Unhealthy science claims

Jan 04 2013 08:08
* Mandi Smallhorne
“HOW many eggs should I eat?” the caller asked the dietician on the radio.

Boy, is that a loaded question! State-of-the-egg science has dogged me ever since I first started writing on health in the 1990s. First, eggs were demonised because they contain cholesterol, the Big Bad Heart Disease Bogeyman.

To lower our cholesterol, we’ve got to reduce our dietary intake of cholesterol, we were told. Then everything got turned on its head, and suddenly eggs were “a wonderful source of protein, essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins”.

Then in August last year, a scientific paper was published that trashed the poor old egg once more: the authors concluded that eating egg yolks was almost as bad for your cardiovascular risk as smoking.

Who do you believe? It seems that at least once a month, new science up-ends some received wisdom about health: wine is good or bad for you, meat is healthy protein or a killer, chocolate is a source of antioxidants when it’s not the quickest route to obesity...

“If you don't like the latest findings on eggs or coffee, wait a week,” advised a lay commenter on egg research.

I’ve come to the conclusion that reading and understanding scientific research should be taught in our schools. Because the thing is, these stories matter.

When Dr Mehmet Oz talked on his TV show about neti pots for irrigating your nose, Forbes magazine noted that neti pot sales shot up into the stratosphere, rising by 12 000%.

Whole industries have seen effects from news reports on research: it was concerns raised by research on red meat that led pork producers to label their product "the other white meat", scoring sales.

And of course, the impact is not just felt in bottom-line booms and busts, it’s felt in human lives too.  People spend money on products, give up whole food groups and invest in courses, equipment, businesses and more on the basis of reports in the news media.

But across the world, journalists who specialise in reporting on science are in short supply.

Untrained junior journos, desperate to fill a page on health, pick up on the sensational claim in the conclusion to a scientific paper or in the PR materials and blow that up into a headline, as in “Eating eggs as bad as smoking!”.

This is why a major focus of the South African Science Journalists’ Association (SASJA) is to improve the quality of science reporting in this country. (Cards on the table: I’m a member of the SASJA executive committee, and one of our 2013 goals is to mentor journalists who want the tools to write about science.)

Today digital access means that in many instances, any lay person can do a little light investigating, and judge research for him or herself.

Here are some questions you might want to ask to assess claims made in the media:

Where is this research published?

First prize goes to research published in well-known scientific journals which are peer-reviewed (other scientists in the relevant field have read the research and judged it fit to publish).

If the news article doesn’t mention the journal’s name, you can often find it by searching for the names and institutions of the lead authors (eg: John Smith, Harvard School of Public Health, 2013 TB research).

Do the authors have any possible bias – conscious or unconscious?

If research that says margarine is a life saver was funded by a margarine manufacturer or an industry association representing manufacturers, you might want to find some independent research supporting that claim.

A great deal of research is, for obvious reasons, supported by companies with an interest in the subject matter – dig into the egg research published in August and you’ll find that two of the researchers received minor support from companies that make lipid-lowering drugs.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the research is biased or twisted, but it is a small red flag. For instance, studies show that research on drugs that is funded by drug companies is four times more likely to be positive – and more likely to get published, too.

How solid are the conclusions?

Scientific terminology can confuse readers. If the research says there is a correlation between, say, regular roller-coaster rides and inattention in class, that’s interesting but not decisive.

A relationship exists, but we don’t know how strong it is. A stronger term is "cause": if we say roller-coaster use causes inattention in class, then we must exclude any possibility that other things (like a vitamin deficiency or psychological disorder) are to blame.

What kind of research methods were used?

The egg research was widely dissed by health writers and scientists, in part because the methods were shaky. People were asked to remember over the years how many eggs they’d eaten a week – and people have notoriously poor recall of long-ago behaviour. 

Does this research build on other research with similar results?

Science makes bricks out of many, many different studies which over time show a sort of trend – yes, Isaac Newton was right, there is such a thing as gravity, ‘cause in every study ever done, the apple falls to earth...

If you make big decisions about your lifestyle or your business based on reported research, without doing a little digging like this – well, the yolk’s on you, I’m afraid!

- Fin24

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on twitter.

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mandi smallhorne  |  science  |  health



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