A troubling story about the the state of medical research:
If you follow the news about health research, you risk whiplash. First garlic lowers bad cholesterol, then—after more study—it doesn’t. Hormone replacement reduces the risk of heart disease in postmenopausal women, until a huge study finds that it doesn’t (and that it raises the risk of breast cancer to boot). Eating a big breakfast cuts your total daily calories, or not—as a study released last week finds. Yet even if biomedical research can be a fickle guide, we rely on it.
But what if wrong answers aren’t the exception but the rule? More and more scholars who scrutinize health research are now making that claim. It isn’t just an individual study here and there that’s flawed, they charge. Instead, the very framework of medical investigation may be off-kilter, leading time and again to findings that are at best unproved and at worst dangerously wrong. The result is a system that leads patients and physicians astray—spurring often costly regimens that won’t help and may even harm you.
Where does this leave us?
Of course, not all conventional health wisdom is wrong. Smoking kills, being morbidly obese or severely underweight makes you more likely to die before your time, processed meat raises the risk of some cancers, and controlling blood pressure reduces the risk of stroke. The upshot for consumers: medical wisdom that has stood the test of time—and large, randomized, controlled trials—is more likely to be right than the latest news flash about a single food or drug.
My take away from this is to be skeptical of the latest and greatest.
- Wait to see if it’s replicated
- Ask yourself what questions this study doesn’t ask or answer
- Ask yourself if this study’s findings congruent with established knowledge and experience