Believing What You Read
The title actually should be: Believing What You Read Or Not. I hope that you learned this truth at your mother's knee, but, if not, let me remind you now that many health reports or suggestions that are published are inaccurate, misleading, or just plain wrong. This seems especially true with reporting related to cancer. The popular press is full of headlines about diets or supplements or behavioral techniques that are purported to prevent cancer--or maybe even to cure it. Don't believe a word.
Even legitimate reports of studies are often badly presented in the news--that is the writer may emphasize a single finding without any of the gray areas or exclusions. Then there is the reality that many studies are poorly designed so that their findings can't be seen as authentic. And there is the other reality that a future study may suggest exactly the opposite. If you have been reading cancer journalism for long, you have seen a series of these: coffee prevents liver cancer, coffee may cause cancer, coffee may reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer, etc. The best advice is always to talk with your doctor about anything that you have read or been told.
This is a very thoughtful piece from The New York Times about reading and evaluating health-related news stories.
How to Know Whether to Believe a Health Study
Every day, new health care research findings are reported. Many of them suggest that if we do something — drink more coffee, take this drug, get that surgery or put in this policy — we will have better (or worse) health, or longer (or shorter) lives.
And every time you read such news, you are undoubtedly left asking: Should I believe this? Often the answer is no, but we may not know how to distinguish the research duds from the results we should heed.
Unfortunately, there’s no substitute for careful examination of studies by experts. Yet, if you’re not an expert, you can do a few simple things to become a more savvy consumer of research. First, if the study examined the effects of a therapy only on animals or in a test tube, we have very limited insight into how it will actually work in humans. You should take any claims about effects on people with more than a grain of salt. Next, for studies involving humans, ask yourself: What method did the researchers use? How similar am I to the people it examined?
Sure, there are many other important questions to ask about a study — for instance, did it examine harms as well as benefits? But just assessing the basis for what researchers call “causal claims” — X leads to or causes Y — and how similar you are to study subjects will go a long way toward unlocking its credibility and relevance to you.
Let’s look closer at how to find answers. (If the answers are not in news media reports, which they should be, you’ll have to chase down the study — and admittedly that’s not easy. Many are not available without cost on the web.)