Something new is happening in the parenting media now. Greater nuance. You learn of a children’s health study and then are told how to interpret the results including reasons why you should be cautious about the results. There’s more of an emphasis on the study limitations. In the past this nuance was relatively rare save the traditional caveat about a correlational study not proving cause, or maybe an expert telling why the study isn’t quite as good as readers might think.

Now in the better news sources I’m seeing a regular stream of reasons why you shouldn’t get too excited about a study. For instance, maybe the research only addressed a certain population or situation. Or surveyed a small number of subjects over a short time frame.

In the past couple months, I’ve come across studies in the news that the experts have all but told us to forget. How unusual. In these cases sources cited so many reasons the results might be unreliable, a parent could not have missed all the nuance.

In September, you might recall, a small CDC-funded study linked the flu vaccine during pregnancy to miscarriage. It was an unexpected result given that prior research has routinely supported flu shots in pregnancy. The researchers themselves, the CDCs and a host of public health agencies expressed serious doubt about the results. DOUBT. As in “we found these lousy results and really don’t believe them and neither should you” kind of doubt. The CDCs even threw up a new webpage to let everyone know they still firmly recommend flu shots during pregnancy. Yes, the media jumped on the news:

What to know about a study of flu vaccine and miscarriage
Pregnant Women Should Still Get The Flu Vaccine, Doctors Advise NPR
Experts: Pregnant women should get a flu shot, despite miscarriage study
Experts: Pregnant women should get a flu shot, despite miscarriage study USA Today
Study Prompts call to examine flu vaccine and miscarriage Associated Press (re-published by Chicago Tribune, NY Post, Boston Herald, The Daily Beast, etc.)
Study linking early miscarriage to flu vaccine puzzles doctors NBC News (“It’s far too soon to say the vaccine actually did cause miscarriages”…as if the confirmation will come!)
In this case the motivation for the nuance arose due to concerns women would be hesitant to get flu shots. The media wisely heeded the caution and reported the study with an extra dose of nuance. But as a psychologist, I wonder about the psychological and behavioral costs and benefits of widely reporting this kind of study. In the past the general public heard about far fewer studies. This one almost didn’t make it into a medical journal. But it did, and the health authorities then had to clarify its faults and uphold their recommendations for flu shots, thus turning it into a nearly irresistible news story. Should it be reported in the media? Should it have been published in a journal? Should it have even been conducted? These questions were debated when it came out.
This week the experts threw some nuance at another study, this one published in Pediatrics linking acetaminophen in pregnancy to ADHD. It’s a hard study to interpret with likely a number of variables, some uncertain, likely contributing to the relationship. At low doses (less than a week), acetaminophen was linked to a reduced risk of ADHD and higher levels (more than 29 days), an increased risk. That is strange and suggests something else is going on – something the present study did not address. Take a look at the early headlines:
Study links acetaminophen in pregnancy to ADHD, but experts question results CNN
Long-term use of Tylenol in pregnancy tied to ADHD Baby Center
Acetaminophen in Pregnancy Tied to ADHD Risk WebMD

Acetaminophen during Pregnancy Tied to ADHD Risk in Kids CBS News

Do you see the different treatment? There is not much reporting on it yet as it just came out but I’ll be interested to see how the media fall on it. The last two decided to go with less information. You’d come away from those headlines much more worried. I understand why these studies are met with an extra amount of nuance. But many of the limitations that are discussed apply to other studies routinely reported. We could say the same about a large swath of recent discoveries about kids.

Anyhow, enjoy the nuance. Let me know if you come across some.

FYI: I found an article on discussing a 2014 study linking acetaminophen in pregnancy to ADHD. It was confusing because there is no date on the post. News and informational sites need to date their articles, especially if reporting studies or health information that becomes dated quickly.


Anonymous said...

I know the flu is not good for a pregnant woman to get. But I'd still be worried if I knew this, hard not to worry when you are pregnant.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

And this is why health officials got the word out about the risks associated with flu during pregnancy. They were in a tough position. As you can imagine, this study was held up as rigorous science by a number of groups opposed to vaccines.

Elisa Procida said...

Funny, someone asked us about this and we wrote about it recently, too:

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hi Elisa, just saw it! I bet you'll be getting a lot of questions about it. Just got my flu shot this weekend. And no, I'm not pregnant. Not even close!