“Blasting Nerves in Kidneys Lowers Blood Pressure, Study Finds”
“Energy Drinks: Gateways To Alcohol Abuse”
“One In Five Adults Suffering from Mental Illness”
“Antibiotic Benefits Slight in Kids’ Ear Infections”
Which of these headlines are you most likely to believe? All of them? None of them? Maybe just the one about antibiotics? (Maybe … me too … kinda.)
I plucked them quickly from the latest health headlines from today – and, man, I’ll tell you what, they’re just a minute sampling of the exciting new breakthroughs of science. Scanning through these amazing claims and definite insights gives you a rush of excitement and then a huge headache and then you’re just straight-up confused.
Reading enough of these, you really, really want to believe and test thoroughly the one that stated: Study Finds Heavy Drinkers Outlive Nondrinkers.
I’ve got to admit: I’m a skeptic. I have been for years – and I’ve started disbelieving the majority of scientific headlines that scream from the rooftops that they’ve confirmed the opposite of what humanity has believed for a long time.
But is that a good thing? Have I been throwing the miracle baby out with the bathwater?
I recently finished reading the book Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us and How to Know When Not to Trust Them by David Freedman.
It blew my crunchy little mind.
The gist is this: The majority of the medical, financial, and society studies highlighted in today’s news is wrong. Slightly wrong to hitting-yourself-in-the-head-with-a-hammer-to-cure-your-headache wrong.
The reasons the experts and scientific studies are wrong come in many different forms: From having to produce an outcome the backing company paid for, to falsifying evidence to keep a grant, to fudging numbers so their study makes headlines. And any number of reasons in between.
But David Freedman makes a very, very convincing case that the majority of scientific studies that we hold up – daily – as the “new truth” is actually just bunk.
It makes me feel much better about being a skeptic, but it also made me rethink the way even I will latch onto a study that reinforces my beliefs.
What Are We Supposed To Believe?
That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? If we ran around believing (and I think we do to some degree) every study that’s published, we’d be so discombobulated that we’d change our lives completely every few weeks – just based on scientific “evidence.”
And if the majority of scientific studies are wrong, what good does that serve us – other than being hip and cool enough to latch on to the newest fads to hit the airwaves?
It’s so important to remember that science is funded. And it’s also run by human beings – human beings who are inherently biased and as easily swayed by financial and reputational gain as we are. Where the money goes, so goes scientific findings.
It’s no secret that I lean very heavily toward alternative medicine and natural remedies. This is absolutely a result of my personal jadedness towards the fickleness of science. It’s also deeply rooted in the fact that, throughout the human history, certain things we believed were “right” became very, very wrong with time and inquiry. And certain things have held true throughout time.
Those certain things that have held true? They’re almost always common sense in nature. They’re the simple things.
Given that, I’d rather keep my wits about me.
I’d rather remember that there’s a heavy bias and extremely arrogant disdain in the “modern” science world against traditional, naturopathic approaches to illness, beauty, and health in general. What the scientists look to prove, they will prove. Even if it’s wrong. Even if they have to skew results or ignore outcomes.
The money’s just not in it. And where the money goes, so goes scientific findings.
That’s NOT to say I think science isn’t right sometimes. Or that we should ditch science and replace it with 16th century beliefs.
I’m just saying that until science isn’t driven by money or reputation (and when’s that going to happen?), we shouldn’t always take it as absolute truth.
Instead, maybe we should use some …
Common Sense, The Case For
If ANYTHING, this book by David Freedman drove the point home that common sense is sorely lacking – in science and in our reaction to its declarations.
So this is what I offer: As much as we really, really want to believe the latest headline that promises a new drug will thicken our eyelashes or cure us of high cholesterol (which, interestingly, many studies have shown that high cholesterol is nothing to be worried about … but cholesterol-lowering drugs are one of the biggest money makers for drug companies. Surprise!), maybe we should step back and look at our lives first.
What has served us well thus far, that doesn’t involve buying something new, or buying into something new? What makes us feel happy? What beliefs give us peace?
The less we buy into new exciting claims – and buy products BECAUSE of them – the less we contribute to this cycle of wrongness. When we use our wits and our common sense, we make a case for real, simple living. And the more we do that, the more the world will change in accordance. Less money will be funneled into scientific studies that try to prove pharmaceuticals are the answer to all our woes. Less money will go toward financial advisers who are – historically – always wrong.
And more money will go toward advancing things that are rooted in thoughtful, conscientious advancement.
When we clear out all these superfluous beliefs that something’s “wrong” with our life because we haven’t been taking “this” drug, or exercising “this” way, or believing “these” things – aren’t we pretty happy?
I mean, c’mon: We’re all going to die sometime.
We are. No matter what we do. We’re going to die.
No scientific study is going to change that.
And isn’t this what this is all about? A race to not die? Or, at least, not die in some murky far-off future that’s going to be riddled with all kinds of awful things if we don’t take a pill beforehand?
When we get back to common sense, when we start living more simply, more close to nature, we’re happier.
And I seem to remember a study recently that stated happy people live longer.
Okay. THAT one, I can kinda believe.
Your Beliefs – What Are They Like?
I know I’ve been remiss in responding to comments the last few days – and it’s made me feel very, very disconnected.
I chose to post this today, because I’d like to have a real conversation with you guys about science and whether or not you think it’s dangerous to dismiss scientific findings when they’re touted as groundbreaking and sensational.
I’d really like to know if you think that science does more to help us than hurt us these days, or if you think it’s sending us on a frantic goose chase for the newest and best way to live.
Do you believe scientific findings?
Do you have a way of discerning the truth from the hokum?
How do you decide what to believe and what not to believe?
this is awesome. i’ve always felt this way…believe me, i don’t believe the hype. it scares me what we’re coming to, actually.
okay, i’m totally inarticulate right now, but you get my gist. i love your site and this article. right on.
I was raised by people who had to be research-savvy for a living they taught us to run through a list of questions and guidelines for any information: who said it? why do they think so? what interest do they hold in it? follow the money, differentiate data from interpretation, broad sweeping generalization are more likely to be flawed, what paradigm are the researchers working from? That last is a relatively fancy way of saying what beliefs are the researchers (or other source of info) bringing to the study (or statement)? How are they viewing their topic of study? Unfortunately, I was exposed to a simplified version of quantum physics at an impressionable age so I always get stuck on the idea that the act of observing changes the observed. So I can drive myself crazy.
Lori @ In Pursuit of Martha Points
Ok, here’s the way shorter version of the comment that the intergremlins ate.
Half good, half crap.
There are a lot of treatments that work. I know, I see them. Anti Parkinson’s drugs work. Anticoagulants work. TPA works.
But I find it really suspicious when suddenly all my doctors’ patients are all on the same new medication for depression all at the same time. I know how bad doctors are at keeping up with research. (They’re horrible at it. I had to explain to a doctor recently why esophageal narrowing can cause aspiration. I was shaking my head.) So when something like that happens it means that a rep’s been around pushing samples.
So I find myself on a crazy-making fence. I know there’s real science out there making real advancements in medicine. I also know that there’s a lot of medication and research out there being pushed by Big Pharma and Big Business with their Big Profit Agendas.
I wait for the time-test, and see if I can sort out where the funding came from (although you can’t always). If it contradicts last week’s truth, I’m going to wait. If it’s the “cookies are good for you” study funded by Nabisco, I’m probably not going there.
But I really wish someone could prove that cookies are good for you.
Sounds like an interesting book! Should see if I find it anywhere.
I think you’re right that we put a lot of trust, probably too much, in scientific studies. Today we have a lot of confidence in science in general, and I think itâ€™s also necessary to some extent. Thereâ€™s no way a layman can research everything for himself or read up on every aspect of every study he is interested in. If nothing else, there’s just not time.
I tend to trust natural medicine more, simply because I believe that the possible side effects in general are less dangerous than they can be with traditional medicine. And if the natural medicine has no effect, then no harm done (unless one is really sick, in which case I think one should always go to a doctor). Still, also in natural medicine thereâ€™s a lot of contradictory research and itâ€™s hard to know what to believe. Again, as you pointed out, common sense is necessary.
To me the thought of not being able to trust your doctor is quite scary. My friend (who happens to be a doctor herself) recently found out that the anti-depressants sheâ€™s been taking probably have no effect at all. Pfizer had hidden around 3000 personsâ€™ test results, and said the testing had been done on 1000 people when the actual number was 4000, so that they could prove that their drug was effective. (read more here: http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE69B6MR20101013)
And this came out only because some German researchers started digging into the test results. Who knows how common this is?
Kristin @ Peace, Love and Muesli
I’m reading and I am thinking- it just comes down to common sense. Then I saw you covered common sense. Great minds, you and I!
I blame the media. There is a lot of quality science being done by ethical and reputable people. We don’t hear about it. There’s no catchy headline. It takes a whole lot of boring studies to determine something. The media is only interested in science when it sells. And that only happens when some company with a big budget rigs it to look good and then sends it out to 1001 media outlets.
My feeling is that most media is no better than spam. To get good news, you have to search out quality journalists. Just like the science.
Okay, this is creepy. Almost EVERYTHING you said here, David Freedman said in the book. He was especially harsh about the journalism (or lack thereof) behind so many scientific claims.
There were so many things I wanted to say in this post, but couldn’t because I’d just be rambling, but one thing was: We’re so gullible (or seem to be) and easily swayed by catchy headlines that we’re almost as culpable as anyone. If the vast majority of people would use that common sense and not get sucked into those catchy headlines, journalists wouldn’t feel the need to sensationalize.
But, y’know, it’s only going to start when WE stop giving it attention. I mean, look at blogging, right? As much as I may want to keep things sensible and rooted in common sense, what are the posts that got the most attention? The ones that were “exciting” or made claims (which I fully believe in, but you know what I’m saying …). When you want people to pay attention to what you’re saying, you do what they want to pay attention to.
Kristin @ Peace, Love and Muesli
I did think about blogging when I was trashing the media. But we don’t count b/c we are common sense people. That’s my story and I am sticking to it!
I talked to Ken about this. He said trendy science is called populus science. Science created to attract the people’s attention. He also just had a lecture about this. Many of those quality sciencists (my husband included) doing good work, have no idea how to package their information for the masses. They are more frustrated than anybody about shody science being blasted in our faces.
Headlines are there to grab your attention. The more sensationalistic they are, well all the better. Headlines sell newspapers, newspapers sell advertising, and advertising exists to separate you from your money. That goes for TV, magazines, and internet as well. Ignore the headlines.
Moderation and common sense are your best weapons. Science is not a dirty word but greed is and I’m skeptical enough to think that when everybody jumps on the healthy natural bandwagon… so will the greed.
Here’s just part of my “health-headline filtering system”:
Is it suddenly good or bad for you? Wait a couple weeks, it’ll change.
Does it sound too good to be true? Then it is.
Who paid for the study? Follow the money, find the truth.
There is no magic pill.
Wait and see, time will tell.
…but that’s just me and my unblasted kidney nerves talking.
Oooh. Love your filtering system, too. ESPECIALLY “there is no magic pill.”
It makes me think about when I was a teen, up to my neck in the eating disorders, and praying every night that they’d release whatever “new pill” had been found to make a person skinny.
Here we are 20 years later and … yeah.
Sadly, though, the “paying for the study” doesn’t always work. Like I mentioned in a comment before, oftentimes corporations will hide the fact that they funded a study so it doesn’t look biased.
Heh, I might believe the one about mental illness. I totally do not believe that heavy drinkers live longer, and unfortunately I know this from experience. I grew up in a family that believed in alternative medicine, so I’m pretty biased. I believe in science, but I tend to think that western science, particularly when it comes to health, goes about things ass backwards. I’ve been interested in Ayurveda for a long time, and I prefer their method of treating the person, as well as the disease. It’s more about discovering what is out of balance within someone’s body as well as mind and then setting everything to rights, including what is really wrong. That doesn’t mean I’m not grateful for modern medicine, but I’m afraid I see a lot of it as corrupted by the money that is to be made and our jacked up healthcare system. I steer clear of blaring headlines in most cases, if I hear about something I’ve always been suspected or sounds particularly interesting, I’ll often try to seek out some research on it on my own. Great topic, Crunchy, close to my heart.
It’s awesome that you brought up Ayurveda. I’ve been thinking very, very seriously for the last few days about finding a practitioner and learning more about it.
When I’m ready, I may have some questions for you.
Haha – I totally agree with the mental illness thing, too. This day and age? Not all that surprising.
But what’s doing it, you think? Maybe all this conflicting information – everyone’s so confused and wound up, they don’t know what to think.
I definitely have a science background. I don’t know that I believe that most researches fudge their studies to get the results they want. My brother in law is a PhD organic chemist who works for a drug company, my sister is a biomedical engineer who designs and builds cardiac stents. I know they are compensated the same regardless of the outcome of their studies. In other words, it’s not the scientists doing the studies that see the money you’re talking about, they really have no reason to lie. That being said, they are not self-directed studies. The projects they work on are determined by where the money is, both based on who pays for the projects as well as what their companies think they can sell. Breast cancer or heart disease drugs, big money, lots of work being done on them. Drugs for rare genetic disorders, not so much.
I think there is a big distinction to be made between academics and industry. In academics (ie scientists who work at universities, usually as professors), they compete for grants, and they’re reputations and tenure depend on publishing successful studies. They may have motivation to fudge their results (although I don’t think most do). They’re also more likely to be the source of those sensational headlines, in my opinion.
I tend to ignore those headlines. First, because they’re usually based off a single study. One study does not make a truth, it may just make a fluke. Second, I don’t think half the journalists reporting the studies have the ability to actually understand them. So you have someone trying to dumb down a study for the public they don’t fully understand themselves, or they’re just told what it says. Not really a good situation for facts to come through. And third, you never get to see the actual study, was it double-blinded, how big was the sample size, how long did the study last, how many test subjects were studied and eliminated from the study for not meeting criteria, was it peer-reviewed at some point? Until I see multiple studies reporting the same thing, or I can get my hands on the actual study, I’m not likely to jump on the bandwagon.
And #1 is just a waste of a study. Who cares if it’s true, no one’s going to go around blasting the nerves in the kidney. Ouch.
See, I love that you have “inside” information. And I’d also LOVE it if you read the book and gave your opinion on it.
Seriously, he does make an excellent case. Especially (and probably more what you’re talking about) in the case of researchers fudging numbers or throwing out (or including) data that would support what their personal biases are.
It may not be intentional, even. It may not even be conscious.
He also makes mention of just about every different scientific trial, and while it does seem that he gives a little more credence to the randomized double-blind controlled trials … except when he lambastes them as just as easily tainted as any others.
And then he takes on peer-reviews and how they’re totally ineffective for several different reasons.
I dunno – I mean, I know this book is one case where it took a belief I had and just fortified it completely. But I also picked it BECAUSE I knew it would firm my beliefs. So that, alone, makes me skeptical of the book itself.
Such a tangled web. Haha. If I think about it too long, I get really, really crazy.
ANYWAY, definitely let me know if you get a chance to read the book (or if you can talk one of your esteemed siblings to do it, too). So curious what you’d think.
You are right to be skeptical of “the latest thing” advertised. No question the pharma industry is pushing drugs as the answer to everything. But since the majority of people would rather pop a pill than take extra time to fix something a more natural way, things won’t be changing anytime soon.
Having said all that, I do quite a bit of medical research to keep up w/wellness tips. Much of this was to get a healthier lifestyle after my husband was diagnosed w/cancer. (He’s fine now.) Sound bites on the nightly news can give a very distorted picture. I try to go online to the source to read the full story. Or at least a brief from a medical journal.
My criteria for evaluating research is:
1. Who is reporting it?
2. Are the researchers affiliated w/a respected institution?
3. Who funded the study?
4. How large was the group studied, & how long were they studied?
5. Does my intuition say “hype” or “hope?”
To answer your question, yes, I think research does great things for us, but not everything discovered is necessarily helpful or even healthy! That’s why it’s so hard to navigate. Even your doctor only knows what the pharma rep tells him!
I’m not a medical professional – just someone interested in staying healthy.
I love your criteria. I’ve actually made note of it – I think it’s more than worth expanding on a little and making it a good checklist for EVERYONE when they see a study that catches their eye.
The only worrisome thing for me is, as the book points out, sometimes whether or not it’s affiliated with a respected institution doesn’t matter. He gave several accounts of researchers and professors affiliated with Harvard (or other Ivy league schools) admitting to fraud, after the study was released.
Also, oftentimes a company will fund a study, but in a name we don’t typically associate with the company. Companies know we’re getting to smart to believe studies funded by them that support what they’re selling, so they use shell corporations or other entities to fund a “private” study.
We never know.
I LOVE the “hype” or “hope” point, too.
Excellent! Thank you!