Titles can be misleading. In a time when “fake news” is a constant buzzword, we may tend to approach news with a certain amount of suspicion. This is especially true when it comes from outlets and individuals that we view as politically opposed to our own beliefs. However, misleading information from the media is a bipartisan problem and can easily be believed when
it confirms our own biases, especially when it claims to be held to a scientific basis.
The title of this article serves as an excellent example of this problem. Perhaps it is not the most believable, but it would be nice to scapegoat all of our stress onto the Bon’s onion-filled quesadillas. And, while problematic, the title is not strictly false. In a survey filled out by a sample of LC students, I found a correlation between perceived excess of onions at the Bon and high levels of stress. The existence of a link between the two is obviously dubious, yet news reports claiming to show equally dubious connections are unfortunately abundant. As informed consumers of media, it is crucial that we know not only whether the data presented in these kinds of stories is accurate but also whether it legitimately shows the causation that is claimed.
In learning to analyze the viability of causational claims, it is valuable to see what an example of a flawed study looks like. Consider the one I conducted. This survey found that 88.9 percent of students thought there are too many onions in Bon food, compared to 0 percent for food at their own homes. It also found that 55.6 percent experience high levels of stress in an average week at LC, compared to 11.1 percent at home. 88.9 percent of students surveyed ate at the Bon more than seven times per week. So, there appears to be a correlation between too many onions in Bon food and high stress levels.
Now, there are several problems with this survey. With only nine student responses, the sample size is rather small, and the questions were intentionally biased toward a certain result, with the first question being “Do you think that there is often too much onion in Bon food?” with “yes” or “no” as the only possible answers. Similar problems may exist in the data that news reports use when seeking to present a certain agenda. However, the largest problem here is the resultant claim of a “link” shown by the data.
Only a valid experimental study can make claims of causation, yet so often in the news headlines are suggesting causation based on observational studies. Take for example a Reuters article headlined “Tooth loss in elderly linked to mental impairment,” and the Vox and Huffington Post headlines “Want to live longer, even if you’re poor? Then move to a big city in California” and “Soda may cause violence in teens, study says.”
While reports like these often go on to discuss that the data they present is correlational, their headlines use ambiguous phrases like “may cause” or “linked,” which suggest causation. The average layperson scrolling through online news headlines is unlikely to understand that correlation does not equal causation and so may easily read such headlines and walk away thinking, for example, that their kid is headed for a life of crime if they drink a can of soda.
We need to be careful with what we believe from the news. When presented with a claim, read past the headline, examine the methods by which data was collected and, most importantly, see if there are valid grounds for a causal claim. Otherwise you might be left thinking that all your stress is caused by too many onions.