Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Trusting health claims in the news ... it's a Moo point.

A lot of people have approached me on the subject of substances like coffee and vitamin E. One day coffee is bad for you, the next, it saves lives (not really, but I'm trying to make a point). It's the same when patients ask me if you're suppose to take Vitamin E. We thought it was good, then the news reported it could kill you (or something like that) and now we're giving it out again, but in smaller doses. What's the deal?

So I came across an older CBC article yesterday - and honestly, over the past few years I have lost a lot of respect for CBC based on their website's health section. But for once, I actually came across a decent and truthful article that explained a lot.

The article by Kelly Crowe (which can be viewed here: entitled "What's the fuss about coffee?" didn't start talking about coffee at all. It actually explained how, when and where reporters got their information when reporting on health and scientific research.

It explained the research release "embargo" - a magical date and time when reporters are allowed to publish their articles on a specific study, and as an example, used a current study that wasn't reported on properly. I honestly think that all health and science reporters should have to take a biostatistics course and learn how to properly interpret the results of a study. Crowe at least explained some of the exclusion criteria as well as the methodology - which many other newspapers didn't care about as much as coming up with attention-grabbing and FALSE titles like "Coffee drinkers live longer." There's no actual evidence that drinking coffee will make you live longer. It's a false conclusion, but hey, I guess that's the media for you.

So whenever someone shows me an article with a big flashy headline like that, I ignore the entire article. I couldn't care less what the media makes of the study. I go straight to the source and read the actual literature published by the researchers. However, you also have to take a researcher's conclusion with a grain of salt, so to speak. We're all human and we make our own conclusions. Biologists are trained to be objective, but every once in a while someone wants something to be true so badly that they make a far-fetched conclusion, based on end measures that they never sought to look at in the first place. It happens.

One of the greatest things that my biostats professor taught me was: BE CRITICAL. I think of it in the same way that Prof. Moody says "CONSTANT VIGILANCE!" in Harry Potter. So what I really look for is the inclusion/exclusion criteria for the human subjects (I don't take petri dish research all that seriously when it comes to making health claims. I don't know about you, but there is no part of my body that lives in a petri dish, so why would I want to be treated medically as such?). I also look at the methodology - was it a survey (have you ever lied on a survey to make yourself look better?)? Did the methodology make sense? Who did they do it on? What did they say they were going to measure and are those results what their conclusion was based on?

A second professor taught me the importance of MAGNITUDE. Okay, so you say that coffee makes people live longer... How much coffee do they have to drink? For how long? How much longer, in days, months, years, will it allow you to live?

I'm not trying to beat a dead horse (that would be cruel and horrible), but although we're all the same species, we don't all live the same. We can't generalize one population's needs to everyone in the world. Well, except for vegetables. Your mother was right about that one: you need to eat your vegetables.

In conclusion, it's tough to know what to trust in the media. But really it's a Moo point (no, that's not a spelling error. If you have never seen that episode of Friends then shame on you... it's hilarious). The media will never change it's aim to grab you as a reader/viewer, so it's up to you to think critically, look at the methods and look at the results. Let's utilize our critical thinking skills instead of being spoon-fed extremely large claims.