How to avoid bo­gus health claims

Lesotho Times - - Health -

COF­FEE causes can­cer, right? It doesn’t — but that doesn’t stop nearly a tenth of adults from think­ing it does. Welcome to the messy world of overblown—or down­right wrong— health claims.

The rea­sons why such mis­in­for­ma­tion spreads are com­plex, but we do know that there is an in­her­ent bias to­ward pub­lish­ing re­search and news that will grab peo­ple’s at­ten­tion. While jour­nal­ists take some blame, health claims are of­ten ex­ag­ger­ated at their source by univer­sity press teams.

But there are good health stud­ies—you just need to know what to look for. Here are five sim­ple steps to help you dis­cern whether a health claim is valid:

1. Are hu­mans in­volved? A lot of sci­en­tific stud­ies are done on model an­i­mals be­cause it is a less risky way of test­ing new drugs or hy­pothe­ses. These ex­per­i­ments can tell us many in­ter­est­ing things, but their rel­e­vance to the hu­man pop­u­la­tion is lim­ited. If a news story is based on a study done in mice, do not pre­sume that the re­sults will be ap­pli­ca­ble to hu­mans.

2. Look at the sam­ple size If hu­mans are in­volved, then look at how many of them par­tic­i­pated in the experiment. Be skep­ti­cal of re­sults that in­volve less than 100 peo­ple and fairly skep­ti­cal of those that in­volve less than 1,000 peo­ple. It is im­por­tant to test a hy­poth­e­sis on a larger pop­u­la­tion to be able to ob­serve true and repli­ca­ble re­sults. That is why a drug is not ap­proved be­fore it has been tested on many

thou­sands of pa­tients.

3. What type of study? Ev­ery sci­en­tific experiment is meant to test a hy­poth­e­sis, and yet there are hun­dreds of ways in which that experiment can be de­signed. That is why it mat­ters what kind of study de­sign re­searchers used to test their claim.

The most re­li­able stud­ies are “sys­tem­atic re­views” or “meta-analy­ses,” which are an anal­y­sis of the many stud­ies that tested a par­tic­u­lar claim.

Then there are ran­dom­ized con­trolled tri­als, where half the par­tic­i­pants are given the drug and half are given a placebo. This is the gold stan­dard for med­i­cal ev­i­dence, be­cause you can tease out con­found­ing fac­tors and fig­ure out whether your in­ter­ven­tion ac­tu­ally had the ef­fect that was ob­served.

Co­hort stud­ies in­volve fol­low­ing a large pop­u­la­tion for a long pe­ri­ods of time, and can pro­vide rel­a­tively strong cor­re­la­tional link be­tween, say, ex­er­cise and longer life. Case-con­trolled stud­ies and case stud­ies are the least re­li­able be­cause they in­volve only a hand­ful num­ber of par­tic­i­pants. But they are the cheap­est and quick­est way to see whether a hy­poth­e­sis holds enough wa­ter to try a more rig­or­ous and ex­pen­sive experiment.

4. Check for “proof” or “cause” In medicine, sci­en­tists will only have some de­gree cer­tainty in their claim. Bi­ol­ogy is so com­plex that, it is near im­pos­si­ble to be 100 per­cent cer­tain. So when you read sto­ries that claim that “Sci­en­tists prove X,” take it with a grain of salt (or dis­count the claim by 80 per­cent).

More­over, most health stud­ies draw mere cor­re­la­tions (or links) rather than di­rect causes.

If a health news story claims that some­thing “causes” can­cer, be very skep­ti­cal of the claim.

5. Search for caveats A good health story will not only ex­plain the value of a claim, but also give you warn­ings about why you shouldn’t trust the claim fully. For in­stance, a study claimed that you can be­come less sex­ist and racist while you sleep. Re­ally? It may be pos­si­ble, but there are caveats — all the study’s par­tic­i­pants (a rel­a­tively small sam­ple) were white and came from a univer­sity set­ting.

Be­liev­ing in wrong health claims can have real con­se­quences. Just fol­low Al­dous Hux­ley’s ad­vice: “skep­ti­cism is the high­est of du­ties; blind faith the one un­par­don­able sin.” — Quartz

THE hi­er­ar­chy of ev­i­dence.

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