Healthy Skepticism and Caring for Your Health


One of my worst fears is that someone near and dear to me might become critically ill and choose, through ignorance or misinformation, to shun conventional medicine in favor of therapies or treatments that are not founded on a sound evidence-base.

Not all “conventional” or “western” medicine is evidence-based. It is also likely that effective nutrition, meditation, prayer, and self-healing techniques can play a part in the recovery process. Moreover the placebo effect is a fact of life.

However it is science that helps us to establish facts and, while anyone can have an opinion, no one is entitled to their own facts.

Modern medicine is, of course, not perfect. However every day, through social media, the more traditional media, and through advertising and marketing we are subjected to misinformation regarding healthcare. This mis-information is usually peddled by organisations or individuals with a profit motive. Sometimes the mis-information is pushed by governments, and sometimes by individuals who, rightly or wrongly, believe that they are helping those that they share with.

Examples abound and include tales of the “healing” power of fresh fruit and vegetables; the myths regarding the “proven” dangers of salt in our diets; the benefits of substances such as ginko and echinacea; the falsified clinical trials from “big pharma”; the scare tactics from the anti-genetic-engineering lobby; the dishonest marketing of many of the products that we buy (witness misuse of the word “healthy” on so many products); and advertising in the fast-food industry.

In researching this blog entry I have been increasingly disturbed to discover the quantity and sources of mis-information; ignorance about the difference between peer-reviewed scholarly research and other forms of research; and the degree to which misinformation poses a threat, even to the work of doctors.

You may call me naive but I was unaware until today of the lengths to which big-pharma will manipulate the information that is released to doctors in order to pursuade them to prescribe their drugs in preference to others. One of the most significant issues that I have with this is that so-called “regulators” allow it to happen at all, and that it MUST detract from a clinician’s ability to do the job properly if an inordinate amount of time must be spent in scrutinising the validity of the information that has been provided to them by drug manufacturers. For more information I highly recommend that you watch Dr Ben Goldacre’s presentation, Battling Bad Science, and his discussion of unpicking dodgy claims.

It is a challenge to work out how we can remain well informed and how we can protect ourselves against mis-information. A valid first step is to always ask “who has what to gain if I believe this information that I have been given?”, this might be followed up with some research into what others have had to say about the informant, the publisher or the research in question.

There is one more key to evaluating information and that is to NOT automatically associate correlation with causality. Very early on in my study of statistics I was taught that correlation is not evidence of causation. Perhaps we should start earlier to educate our children to be on the lookout for the dangers of assuming causation as a result of correlation.

Bad science is bad science. It is evil and destructive and represents a very real risk to us as individuals and to our health and well being. You may also enjoy watching Michael Specter’s presentation at TED on the danger of science denial.

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