How to Make Sense of Conflicting Health News and Research
Have you ever watched prime time news to hear that vitamin E is good for cardiovascular health only to hear the following week that it causes excess bleeding? How about Omega 3 being good for the heart, then again that it doesn’t offer any heart benefit at all?
The Scientific Method is a powerful tool, a tool that has shaped our world in innumerable ways. Like all tools, it’s effect -and its value- is largely dependent on the person wielding it. Poorly designed studies can return inaccurate results. And even well designed studies must have discerning minds involved to interpret what the results suggest. What does this all mean? It means, not all Studies are created equal.
How to Size Up Studies and Research
According to Dr. Bob Arnaut, one of CBS Evening News’ medical correspondents, conflicting research findings on nutrients often result from different dosages, misconstrued and misinterpreted statistics, and varied test groups. Poor scholarship on the part of the researchers and oversimplification of studies can also result in inaccuracies.
Determining the validity of research is possible when you do your own investigation into the health topic that’s puzzling you now. But for many of us, it’s simply too time consuming to find what’s behind conflicting claims made by differing studies. Is it poor scholarship on the part of the researcher? Is it poor translation on the part of the newscaster? Or is it outright deception on the part of an interested 3rd party?
Fortunately, it is not necessary to conduct your own studies to understand what’s really going on. Following a few points and paying attention to certain aspects of the study can help you figure out just who to believe. And if you want to dig deeper, here’s how.
Learn to Sniff Misleading Headlines
Headlines can be very misleading. Sometimes, the headlines are designed to alarm you and so win your attention. At some point, we’ve all read absurd headlines not too far from this: “Do Popsicles Cause Cancer??” Chances are, in the body of the article you’d find several paragraphs amounting to the flat answer, “No – popsicles do not cause cancer.” It’s a cheap technique used to sell copy. Other times, headlines exaggerate – or minimize - the findings detailed in the actual study.
Look Who’s Talking…and Who’s Paying them to Talk!
When you watch the news or read online, look at the ads that accompany the piece. Who are the advertisers? Small farmers? Fast food chains? Biotech companies? Supplement companies? Pharmaceutical companies? Media companies are not independent and therefore often adjust their content because they don’t want to lose their financial patrons. An example of this is the vitamin outrage Reader’s Digest created 2 years ago.
Watch for Manipulation of Research Parameters
Espousing valid research that supports what you may be selling is no crime. If scientists across the world really do discover that the lip balm you sell also cures the common cold, then, by all means, spread the news! However, certain self-interested groups are not happy enough finding and promoting such independent research. Instead, they will seek to influence the studies themselves, seeing medical research as simply an offshoot of their own advertising department. Their studies often have skewed results in favor of what they’re selling or against what they don’t, and this tainted research is then thrown into the public forum, mingling beside valid studies. Here is where marketing easily masquerades as truth, particularly to those who simply don’t have the time to vet all research claims sent their way.
These conflicts of interest have raised such concern that it is now a law that researchers disclose their source of funding.
Let’s look at Vitamin E, discussed earlier. Vitamin E is known to improve circulation by acting as a natural blood thinner. Optimum dose of a natural form of Vitamin E is vital for health, but too much of it will keep your blood from clotting, resulting in excessive bleeding should you cut yourself or get into an accident. The same goes for iron. Too little or too much can accelerate death. A news report making claims about Vitamin E in either extreme without discussing the issue in more detail would be doing their reader a disservice.
As for whether or not Omega 3 is beneficial or useless in alleviating cardiovascular conditions: look at the financial backer of the studies that published negative results. More often than not you will find out that these companies sell statins, aspirin, anti-coagulants, vasodilators, coumadin, anti-hypertensive drugs, weight loss medications, synthetic blood thinners, ACE inhibitors, and beta blockers–pharmaceutical drugs that are often taken in combination to treat cardiovascular problems. It would be much to their advantage to disparage the effects of omega 3 fish oil on these issues, so that their own products can grab the limelight.
There also happens to be a hierarchy of research methods. Results from in vitro or laboratory testing are not as reliable as those obtained from in vivo trials involving animals and humans. Human trials are deemed most trusty due to the obvious match in anatomy between the test subjects and the studies’ targeted beneficiaries. The results of in vitro testing to not carry the same weight as those from in vivo tests.
If you really want to get your teeth into the study, here are some things to look at when weighing the evidence:
- The duration of the study: If the period is short, then the intervention may not have been given enough time to work.
- Health variables: are the participants on prescribed drugs unrelated to the study? are they physically active? what’s their diet like?
- The size of subject groups: testing something on a small population may not be the best way to gather telling data.
Because headlines – and often the articles themselves, can be so misleading, it is often better to go to the primary source of information, like the journal article or study itself.
Don’t have the time? If your life is anything like mine, then you probably don’t. But if you really want to get to the bottom of things – if you yearn to know the facts for yourself and aren’t satisfied having them filtered by someone else, there are some things you can do to find them.
If the original article is only available via paid subscription then at least try to google its abstract. Secondary texts are prone to inaccuracies, as it is very possible for the writer to omit details and misinterpret or hype up the findings–either inadvertently or deliberately. Even some scientists and researchers themselves can be guilty of sensationalizing their findings. Peer reviewed studies add an element of credibility. Read about the reviews and comments of their peers to get a second, third, or fourth opinion on the topic being debated to enrich your understanding of the study’s methodology and results.
You can also try to find out the entity that financed the study when appraising its fairness and objectivity. If the researchers are on Big Pharma’s payroll then you can expect the results to be predetermined, serving the interest of the company that funded the study. Results of such studies usually suggest that supplements either cause harm to your health or do nothing to help your condition. Studies that detract supplements may either use less effective varieties (natural vs. synthetic, regular vs. chelated, cheap vs. high-quality) or use lower doses to “prove” that supplements give you nothing but expensive urine.
It is always best to practice healthy skepticism when understanding contradictory health information. Misinformation, as practiced by both self-interested businesses and media organizations alike, is a great and dangerous disservice to humanity. Poor scholarship on the part of the researcher, though without malice, can be equally harmful. Oversimplification of valid studies can do just as much damage as the others.
If you are ever confused about conflicting health news and research, make sure to forego the online forum, read between the lines, and seek the advice of your healthcare professional.
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