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News and Medical Studies: A Funny Relationship

By | January 13, 2016

Let’s be honest. We’ve all Google searched the combination of headache, nausea, and side pain and come away thinking that we may have cancer. That’s why the average internet-searcher must be vigilant in wading through the sea of false diagnoses.

With just a click of a button, a world of information is open to us—a world filled with contrasting and confusing information that can easily be misrepresented. This is what makes researching our own health so precarious. It’s tempting to accept all dietary and medical breakthroughs that we read about, but there’s reason to doubt the cure-all powers of, for example, activated charcoal. (We will pause for a moment while you now Google “activated charcoal.”) Here, we debunk two health myths and give you tips for finding truth in the terror.

A Study in Chocolate

Remember the study that claimed chocolate promoted weight loss? Remember how the study was debunked by the same guy who conducted it? John Bohannon explains in io9 how he made people believe it and says that the actual purpose of the study was to demonstrate how media outlets can present information in a way that can be misleading.

Yes, he conducted a study where the results indicated that eating a bar of chocolate daily could lead to weight-loss. What articles about the study didn’t mention was that only 16 people participated in the trials and Bohannon tells readers that “almost no one takes studies with fewer than 30 subjects seriously anymore.” If that wasn’t enough, the study measured so many different factors in the participants that they were bound to stumble upon a “statistically significant” result. Bohannon follows up and states that, “the headline could have been that chocolate improves sleep or lowers blood pressure.” There is also a lesson here in correlation versus causation.

The flawed experiment was then submitted to unreliable or fake academic journals that did not fact-check properly. Journalists got ahold of the published results and did not fact check again or mention the alarming lack of participants in the study. If anything, Bohannon demonstrated why the public must read such articles with a well-trained eye. Look for what is omitted, who’s sponsoring the study (organizations may sponsor biased studies to boost sales) and how they conducted the study, not just at the headline.

A Cure for Cancer?

Denis Vesley
Denis Vesley/Thinkstock

It’s not only dietary science that is subject to omission and misleading information. Medical “breakthroughs” are reported all the time, only to quickly disappear. How many times have we read about a possible cure for cancer, like the wasp venom reported by Discover Magazine back in September, but never hear about the follow up? While perhaps we need to keep all doors open when it comes to discovering potential therapies, they’re more often than not performed in a petri dish. Introducing such therapies into a living body is extensively different than in a hermetic environment.

Though the information can be hopeful, it often gets published as indications of possible cures, but are rarely cures themselves. Readers should be able to read the information with a sense of optimism, since the small, petri-dish experiments we read about online, have the potential to be turned into larger experiments. All breakthroughs have to start somewhere!

How to Sort through the Information

Monkey Business Limited/Thinkstock
Monkey Business Limited/Thinkstock

It’s important to be an aware and skeptical reader. However, this can be difficult for those without a scientific background or those who don’t know what to look for. Doctors have studied and trained for years to be able to cut through the media noise and give you thoughtful advice on new medical developments

Luckily, there are resources out there for the discerning health nut. SingleCare helps their members get in touch with doctors and specialists at rates as low as 48% off the original cost. So the hunt for health information from a medical professional is easy, efficient, and no longer a strain on the wallet. Like the internet, it’s fast. Unlike the internet, it’s reliable.

(Main image credit: merznatalia/thinkstock)