More on the benefits (or otherwise) of coffee

13 Jan

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Coffee, or more specifically caffeine, crops up in a lot of places in my teaching. The Daily Mail has a strange obsession with things that cause or prevent cancer, and over the years coffee has been placed in both the ’cause’ and ‘prevent’ categories. Equally, one of my favourite Daily Express headlines ‘Two cups of coffee a day stops Alzheimer” was based solely on a study in mice. It is, however, slightly depressing when this overzealous reporting of caffeine -related stories begins to infect the BBC.

On the 12th Jan 2014 the BBC website reported a story headlines “Caffeine pill ‘could boost memory'”. The story reports a study of 160 participants, whose memory for images, over a 24 hour period, improved when given a 200 milligram caffeine tablet. The study comes from a very reputable source, and I have no reason to doubt the validity of the science involved, but I am intrigued that the BBC’s reporting of the story seem to fall half way between the extremes of the Mail and Express and actually applying some rational thinking. For example, the BBC report includes the line ‘The Johns Hopkins University study involved people who did not regularly eat or drink caffeinated products’, but makes no further comment on why this might be significant. Now, a sample of American participants who don’t drink tea, coffee or cola seems like it might be less that representative.

To give the BBC some credit, they do include ‘a voice of reason’ at the end of the story ( and I really pleased that in this case it was Dr. Ashok Jansari, a colleague from my own department).  Ash rightly points out the potential negative effect of caffeine, but what I find slightly odd about this is the apparent need to ‘contract out’ rational thinking, as if it isn’t something we should expect from the journalists reporting the story. After all you only need to type ‘caffeine’ into the search box of the BBC website to find a whole range of stories about the possible negative effects of caffeine including the idea of a ban on highly caffeinated drinks for under 16s.

All in all, this seems like a nice story to get students thinking rational at science (i.e. what’s the ecological validity of the original study) but also about the reporting of science and the idea that by learning some simple skills they can seemingly do the sort of thinking that BBC journalists seem to be avoiding. It’s also worth noting that ‘caffeine pill could boost memory’ is a story that is likely to be very appealing to students facing exams, and anything that gets across the message that cans of Red Bull may not be the answer to good exams results can only be a good thing 😉

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