….but liars do figure.” We all have things our parents said repeatedly as we were growing up. Things that they said well before we were old enough to understand what they meant, and kept saying long after we got their point. The “lying figures” one was/is one of my Dad’s favorites. I have to admit, it’s clever, and it explains the successful coexistence of MSNBC and Fox News. After all, they can’t both be right, but they can make themselves look like it. Facts are facts, right?
But if that’s the case, how can it be that we’re constantly bombarded by conflicting reports in the media about our health? You know what I’m talking about: One day it’s the “Incredible, Edible Egg” and the next day it’s a ticking cholesterol time-bomb. Coffee is good for you and wards off certain diseases, except when it is bad for you and causes other diseases. Wine? Same thing. What’s going on here? Should you be eating eggs, drinking coffee and sipping wine for breakfast, or will doing so guarantee an early death? The answer, according to my Magic 8 Ball is “Uncertain.”
There are two primary reasons for this. First, as a mostly wonderful article in The Atlantic points out, much of scientific research suffers from substantial bias. Second, the media isn’t trained to rate the quality of the science. Journalists and reporters focus on headlines. If a study says “Eggs are great! Yay, eggs!” it will probably make the news. Ditto the finding “Eggs increase stroke risk by 200%.” (As an aside, almost every news item that tries to report such percentages does so incorrectly–at least according to anecdotal evidence.)
Given these two factors, you really shouldn’t put a lot of emphasis on a single study. In other words, eat eggs or don’t eat eggs, but don’t base how many eggs you eat on a study that Katie Couric told you about last night on the news. For a more elaborate explanation of this, you really should read the Atlantic article.
Now, all of this may have some of you thinking: “Well, then we’re really headed for trouble with all of this comparative effectiveness research!” And you’d potentially be right, if decisions were based on a single study. Fortunately, there are researchers out there doing “systematic reviews” and “meta-analysis” that look at all the studies that have been done, identify gaps in knowledge, evaluate the quality of the various studies, and their respective findings to arrive at a triangulated version of the truth–which is much more likely to be accurate than any single study, because outliers will be identified as such. (If you’re not familiar with outliers, might I suggest Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success?) This is the one area where the Atlantic article falls flat. It acts as though all of published science is biased and therefore nearly meaningless, when in fact there are substantial efforts (e.g., The Cochrane Collaboration) underway to evaluate the evidence and reach more meaningful conclusions.