdoor play time as significant causative factors.

Had they left it there, the story would have given parents and doctors something to talk about – how much sunlight does a nine year old Hispanic girl need to make adequate Vitamin D, and how can we help her get it? Why aren’t kids drinking as much fortified milk as before and is this really the best way (nutritionally) to supplement the lack of natural production? These would have been great questions, and great conversations.

Sadly, they aren’t likely to happen if you read the full piece. Ten paragraphs in, after the study and it’s findings are explained we hit this:

"The bottom line is that these numbers are interesting," said Frank R. Greer of
the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who served on a panel that recently
doubled the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations for daily Vitamin D
intake. "But I'm not ready to make a great hue and cry until we have more data.
I think we should use them for further research to determine their

Why is this a significant paragraph? Isn’t it just an expression of the uncertainty that is inherent in science? Shouldn’t we do more studies after a finding like this to replicate them?

If you are a scientist, those are sensible responses. But the average reader, looking at the Citations to Authority presented here (i.e. Greer is a University academic who sits on an important panel of doctors who make important recommendations so we’d better listen to him), this is a contradiction to the findings presented in the prior 9 paragraphs. “Joe Sixpack” is thus likely to conclude that, since there is not a “scientific consensus” presented (i.e. the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t agree with this finding), he shouldn’t do anything differently, nor should he worry about his kids and whether they have Vitamin D deficiencies.

In addition, the WaPo fails to tell its readers that it’s counter-expert may have a vested interest in further study going a certain direction. If you Google Dr. Greer (who is, thankfully, a pediatric MD); you find this at

Position: Pro to the question "Is drinking milk healthy for
Reasoning: "Milk is one of the richest dietary sources of calcium and vitamin D, critical for building strong bones in kids and teens, and providing the best defense against developing osteoporosis later in life. While calcium supplements and non-dairy foods such as calcium-fortified beverages are an alternative, these products do not offer milk's unique nutrient package."

Clearly, Dr. Greer will have to advocate for more milk consumption if the study proves true, and will have to admit his efforts so far have not gone far enough. Even if he were neutral on the subject in his interviews, demanding more study and better numbers is often the tactic of deniers, or those with specific agendas that run counter to the conclusions of study authors.

So what could the Wa Po have done differently in presenting the story? First, I see no reason to have someone on as a counter point to these conclusions. Perhaps the WaPo editors thought that someone urging an ounce of caution before making major life changes was a good idea. Afterall, no use going off half cocked. But given the urgent need for some sort of change (9%) of kids suffering form this is not good) they might have done better to focus on the need for more outdoor play and exercise to increase sun exposure, and the need to increase milk intake. At the very least, they could have suggested talking to your kid’s pediatrician earlier in the article.

The bottom line, for me, is that while science is iterative, and thus never “done” and possessing “conclusions” as most people understand this term, the WaPo did its readers yet another science disservice by implying a need to wait for something more concrete, instead of evaluating your health now, and making better choices. This is why the media are failing so badly in communicating science to the general public.

1 comment:

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