After reading the Sept. 18 front-page story boldly titled, “Weed, alcohol mix hurts learning,” I was more disappointed than ever by the severe lack of journalistic integrity of The Chronicle. The content of the story was poor enough, but the title has to be one of the grossest overstatements and oversimplifications I’ve ever seen. Let’s juxtapose the conclusiveness and generality of the title with the nuance of the actual experiment described, which all of you should actually read.
The study found that “the combination of ethanol and THC may be sufficiently reinforcing in adolescent animals to induce a preference for recently encountered stimuli.” In layman’s terms, as co-author Scott Swartzwelder told The Chronicle, the mixture of weed and alcohol “made [the rat] more comfortable with what it already knows.” Here, also in layman’s terms, is exactly what the experimenters did: They put rats in a box for five minutes near two identical objects, then gave different rats different levels of ethanol and THC, waited 24 hours, then put the rats in a box for five minutes with one of the objects from the first trial and one new object, and calculated each rat’s relative preference for exploring the new object compared to the familiar one. The article summarized the results for adolescent rats dosed with both ethanol and THC by saying they “did not show signs of memory loss. Instead, they chose to solely interact with the familiar object because it was preferable to the new one, completely counter to their evolutionary tendency to explore.”
First of all, The Chronicle clearly fails to understand either the meaning of the word “solely” or the experimental design itself. Even the rats with the highest dose did not “solely” interact with the familiar object. They demonstrated a statistically significant preference for it by spending more time exploring it. That’s it.
Second, I find it very interesting that the study’s results showed that THC by itself actually had no significant impact on adolescent rats’ object preference. Third, extrapolating those results into the overarching statement “Weed, alcohol mix hurts learning” is lazy and misleading, especially considering the admission in The Chronicle article that adolescent rats dosed with the combination did not show signs of impaired memory, which I think we can all agree plays a fairly important role in learning.
The bottom line is, as the study’s introduction states, “Studies suggest that the interaction between THC and ethanol is complex and depends upon dose, previous drug experience and the specific performance measure assessed.” That’s the kind of subtlety that science (and good journalism) demands, but instead, The Chronicle chose the most abrasive title possible and sandwiched the actual scientific discussion between a character sketch of lead-author Nick Swartzwelder’s dad and a completely gratuitous reference to “the archetypal stoner.” Wait, wasn’t this about getting crossfaded at parties?
Then, The Chronicle chose to end on Nick Swartzwelder’s claim that, based on the results of this experiment, getting crossfaded “prevents you from being as effective as a student” because “if you decide to drink and smoke throughout an entire weekend, it affects you long beyond just that day.” Damn, he’s right. The 24 hours between trials really showed the long-term effects on those rats.
Look, I’m not arguing that you can study for orgo just as effectively while drunk and high. I doubt anyone could. I’m also not arguing that getting crossfaded every weekend is necessarily healthy. What I am arguing is that The Chronicle should do a much better job of interpreting and reporting scientific studies in a way that represents us as one of the best academic institutions in the country and the world, not as a bunch of pandering, attention-grabbing lightweights.
Update 9/22/2012: This letter has been modified to better reflect The Chronicle's letters policy.