Sorry State of Science Reporting

Is It More Risky To Sit All Day... Or To Read News Stories About It?

Updated 1 year ago Peter McCarthy
Ultimate Couch Potatoes, Sitting & Watching in ESPN Zone
Ultimate Couch Potatoes, Sitting & Watching in ESPN Zone
Released to the Public Domain

"Born To Move" the New York Times online link read. The topic, physical fitness, seemed right up my ally. But when I clicked, I found out the writer was Gretchen Reynolds, a careless writer made more irritating by click bait headline creators. 

Why Bad Science Writing is Bad For You

Bad science writing may be bad for your health.

We'll get to the truth of what science really can tell us about our lives spent sitting, but let's tackle the terrible journalism first, okay?

Lately, most comments I fire off to the Times are sparked by political reporting and columns. It's been a whacky year. But normally, I'm more interested in science than the passing tides of politics, most of which gets hidden from us by a barrage of PR, anyway.

Bad science reporting is more common than good science reporting because writers compete with television for delivering short attention span audiences to advertisers. Standards sink to feed the bottom line.

The Times has outstanding science writers in Carl Zimmer and Dennis Overbye, both of whom render complex ideas in ways that make them digestible for average readers like me. Why not hold to that standard?

And it's not just that bad science writing is annoying. It's dangerous. Readers either make decisions based on poor and/or inaccurate information or they end up not trusting science because sloppy journalists undermine its credibility.

Neither result is excusable.

"Sitting will kill you, even if you exercise," CNN screamed in April, 2015, an incident only partly attributable to the fact they they didn't yet have the presidential campaign to scream about.

A year later, the Daily Mail sang, "Couch potatoes rejoice! Sitting for long periods is NOT bad for your health, study claims."

(Why don't they capitalize headlines anymore in the cheesiest news sites?)

Anyway, which headline leads to the best answer doesn't matter. Readers have already been flummoxed with antics of competing for the hottest click bait.

Most examples may not be as bad as these two, although both are mainstream. A good many are too sloppy for anyone but the writer and editor to rely on. And that's for their paychecks, not the information.

Which brings us back to the you should know better, but you don't New York Times.

Were We Born To Move?

"Are we fighting thousands of years of evolutionary history and the best interests of our bodies when we sit all day?" Gretchen Reynolds asks in Born to Move, in her lede about what she calls a "fascinating study."

Why is it "fascinating?"

"The findings strongly suggest that we are born to be in motion, with health consequences when we are not."

Where had we heard this before? Answer: almost everywhere.

The Times itself with Sitting Increases the Risk of Dying Early, just last March, before hedging in that article's first sentence and going on to make a complete mishmash of the conclusions. (Hint: They don't really know that sitting increases the risk of dying early, but they were pretty sure the headline's irresistible.)

Is the study Reynold's article is based on rich with new information? Well, no, it's just dressed in different clothes, and it's probably worse because Reynolds wraps her story in the assumed trustworthiness of the New York Times.

Another thing about this article and others like it is a single-mindedness about attributing every effect to one cause while sidestepping others for reasons left unexplained but suspicious. I'll show you what I mean in just a minute.

The study involves the Hadza, a Tanzanian tribe of hunter-gatherers used as representative of our ancestors before they settled down to the joys of farming, roughly 12,500 years ago, a blink of the eye in evolutionary time.

Because, the argument goes, so little time separates us from our hunter-gather relatives, we hipsters, linebackers, accountants, jazz musicians and idle rich haven't been able to adjust our bodies to the relative ease and security of agriculture and the civilization it enabled.

All that accumulating ease forced us to invent chairs, boredom and television while our bodies are eager for action.

Physiologically, we're still hunter-gatherers, but we spend our time as if we're moss, hardly moving, sitting while we work, get entertained and shuttle around the planet looking for parking.

That, they say, explains why my waistline can't remember what it was like before frozen yoghurt and your Aunt Tillie has a prescription for medicine to control her blood pressure and another to combat diabetes type 2.

"Whoa, Nellie!" you might exclaim, if it was a hundred years ago, and you had a horse. "Why would cultural evolution take us in a direction that's bad for us? Doesn't evolution always select for, you know... better?"

Well, it didn't, and yes, of course, evolution selects for change that makes us safer and, therefore, more worthy of making babies.

That might break the preferred narrative, and Reynolds never goes there.

The simple truth is that we are able to sit for hours every day, as opposed to chasing rabbits with a net improvised from twigs and digging up tubers for dinner, because learning to grow things instead of catching them made life better and safer for generation after generation of our grandfathers and theirs before them.

Now, we see the comforts our ingenuity earned us blamed for everything but the Edsel and why the Buffalo Bills got stuck with Rex Ryan.

Reynolds quotes researchers findings about lower blood pressure and less cholesterol among the Hadza, adding that "Some of this robust, lifelong cardiovascular health is no doubt a result of diet," without really coming clean on the fact that the Hadza's maximum availability of Big Macs is roughly none.

The Hadza diet lacks the highly processed foods heavily marketed in mass media, and their lifestyle manages to get by without the American five hours a day of television around which the Times clusters ads.

Worse yet, Reynolds writes, "They (the Hadza) moved a lot, the data proved, typically being active for more than two hours every day," adding that the movement was rarely vigorous, as in running.

So, we're arriving at conclusions from observations about 10% of their day?

What did they do with the other 90? Did they play cards, debate prairie politics, chat with the neighbors or share communal food? Apart from taking for granted that up to half was spent sleeping, we don't know.

All we know for sure is they weren't "moving," as defined by the Times.

Is it possible that those other 20 plus hours had something to do with their health? Don't look for an answer from Gretchen Reynolds. This enormous, unexplained gap seems to have sneaked by her.

"So move," the article concludes, "and preferably often, since the need for activity seems to be built into our bones and hearts and being," without giving us evidence for any such thing.

The cautious word "seems" is operative here. It seems like even the writer isn't so sure.

Conclusion: What Do We Really Know About Sitting?

One thing to always keep in mind when reading science reports about your physical health is that what's usually presented as universal is really only general. As WebMD reported in a carefully worded article, "Experts say they still don't know for sure which comes first. Does too much sitting trigger poor health, or is it the other way around?"

Not one of the other articles I found on page one of a Google search cleared that up. The truth sloppy writers don't emphasize is that the numbers are no more than statistics that don't say anything about cause and effect. But that ain't good for click bait, is it?

Anyone who's sat through a long car ride or overseas flight knows that your body is not going to feel great when you get to stand up again.

My sales job used to leave me stuck in New York City traffic, adding stress to inactivity, so that when I swiveled out of the driver's seat, my body was within shouting distance of how I felt during legendary youthful drunks. The difference was resilience and the absence of a hangover.

When something feels that awful, it isn't likely to be good for you and is probably bad. You don't need research scientists in Tanzania to tell you what your body already bitching at you about. But it's interesting how this slices in multiple directions.

A runner for fifteen years, I was thrilled at the positive effects on my mental and emotional health, not to mention the slender body I discovered hiding under some excess flesh, but I soon became aware that a sizable number of my friends weren't riding the same train. Some actually hated the thought of running, let alone doing it.

Reading taught me that something around 30% don't get the endorphin release or whatever else it may have been that rewarded me with a reliable "runners high," a lighter than air flush of happiness that might make a curtain call later in the day, all on its own.

So, converted as I was to the religion of running for fitness and joy, I knew that my passion couldn't be shared by everyone. Some just aren't built for it.

But my friends with whom I shared by hunter-gatherer ancestors must be built for something.

Science that pushes a one size fits all conclusion betrays the truth-seeking embedded in the best of it. We're in an age of laziness, lazy literature that doesn't challenge anyone to think, lazy entertainment that's more about distraction than engagement and lazy politics that never goes deep enough to offend lazy voters. We don't need lazy science or lazy science writing.

Is sitting bad for you? Of course not.

Is inactivity bad for you? Of course, it is. We're born equipped for rich lives. If we pass on the chance to engage, whether it's by accepting a virtualized life in front of a TV or killing time on meaningless work, whether sitting or standing, your health, no matter how its refracted through the prism of being, will suffer.

Look at it this way: whether you sit, stand, waltz or run isn't nearly as important as the reason why you're doing anything instead of nothing. Statistical associations don't tell you much about the content of your life, no matter how many articles the mass media fling art you.

There's more to that story.

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