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News, analysis and commentary by UBC Journalism students


Bad science spoils claim that coffee causes visions

“Visions linked to coffee intake- people who drink too much coffee could start seeing ghosts or hearing strange voice, UK…

By Monica Tanaka , in Insomniac , on January 25, 2009 Tags: , , , ,

“Visions linked to coffee intake- people who drink too much coffee could start seeing ghosts or hearing strange voice, UK research has suggested”.

This headline from the BBC News website made me look down in to my cup of coffee and wonder whether I really needed to drink the rest.

The research findings were splashed all over major daily newspapers in the UK and probably had the same effect on that nation’s tea drinkers.

But the study’s conclusions may have been overstated.

That’s good news for insomniacs and people who have problems falling asleep, staying asleep or generally don’t get ‘good’ sleep. I wanted to look into it a bit more because news like this can really affect our behaviour—especially for those that are desperate to break the sleepless cycle.

Maybe those three cups of coffee were what we really needed to get through a day at work after yet another night with no sleep.

The paranoia that we might actually be making things worse for ourselves can be enough for us to blindly heed the advice in daily news reports.

I have to thank Ben Goldacre for bringing the shortcomings of the study to the front of the Guardian’s science section.

Goldacre points to many problems in how the study was carried out. But for the sake of time and space, I’ll keep it to the basic issue.

After a little investigation, Goldacre found that the meat of the scientists’ press release was not anywhere to be found in the original paper. The three times greater risk that heavy coffee drinkers have of experiencing hallucinations was not published in the journal of Personality and Individual Differences.

This means that their fabulous claim, the one that made headlines, was not given the stamp of approval from the scientific community. In fact, it was an ‘ad hoc’ conclusion. This is basically where scientists come up with a conveniently simple way to explain their results—and garner media attention—after they’ve finished their experiement.

Most of us don’t have the time to call the scientist whose research has been manipulated (by the media or by themselves) to boost sales or bolster reputation.

What can you do? Send Ben an email and hope your concern is addressed in his ‘Bad Science’ column.

I think it’s safe to say that you shouldn’t be scared of drinking coffee to keep you awake and help you be more productive if you’ve lost some sleep. You probably won’t see little green men.

Just don’t spend twelve hours at the library.