The Wine and Health Tedium: A Self-Help Programme
This week has seen yet another round of wine and health stories hit the press. No surprise there, as it seems no week goes by without another puffed-up piece getting the health journalists scribbling in a frenzy. Fear not. Here is my two-point guide to how to handle the onslaught of wine and health stories.
1. Ask yourself – why do you drink wine?
Did you take up drinking wine because you saw it as a medicine, to be adminstered daily, a decision taken after doing a careful analysis of all the possible health benefits (lower incidence of heart disease, for example) set against all the possible disease consequences (the fear-inducing consequences traditionally trotted out are accidents, liver disease and cancer), in the process working out correct dosage, time of administration and so on?
No, I thought not. Me neither.
I fell into wine (not literally) because it fascinated me. The most frequent way I feed my fascination is by putting the stuff in my mouth, sometimes swallowed, sometimes spat out. It’s not just about the taste of it though. It’s also about understanding the varieties, the geology of vineyards, the story of the great châteaux of Bordeaux and other regions. It is about culture and art and how they interdigitate with wine (if you don’t agree that wine is culture, is art, that is). It’s about the people and personalities involved, and their beliefs (sometimes entertainingly loopy). It’s about the larger-than-life characters who import, market and sell the stuff. It’s about the critics and their foibles, and the occasional controversy that swirls around them. Not for one second, when tasting or drinking wine, do I think about the health benefits or risks associated with a daily glass. It’s not why I drink wine.
2. Ask yourself – do the media always get health stories right?
The sad answer to this is no. Medical studies published in even very reputable journals tend to be selling you a message, and it is this ‘message’ this generates the story that follows. A sensible journalist might also speak to the source to follow up on this. In both cases (whether reading or speaking), however, the journalist is still relying solely on the opinion of the authors, which is a little like getting a wine critic to rate his own palate (“it’s the best there is, mate”). It lacks a certain independence.
You need a more critical stance when interpreting medical studies. You need an understanding of statistics, and rather than relying on the words of the authors (which, being frank, not infrequently overstate the findings of the research, and which – perish the thought – sometimes reflect their personal bias concerning the matter at hand) you have to interpret what the study really means. This is where journalists seem to fall down, I suspect because they don’t largely have a clue about statistics. For example, in this study on light-to-moderate drinking which hit the news this week it was reported here, in the Guardian, that “US study finds light drinking linked only to minimal increase in risk of all cancers” which is lifted straight from the paper. And yet, if you look at the statistics, it is clear that no such association was demonstrated. No such association was proven. There was no increase in risk. We’ve fallen at the first hurdle. That’s before we even get into a discussion about the difference between association and causation, and all the other problems you find with epidemiological research such as this.
So I guess the next question will be “Chris, please debunk more of this wine and health nonsense”, but I’m sorry, this is a two-part self help programme, and we have reached the end. There is no third step. For a response to this third question, may I please direct you to step one as described above.