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“How One Study Produced a Bunch of Untrue Headlines About Tattoos Strengthening Your Immune System”

Jeff points to this excellently skeptical news article by Caroline Weinberg, who writes:

A recent study published in the American Journal of Human Biology suggests that people with previous tattoo experience may have a better immune response to new tattoos than those being inked for the first time. That’s the finding if you read the open access journal article, anyway. If you stick to the headlines of recent writeups of the study, your takeaway was probably that tattoos are an effective way of preventing the common cold. (sorry to break it to you, but they’re probably not). For this study, researchers collected pre- and post- tattoo cortisol and IgA salivary levels on 29 people receiving tattoos in Alabama parlors. . . . these findings indicate that your experience with prior tattoos influences your response when receiving a tattoo—consistent with existing knowledge about stress response.

OK, so far, so good. But then Weinberg lays out the problems with the media reports:

I [Weinberg] rolled my eyes at the Huffington Post headline “Sorry Mom: Getting Lots Of Tattoos Could Have A Surprising Health Benefit.” My bemusement quickly turned to exasperation when I found CBS’s “Getting Multiple Tattoos Can Help Prevent Colds, Study Says,” and Marie Claire’s Getting Lots of Tattoos Might Actually Be Good for You, among many many others. My cortisol levels were probably sky high—my body does not appear to have habituated to seeing science butchered in the media machine.

Huffington Post, sure, they’ll publish anything. And CBS, sure, they promoted that notorious “power pose” research (ironically with the phrase “Believe it or not”)? But Marie Claire? They’re supposed to have some standards, right?

Weinberg reports how it happened:

The title of the University of Alabama’s press release on the study is: “Want to Avoid a Cold? Try a Tattoo or Twenty, says UA Researcher.”

Oooh, that’s really bad. Weinberg went to the trouble of interviewing Christopher Lynn, the lead author of the article in question and a professor at the university in question, who said, “It’s a dumb suggestion that people go out and get tattoos for the express purpose of improving one’s immune system. I don’t think anyone would do that, but that suggestion by some news pieces is a little embarrassing.”

3 Comments

  1. Thomas says:

    A similar thing happened with a study of the allocation of telescope time at the European Southern Observatory. The study found that the seniority of PIs was the key factor in determining whether an application succeeded and was inconclusive about whether there was a systemic gender bias. HuffPo reported that “Female Astronomers Just Can’t Seem To Catch A Break” and the headline in Science (!) read “ESO finds gender bias in awarding telescope time”. (It didn’t; it was just not fully able to rule it out.) I wrote about the whole thing here. I also wrote to HuffPo and Science explaining their mistake. Unsurprisingly (sadly), I haven’t heard back from them.

  2. zbicyclist says:

    PR review is even sketchier than PeeR review.

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