I was intrigued by the title of an article, "Poverty, pollution cause cancer spike in Louisiana industrial area, Tulane study says" on June 24.
The news article references a study completed by the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic titled, "Toxic air pollution is linked to higher cancer rates among impoverished communities in Louisiana."
The word "cause" in the news article is very powerful and often misused. The scientific process of causality must be rigorous because it suggests that something was a direct result of something else. A common logical fallacy is to assume causation based on association. Two variables may be closely related, but that does not mean that there is a direct "cause-and-effect" relationship. A common mantra in science is, "correlation does not imply causation."
"Association" can, in some cases represent causal effect if all confounding variables are controlled, particularly in population health research. There may, in fact, be a causal relationship between poverty, pollution, and cancer; however, the Tulane authors were clear to use the word "linked" in the title of their paper rather than "cause," as was incorrectly used in the new article title.
Furthermore, the Tulane study had not been peer-reviewed or even submitted for scientific publication. While the reporter mentioned that fact in the story, your readers should be aware this study must first undergo independent peer-review to verify the results before drawing any definitive conclusions.
Just as clinicians are taught to be "evidence-based" in their work with patients, journalists should be "evidence-based" in using science in their reporting.
association professor & research director, FranU