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Caffeine & Aspirin: Science’s Contradictory Claims

Posted by Jerry De Luca on Sunday, March 17, 2013

Most media are guilty of it. Disseminating reports and articles on exciting, ground-breaking health research that is a wellness game-changer. Trouble is, the exciting “news” directly contradicts the sensational breakthroughs they reported on just last year. Two blatant examples are the opposing results of scientific research on aspirin and caffeine (detailed below). Other examples are whether vitamin D supplements actually do protect against cancer, or whether red wine is good for you or not. 

Most of the sensational health news contradicts entrenched scientific knowledge. Other health stories give the impression that a previously unsettled issue has now been resolved, when the report is just one among many offering its own solitary input. 

An exhaustive inquiry by the Columbia Journalism Review discloses that even the most respected science-health writers fall into the trap of sloppy and careless reporting. They mislead their readers “often in ways that can lead to poor health decisions with catastrophic consequences. Blame a combination of the special nature of health advice, serious challenges in medical research, and the failure of science journalism to scrutinize the research it covers.”

Health-care journalism researcher Gary Schwitzer directed a study of 500 health articles published in major newspapers over a period of almost two years. He found that about 2/3 of the articles contained crucial mistakes:

“The errors included exaggerating the prevalence and ravages of a disorder, ignoring potential side effects and other downsides to treatments, and failing to discuss alternative treatment options. In the survey, 44 percent of the 256 staff journalists who responded said that their organizations at times base stories almost entirely on press releases. Studies by other researchers have come to similar conclusions.”

The presumably infallible randomized control trials (RCTs) have been found to not always be so reliable. Bio-statistician and medical researcher John Ioannidis, who heads the Stanford Prevention Research Center, and other researchers, have found that “RCTs, too (even large ones), are plagued with inaccurate findings, if to a lesser extent. Remember that virtually every drug that gets pulled off the market when dangerous side effects emerge was proven “safe” in a large RCT.” Even “peer-reviewed” findings can have major flaws.

A major obstacle to error-free research is that testing some drugs on humans can be dangerous, so animals are used instead, which skews the results when applied to humans. Other mistakes occur when scientists extrapolate their findings because waiting 20 years for comprehensive and conclusive test results is just not feasible.

Respected research journals are often guilty of catering to the most sensational findings:

“If multiple research teams test a treatment, and all but one find the treatment doesn’t work, the journal might well be interested in publishing the one positive result, even though the most likely explanation for the oddball finding is that the researchers behind it made a mistake or perhaps fudged the data a bit. What’s more, since scientists’ careers depend on being published in prominent journals, and because there is intense competition to be published, scientists much prefer to come up with the exciting, important findings journals are looking for—even if it’s a wrong finding.”

The Columbia Journalism Review’s advice to the consumer: “Readers ought to be alerted, as a matter of course, to the fact that wrongness is embedded in the entire research system, and that few medical research findings ought to be considered completely reliable, regardless of the type of study, who conducted it, where it was published, or who says it’s a good study.”

For more specific guidelines, see 7 Medical News Guidelines in this web site. Similar, more specific health research guideline articles found in this site are:


1979 “Aspirin: An RX for Heart Attack?” (Newsweek)

1980 “Studies Warn Parents About Link of Aspirin to Childhood Diseases” (New York Times)

1982 “Children with Chicken Pox, Flu Shouldn’t Use Aspirin, U.S. Says” (Washington Post)

1985 “Aspirin Called Aid Against 2nd Heart Attack” (New York Times)

1988 “Aspirin: Hype or Hope? Lure of a Quick Fix Worries Heart Specialists” (Washington Post)

1990 “New Stroke Value Found For Aspirin” (New York Times)

1996 “Aspirin Can Halve Colon Cancer Risk” (USA Today)

1996 “Experimental Drug May Be Better Than Aspirin For Angina” (New York Times)

1996 “A Study Ranks Blood Thinner Over Aspirin” (New York Times)

2002 “Aspirin Can Help Millions: New Report Says Daily Dose Benefits More People Than Previously Thought” (Washington Post)

2009 “As List of Potential Aspirin Benefits Grows, Experts Remind Patients of the Risks” (New York Times)

2012 “Daily Aspirin Is Not for Everyone, Study Suggests” (New York Times)

2012 “Two Studies Link Daily Doses of Aspirin to a Significantly Reduced Risk of Cancer” (New York Times)


1980 “FDA to Warn on Caffeine Use in Pregnancy” (Washington Post)

1981 “Study Linking Caffeine to Birth Defects Faulted” (Washington Post)

1984 “FDA is Reassessing its Caffeine Warning for Pregnant Women” (Washington Post)

1984 “Study Says Caffeine Increases Potency of Pain Relievers” (New York Times)

1989 “Latest Infertility Suspect: Caffeine” (Newsweek)

1990 “Caffeine Does Not Damage Chances of Pregnancy” (The Independent)

1993 “Study Links Miscarriages to Caffeine Consumption” (New York Times)

1996 “Coffee Drinkers May be Less Inclined to Suicide” (USA Today)

2011 “One Cup Cuts Blood Pressure, Two Staves Off Dementia, and Six Reduces Your Skin Cancer Risk, The Good News About Coffee!” (Daily Mail)

2011 “Women Who Drink Coffee Are Happier – And Prone to Other Vices, Too. There Must Be A Connection Here” (The Guardian)

David H. Freedman, “Survival of the Wrongest”, Columbia Journalism Review, January – February 2013

Photo: Martin Deutsch (flickr CC) 

Jerry De Luca is a Christian freelance writer who loves perusing dozens of interesting and informative publications. When he finds any useful info he summarizes it, taking the main points, and creates a (hopefully) helpful blog post.


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