This Headline Might Kill You

Nov. 6, 2018

In this Undiscovered Cares Report, Annie and Elah dig into a scary science headline and help Elah’s friend, David, figure out how scared he should be that his B12 vitamins will give him lung cancer. And we find out how—even with top-notch scientists, journalists, and readers—science communication can go very wrong.



Theodore Brasky, assistant professor at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center



Read some of the headlines that scared us, and one that did a better job.

Then read Ted’s original study for yourself and the press release.



1) If you’re a man who smokes, these findings could matter for you. This study found that if you smoke, taking high doses of vitamins B12 or B6 was associated with an even greater risk of lung cancer than smoking by itself. But this finding still needs to be replicated, so proceed with caution before making massive lifestyle changes.

Ted has notes on this summary:

Might be best to switch the 2nd and 3rd sentences. If you start with “This finding still needs to be replicated…” and then say “Nevertheless, the study found that if you smoke…” it’s better than making the “this needs replication” comment seem offhand; which is an issue with much of the media attention thus far. Not a big deal either way, but I guess I still want people to understand that this is a single and unique study, and that means that trusting the results as truth can be problematic.

All of that said, I don’t think people need to proceed with caution before making lifestyle changes: smoking is singularly responsible for 1 in 5 deaths in the US each year. Anyone who smokes should consider quitting. A good place to start is the National Cancer Institute’s quit line: 1-800-QUIT-NOW. Smoking is awful for a person’s health. It is responsible for heart disease, COPD, and several different types of cancer in addition to lung cancer (which is the #2 most common cancer in men and women and the #1 cause of cancer death).


2) If you’re a man who's never smoked, don’t freak out! Men who have never smoked have extremely low rates of lung cancer, and that includes men who took these vitamins. This study didn’t turn up any evidence that these vitamins had any effect on that risk. (In fact, in this study, there were no cases of lung cancer in men who never smoked and were also taking the highest doses of these vitamins.) The study also didn’t find any effect of these vitamins on lung cancer risk in men who’d quit smoking before the study began.

Ted says:

Yes, not freaking out is ideal.



This episode of Undiscovered was produced by Elah Feder and Annie Minoff. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt, and our intern is Kaitlyn Schwalje. Our theme music is by I Am Robot And Proud. We had fact checking help from Michelle Harris. Thanks, as always, to the entire Science Friday staff, and the folks at WNYC Studios.


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