It's easy to find misleading articles in the news. Today, we're going to focus on an article that does a nice job of explaining a complex, data-driven issue.
The article - "One of America’s healthiest trends has had a pretty unexpected side effect" — was published in the Washington Post. The basic premise is that, as smoking rates have declined, obesity has been on the rise.
So, what does author Roberto Ferdman do well?
- He uses (and links to) established sources, including the Surgeon General, the Cleveland Clinic and the National Institutes of Health
- He explains the methodology behind the research - including the fact that researchers had to approximate certain effects
- Perhaps most importantly, he draws a distinction between correlation and causation. He quotes an obesity expert (Yoni Freedhoff) who said, "Obviously, it's hard to establish any causal relationship here, but I would definitely say it's plausible that the fall in smoking contributed to the rise in obesity."
- Finally, he offers a takeaway that cautions people against reading too much into the study: "What exactly are we supposed to glean from the suggestion that the fall in smoking might have contributed to the rise in obesity? The answer is not that anyone should look back upon the days when more than half of the population smoked regularly with nostalgia. Rather, according to Baum, it's better to view the study's finding as more of a point of interest, a takeaway that allows us to look at how societal changes move like waves that ripple, touching other shifts, even if only slightly."
Read the full Washington Post article here.