Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Sensationalizing Science Journalism

Say it with me people… “Correlation is NOT causation”

Frequent Moves Increase Suicide Risk in Teens

This was from the New York Times health section on June 1st and I can’t tell if it offends me more from a scientific or a journalistic standpoint. The article details a Danish study examining the links between teenage suicide and moving. A fine study that could yield some interesting results with the potential to give us an indicator of when parents should be concerned. But, given the research on suicide to date, it would be somewhat ridiculous to suggest that moving has clear, causal links to suicide.

To her credit the author of the study Dr. Ping Qin of the Centre for Register-Based Research at Aarhus University in Denmark points at that nothing in the study suggests whether moving is a causal risk factor or an intermediate variable, but the article then drops this quote from a professor not involved with the study….
“The evidence is becoming quite compelling that there is a causal effect of children’s residential mobility on a variety of negative behavioral outcomes…”
Now, it’s possible that there is some link between moving and teenage suicide, but the evidence in this study doesn’t suggest it. This quote is particularly problematic because the study did not control for poverty, family instability or distance moved. So an impoverished child who has to move across the country following the divorce of his parents is treated the same as a wealthy child whose whole family moves across town. I cannot speak for everyone, but that strikes me as a serious problem with anyone claiming that there is a causal link between suicide and moving.

Suicide is an incredibly serious problem in this country with 1.3 million deaths annually. It’s the third leading cause of death among Americans age 15-24. Articles like this is they continue to promote magic bullet theories to teen suicide instead of a thorough examination of all the causes of suicide. When you see that 90% of people who die by suicide have a treatable mental illness or a substance abuse disorder and then imagine the claim that it’s really about moving, you can understand why this article upset me.

It’s Dr. Qin's fault that her study was used in this manner (although the adjustment failures within it are), and I hope that science journalists will keep their focus on the details rather than sensationalism (which isn't selling papers anyway). Perhaps I’m overreacting, but I find it frustrating when things like this are promoted in the stead of research into depression and social anxiety disorder that actually helps save lives.

For some real details about suicide check out the following resources:

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