Danger! Health News Ahead! (March 28, 2017)
# At one point during my somewhat checkered undergraduate career, I spent some time working in the lab of a professor of physiological psychology. This guy’s research was focused on trying to prove that rats (and by inference many of the “lower animals” generally) were far more intelligent than they were generally given credit for. The problem, as he saw it, was their motivation (as it is for us all, isn't it). He was trying to interest rats in solving more and more complicated problems (running mazes) by using different food rewards, which is pretty much what motivates rats.
His research was completely ignored by the media as a rule, probably because it was really, really boring. Except for this one paper that discussed one of his experiments wherein rats were given a choice of drinking either water or some type of alcohol. This particular study had been written up in so many different places that he had a scrapbook of the stories.
And each article discussing his study was accompanied by a cartoon of rats sipping cocktails, or maybe laid out on the floor of a cage totally plastered, or running a little rat-sized still, and the like. Plus there was no end of alcohol-related puns and bon mots both in the headlines and in the articles themselves. His rather bewildered conclusion was that the concept of rats getting soused and the avenues for humor that that opened up was the reason why his fairly routine paper had received so much attention.
A news headline doesn’t mean a whole lot. A study isn't necessarily chosen for reporting because it is important or meaningful. Or groundbreaking. Or even a particularly good study. All that the presence of a headline means is that somebody in a position to write said headline thinks s/he has a button to push that will get people to keep reading. This is nowhere more true than in the health news, health being a subject that pretty much everyone is interested in and that no one knows that much about (even if you’re an expert -- outside of your own field of expertise, anyway).
There is a fundamental problem here. Salable journalism and valid science, by their very natures, are diametrically opposed.
Good scientific research is detailed, solid, incremental and accumulative. You need a lot of data and many well-done experiments to establish a good health rule. Once you’ve got that, any single study won’t usually move the needle of consensus on a subject like, say, heart disease and saturated fats more than a twitch.
But you would never think that from reading health headlines. They make you think that science is like -- well, like it is in the movies. They tend to feature research papers of often dubious quality just because they go against the consensus. A study that reinforces what we knew already is boring. “Wow, we thought that vegetables were good for you! This study says otherwise! Those stupid scientists! You can’t trust them! Look out for that arugula, folks!” is much more interesting. It's wrong, but it gets your attention.
News is all about drama, excitement, and danger. Headlines, and the articles that follow them, are about loud, scary, extreme, possum-squashes-SUV kind of stuff. The problem is this -- that is why laypeople get so confused about what's healthy. If you only look at the headlines, you think that no one really knows how to be healthy and the latest Discovery that random website writers are trying to sell you is just as valuable as following known health guidelines. Or more so.
So what do you do? Several courses of action suggest themselves.
One is to become genuinely informed on the subject in question. If you are not trained as a health professional, there's a lot of background you'll never acquire, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t become extremely well informed on any subject that concerns you personally, like diabetes or lowering cholesterol or bum knees. And if you do become an expert on your personal issues, you’ll be surprised how much more you’ll know about it than the average professional. You can even teach your doctor something. If s/he is willing to listen.
Or, you can find an expert that you trust. And as in politics, an expert that you can trust is not necessarily one who is telling you what you want to hear. I recall a gentleman who had spent some time researching the medical doctors in Nashville until he found one who smoked, because he felt that his own tobacco addiction would not be called into question. And it probably wasn't. Much good that it did him.
You can keep in mind that whenever you see a health headline YOU ARE ONLY GETTING A SMALL PART OF THE PICTURE. Don’t forget that any news article is only showing you part of a single tree. They aren’t telling you anything about the rest of the tree, although they may be trying to suggest that they are doing so. Plus there is a whole forest out there around it.
Finally, when you get all bent out of shape about a particular headline (as I frequently do) or are suspicious of it (probably with good cause) you can find criticism of it in various places on the internet. Two fine websites that make a point of doing this are
Today I've dealt with just one problem associated with health news -- the issue of often-misleading headlines and their follow-up stories. There are other problems as well, of course. The one that frosts me the most is how conventional medicine and its very-often dangerous, ineffective treatments are glamorized out of all proportion to their actual -- well, ok, just for now, we'll stick to health-related headlines. Watch out for them! That is all.
--dr. diane holmes
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