Before we continue to take a critical approach in digesting the overwhelming amount of health information available in the media, I’d like to spend some time providing some tools to help you put on your ‘critical glasses’ so-to-speak, and help you to analyze the content of health information you encounter on a daily basis. I stumbled upon this great article that provides seven tips for reading health media. It specifies that these tips can be helpful when reading ‘breakthrough’ studies or new evidence, but in general these tips can be used for approaching media that claims to be supported by scientific evidence. I’m going to focus on the tips that they provide, but will give antidotes within discussing the tips to be most useful for you as an individual.
1. Watch the language
“Terms such as “breakthrough,” “medical miracle,” and “game changer” are often markers of inflating the truth. A headline’s job is not to tell the whole story, but to get you to continue reading. The media can harbor an interest in manipulating scientific research to make studies sound more compelling than they really are (can you say “click-bait”?).”
Good science takes time. And most times, it takes a really, really long time. Evolution for example, while seen by the scientific community as scientific fact, remains to be referred to as a theory. In the general population, people are willing to accept a majority as truth. The science community however, never commits to absolute truth because there are always outliers, in any situation. But I digress. When treatments are heralded as ‘breakthrough’ need to be approached cautiously. Due to the nature of good science, the time it takes to go through the research design and process can often take years. “Fast science, like fast food, favours quantity over quality,” says anthropologist Joel Candau in another article (which I highly recommend reading, linked here). The big push for quantity, is resulting in a lack of time spent mulling over the big questions remaining to be solved in scientists’ respective fields.
2. Go directly to the source
Due to the nature of journalism and attentive patterns of audiences, reports often highlight the most significant findings — which may inflate the significance of findings for the audience. For the full range of findings, head to the actual study report. You can typically at least access the abstract of the article for free, from your good pal, Google. Even by looking at the abstract you can take away important information, such as was the study performed on humans or animals? When I worked in research, a physician was wanting to design a study based on findings of this other ‘fantastic’ study. I looked up the ‘fantastic’ study and you know what I found? It was conducted on lambs. Lambs. And all the lambs died!! (except for 2 out of about 16). These are important details!!!
The tips and tricks article also had this example, “Be wary of percentages: absolute differences, calculated by subtraction, can paint a different picture than relative differences, calculated by ratio. For example, if an allergy resolved in four of a hundred patients in a control group and six of a hundred patients in a treated group, the absolute difference would be two of a hundred patients. You could also reasonably say that 50 percent more patients saw the allergy resolved when treated. Same story, different angle.”
3. How many sources are there?
Most scientific studies have a minimum of about 30 peer-reviewed sources, and can range much higher depending on the topic. And all of those cited sources have their own sources, and so on. Thus, each journal article in the science community is built off of decades of scientific inquiry. So why would you trust a story with one source? That’s one perspective, from one side of the whole story.
Peer-reviewed sources in general are seen as your most reliable source. They are unbiased and objective reports, that are crafted and analyzed by scholars. Even still, you must note if studies were funded by a certain company or organization. This may be indicative of a conflict of interest.
4. Understand the differences in clinical trials
This one is probably the most daunting to think about as a non-health professional. What is a clinical trial??? How do I understand that jargon??? It’s not so bad.
A clinical trial, is a medical study that is conducted in the traditional experimental fashion. There is a control group, and an experimental group, and after giving informed consent, health professionals track the health responses to a given treatment. Often when clinical trials are reported, there is mention of the stage in which the finding of interest appeared. These stages are not arbitrary. There are four stages of clinical research, and only the fourth phase looks at varied populations and long-term effects. It’s the nature of science, to start small, with conditions you control to learn the most about whatever it is you study. As you get results, if positive, you can grow your reach (think about a funnel) to grow the generalizability to a bigger population. The first two stages in clinical trials determine safety, dosage, and side effects in sample populations. The third phase compares results from a drug or treatment to current solutions. This is important to consider when you think of how findings could relate to your health, or even your participation in clinical research.
5. Causation VS Correlation
THERE IS A BIG DIFFERENCE. For example, you will hear many people say that being fat, or having a high BMI, causes high blood pressure. In reality, high blood pressure can be a result of obesity, chronic stress, a heart condition, and genetics, among others. So yes, it is true that if you put data on a graph, those with higher BMI will in general likely also have higher blood pressure, but this does not mean that obesity CAUSES high blood pressure. You can say, obesity is highly CORRELATED with high blood pressure.
6. “Condition” does NOT equal “disease”
This blurring of lines may be in part, attributed to Big Pharma (Pharmaceutical companies). Do you feel like you have medicine shoved down your throat every time you hear commercials and ads? Do you feel like they are always really bizarre and creepy? You may be subject to: good judgment, good instincts, better health…
All kidding aside, a condition is more indicative of something that is manageable, while a disease is indicative of needing to be treated. This ambiguity has been capitalized in the commercial market. If a condition is framed as a disease, audiences are more likely to seek treatment. Which is $$$ that goes into the pockets of the Pharma companies that just sold their product. If you ever get to the point where you are concerned about your condition, DO talk to your doctor about your symptoms, and you’re lifestyle to determine your best mode of treatment. DON’T talk to your doctor about your symptoms in relation to drug XX, on a commercial you saw on TV.
7. Trust your gut** (subjective)
This tip was the only one of the list that I had some difficulty with, especially when writing tips aimed towards an audience who is uncertain of how to find truth in health media. So I say, trust your gut*, the * being a caveat. I do think that you are the expert on your own body. But, you are not a doctor. You are not a health expert. So you need a little help every once and a while. And that’s OK. If you find that something seems relevant to your health and wellness, dig into it. Read the original source, and spend some time reading a couple of other sources (I mean, actually reading them). It won’t take that long, and you owe it to yourself, and your health.
Go to the original article here.