Being Skeptical

The blurb on my news feed was alarming:

Hot tea nearly doubles your risk of esophageal cancer

When we think about tea, we usually associate it with health benefits. But a new study from the International Journal of Cancer, says drinking hot tea increases…

As a passionate tea drinker, my initial take would be one of concern, alarm even—which is just what the news site intended. Oh no, is my tea bad for me? Yet another supposedly healthy food causes cancer? Should I stop drinking it? So of course I click on the link to read the rest of the article—and to inadvertently view all the ads.

Except, I’d already seen similar headlines in the past few days, and I had looked at the actual study. No, tea does not cause cancer. I can continue to enjoy my morning mug of PG Tips without any qualms. As is so typical of headlines like these, the words have skewed the facts to attract attention, not to convey what the study actually concluded.

If you continue to read past the initial paragraph, you come to this telling sentence:

However, it was only for those who were drinking the tea at temperatures of 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 °C) or warmer.

However. In this case, it isn’t the fact that it’s tea that is the issue. It’s the fact that any beverage that is too hot can damage the cells it comes in contact with, and yes, cell damage can potentially cause cancer.

What the headline should have said was something along the lines of “Swallowing too-hot beverages can damage your esophagus.” That’s no surprise. According to the Mayo Clinic website, “It’s thought that chronic irritation of your esophagus may contribute to the changes that cause esophageal cancer.” Continually searing your throat certainly counts as chronic irritation.

Now, doubling your risk of cancer sounds ominous. But what does that really mean? The American Cancer Society says that “The lifetime risk of esophageal cancer in the United States is about 1 in 132 in men and about 1 in 455 in women.” That’s reasonably high, although not nearly as high as other cancers. (For example, the risk of developing colon cancer is 1 in 22 – 24, depending on gender.) Furthermore, there are specific conditions, which we can control to some degree, that elevate your risk—smoking, suffering from untreated GERD (reflux), being obese, and not eating enough fruits and vegetables.

So what have I learned? Headlines are designed to get our attention. Inspiring fear is an effective way to do that. Those who write those headlines don’t mind skewing the facts and giving a wrong impression, as long as it increases readership.

There are a number of buzz words that seem to appear with increasing frequency. Cancer is one. It’s a topic we care deeply about. About one third of people will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime. Of course, that includes the more benign types of skin cancer as well as those with deadly consequences, so even that statistic generates an inaccurate impression.

Other topics that are often misrepresented to create fear and misunderstanding include climate change, nutrition, and politics. While some headlines simply prioritize eyeballs over accuracy—annoying but easily overcome with a little research—others are designed to change (or reinforce) people’s opinions so that they align with the writer’s.

It’s imperative that we look beyond the headlines and memes to discover the truth. Read the entire article. Track down original sources. Were the words taken out of context? What does the photo look like uncropped? What are the writer’s presuppositions and biases? Is the article you are reading (or news clip you’re watching) supposed to be factual? Or is it an editorial disguised as “fact.” The current trend in the media is for advocacy journalism—news stories are written from a specific perspective, with the goal of influencing the reader.

There’s one more thing we should do—pray. Ask God to reveal the truth. The Holy Spirit can alert us to lies and propaganda, just as He warned Peter that Ananias and Sapphira were lying (see Acts 5).

… for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. (Matthew 25:26b)

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