With the emergence of 24 hour news channels and the internet, print news media has long since given up on the breaking news story. Print newspapers and magazines can give you more details on the current biggest news stories but, after that, there isn’t much to report that people don’t already know or can’t find out for free. This has ushered in a new kind of news story I call, “We’re all going to die!” or, to quote Chicken Little, “The sky is falling!” You know the ones I’m talking about: this year’s favorite holiday toy is, essentially, a ticking time bomb, cell phones cause brain cancer, microwave ovens interfere with fetal development, vaccines cause autism. I can’t speak to the toys, cell phones, microwaves or vaccines, but I can speak to two of the media’s favorite Chicken Little topics: diet and exercise.
I’m convinced if we took at face value every health news story that was based on a diet/exercise study or book, there wouldn’t be a food we could eat or an exercise we could do without risk of something terrible. This is not to say that all health studies or wellness books are inherently false, but we’re not talking about all health studies and wellness books, we’re only talking about the ones that get reported in media sources, particularly print media. Let’s remember why these stories are printed – they need to capture attention in order to get people to want to read them and, thus, purchase the newspaper or magazine. A study that proves the health benefits of broccoli isn’t likely to do either of these things. But things that are controversial or provocative, well, that’s a different story.
I’m not a doctor or scientist, so I’m not here to disprove any specific studies. But, when I was studying for my personal trainer exam, I was impressed to see a section in my text book geared to intelligently reading and logically interpreting news reports on studies pertaining to exercise and nutrition. It isn’t difficult, in fact, anyone can do it.
Consider the source. If the source of the story is a journalist who is neither a scientist who conducted the study nor a peer who reviewed the study, then it’s likely the person authoring the article isn’t in a better position than you to critique the validity of the study’s conclusions. It’s also likely the journalist’s main source is a press release. Consider also the journalist’s goal – to have a compelling enough story to convince the editor to print it. The editor will decide to print it if it will help sell more issues. It’s not that the journalist will lie, but it behooves the journalist to select the most shocking points from the press release and report the story primarily from those points.
Follow the money. It’s common for studies to be funded by government grants or non-profit agencies with an interest in the outcome. For example, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) funds many exercise studies and the American Cancer Society funds studies investigating the possible cause/effect relationships between environmental factors and cancer. The reputations of these organizations aren’t linked to the outcomes of the studies but whether or not the studies’ processes and conclusions are valid and considered good science.
However, many industries and non-profits fund studies because they may have a vested financial or political interest in a particular outcome. For example, let’s consider a study on the health effects of beef. If a study concludes that beef is a healthy diet option and was funded by the beef industry, one that has a financial interest in that outcome, you may want to take that story with a grain of salt. Similarly, if the study suggests that consumption of beef raises cancer risk and was funded by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), one that has a political interest in that outcome, you may want to take that story with a grain of salt as well. The same rule should be applied to organizations that may not have funded but have publicly endorsed a particular study. I’m not suggesting that the studies are conducted in an unethical way. Using the example above, the beef industry or PETA, in the role of funder or endorser, controls the message in the press release. They can be honest about the study while being choosey about releasing details that support their preferred outcome and not releasing details that contradict it. If a study results in an outcome they don’t want to publicize, they don’t have to.
There’s safety in numbers. The larger the sample size in the study, the more accurate the conclusions are likely to be. And, if the article indicates that the study was published in a professional publication, such as the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) or New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), then it has gone through a peer review process, suggesting a number of doctors/scientists have given their stamp of approval to the study’s structure and resulting conclusions. Bogus or flawed studies don’t survive this process. For this reason, be wary of rogue scientists who bypass the peer review process and issue a press release or publish a book. This suggests a motivation, possibly monetary or notoriety, that isn’t rooted in good science. Also, a conclusion is considered more valid if a number of different studies come to the same conclusion. A study that comes to a different conclusion from others is an outlier until more studies indicate similar conclusions.
You are now armed with the knowledge to avoid the hype and ensuing fear and panic that can ultimately lead to bad health decisions. So, you can calmly tell Chicken Little to go peddle his doom and gloom elsewhere.