Posted in Body Politics, Commentary

Red Meat and Logic

Long before I was a cubicle jockey, and even before I was a schoolteacher, I was a journalism major.  In “J school,” before I switched to Teachers College, I took a news-writing class, wherein we were taught the finer points of AP style, how to conduct an interview, how to write a lead, and how to write an objective news article that people could read for information and actually come away from more knowledgeable and more able to form their own opinions.  This, we were given to understand, was the point of news journalism.  It was one of the more intensive classes I had in my college career, and though I ultimately left that program, I still use things I learned that semester every day in my professional and personal writing.

I think I was 19 years old when I took that class and started working as a news and A&E reporter for the Daily Nebraskan.  And even at 19, I knew how to write an article that was logical, objective, and accurate.  In fact, there was a large sign in our classroom that said “Accuracy Accuracy Accuracy.”  I took that to mean that it was, you know, kind of important.

Evidently, other so-called journalists did not receive the same kind of training I did.  I ran across this article the other day, proclaiming that eating red meat is likely to kill me.  These headlines are common in a fear-mongering nation where the economy and the government run on making people afraid for their lives so that they docilely spend tons of money (or allow their elected officials do so)  ostensibly to prevent that.   Every night, our local news runs spots about the latest terror of the day, usually some seemingly innocuous thing that is, unbeknownst to most of us, threatening our very lives.  “How your hair is killing you in your sleep–details at 10!”  I suspect they get their news “tips” from e-mail forwards.  I’m really kind of surprised we haven’t heard of a rash of suicides by frozen foods thawed in certain plastics after being nuked in the microwave with plastic wrap; according to my e-mails, anyone of those things will give you a shove right off this mortal coil; the combination of several of them should no doubt be instantly lethal.

According to the article, “People whose diets contained more white meat like chicken and fish had lower risks of death.”

To Carla K. Johnson, who styles herself a “medical writer”:  I hate to inform you of a difficult fact, but your risk of death is 100% no matter what you eat.  You and I are absolutely going to die, regardless of whether we subsist on a diet of fish and steamed vegetables or consume only Cheetos and raw cookie dough.  Death is not optional, no matter what the newspapers say.

The study focused on older adults, and offers findings that those older adults who reported eating significant amounts of red meat face a greater risk of death from heart disease and cancer than those who do not.

Nowhere in the article does it state, however, that the top two causes of death in America are…you guessed it:  heart disease and cancer.  This, to me, seems to be a glaring omission, and a piece of information that would be required to make any sense of the new study; statistics without context are useless.

The CDC statistics include the entire population, so while it may be true to say that the top two killers of red meat-eaters are heart disease and cancer, simple logic must acknowledge the fact that the top two killers of EVERYBODY are heart disease and cancer.  To ignore that is akin to saying that 51% of the victims of heart disease and cancer are women, and implying that it’s being female that puts you at risk for both.  Correlation is not causation.

And when you’re dealing with risk factors, it’s all a guessing game until someone actually dies, at which point their risk of death is the same 100% it’s always been.  Being 22% more likely to die than someone else is, at least to me, meaningless.  It’s like my being 22% funnier than someone else; who can determine such a thing?  “Likeliness” is hardly a quantifiable quality.  In any case, a red-light runner could completely negate any potential risk factors I might have during a fatal mishap in rush hour traffic.

“The researchers surveyed more than 545,000 people, ages 50 to 71 years old, on their eating habits, then followed them for 10 years. There were more than 70,000 deaths during that time.”

70,000 deaths certainly seems like a lot, but over 10 years, for people ranging from 50-81, it’s not unusual.  I did a little research on death rates by age group when Antiguo died at what seemed to me the young age of 55.  What I found is that the number of 25-44-year-olds that die is nearly double that of the younger cohort below it. At age 45-64, the number of men that die practically quadruples the rate of the previous group.  Once you hit 65?  An increase of 716%.  It was really quite stunning.  But all this proves is that as we get older, more of us die.  This is not news to me; is it to anyone else?

These are known facts, but this article implies repeatedly that if we cut out red meat from our diets, we will live much longer, if not become immortal, and be immune to the top two causes of death.  That’s absolutely not true.  Even vegetarians get cancer and heart disease.  But most people who read this article will not do so critically, and it will merely amp up the Henny Penny panic that already exists about food, weight, and health that leads to disordered eating for many, and disordered thinking for most.  There is room for qualification of many of the assertions made in the article, but the author wasted no words to do the job right, words like “People whose diets contained more white meat like chicken and fish had lower incidence of early death, meaning before the national average age of 77.5.”  Now that would be meaningful, and potentially accurate, and it might be something folks might want to consider and work for.  If those specifics exist, then it is unconscionably lazy not to report them.  If no one has that information, then what exactly is being reported?  Pure speculation?

I found a separate article with more information, but the same kinds of nonsensical statements:  “However, people who ate the most white meat showed a lower risk of dying.”  A lower risk of dying EARLY, maybe.  But the way this is written, the implication that is the liberal application of poultry to your palate may keep you alive indefinitely.

I don’t know if the article was the result of sloppy journalism, or the only possible outcome from poor understanding of the study in the first place.  Either way, it’s unacceptable.  If you cannot understand and accurately convey the information you’re receiving from a source, you have no business attempting to report it.  If you do it anyway, that’s not journalism; it’s irresponsible, sensationalistic tripe.

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Author:

I've been doing some form of creative writing since 9th grade, and have been a blogger since 2003. Like most bloggers, I've quit blogging multiple times. But the words always come back, asking to be written down, and they pester me if I don't. So here we are. Thanks for reading.

One thought on “Red Meat and Logic

  1. I agree with you 100% (and my statistics are not skewed). While statistics have their place in true scientific studies, most of the time they’re flipped around and used to support whatever statement someone wants to make–true or not. It’s one of our pet peeves at our house and, therefore, we always dismiss any real consideration of the merits of whatever “findings” are presented to us that utilize statistics as supportive proof.

    As for the eating red meat concept, Dub says that in the event of a wild animal attack (like bears or mountain lions), all you have to do is outrun a vegetarian. The reasoning is that a carnivorous animal will smell you and judge your “fight-back quotient” based on whether you eat meat or are a vegetarian. If the latter, you probably won’t put up much fight and, therefore, are an easier target.

    And you’re absolutely right, each one of us is indeed going to die at some point. No escaping that 100% mortality rate.

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