In their desire to make sense out of health information, people often oversimplify the truth. For example, potato chips have long been reputed as a junk food. Actually the quick cooking process of potato chips preserves its nutrients better than mashed, boiled, or baked potatoes. Ounce per ounce, potato chips provide more nutrients than other forms of potatoes. However, because potato chips are cooked in oil, they are high in fat and calories and are not recommended for people trying to lose weight. By being aware that the truth is not simple for most health issues, the tendency to oversimplify and over generalize health information can be thwarted.
Health Discoveries Take Time
Health discoveries often mean media headlines, but a cardinal rule of science is that findings must be replicable. Health information based on a dramatic discovery is not usually valid unless it is confirmed in several follow-up studies or experiments.
Criteria of Valid Reliable Health Information
Health information should be valid and reliable and based on scientifically controlled studies. In health research, validity means truthfulness. If a study is designed and conducted properly, its findings are likely to be valid. For example, it was found that adding vitamin E to human cells in the laboratory stimulated cell division and growth. This was used to support the erroneous conclusion that vitamin E would delay the aging process. This was not a proper generalization because a simple laboratory experiment is not a valid procedure for demonstrating something as complex as aging.
Reliability is another key criterion for evaluating health information and refers to the extent that health claims can be consistently verified. If a claim is reliable, it can be demonstrated to occur consistently in study after study. Researchers speak of findings as statistically significant when they are considered reliable. Statistical significance means that the probability that a study’s findings are due to chance alone is less than 5%. That is, 95 out of 100 times similarly designed studies would yield similar results. Because thousands of studies are performed, however, some studies that yield statistically significant results eventually prove to be wrong. Consequently it takes hundreds of studies, many of them conflicting, to create a consensus on a particular health issue. Any health claim worth considering should be based on numerous studies or experiments conducted over many years.
Health information must also pass scientifically controlled, double-blind studies. The classic study includes at least two groups in which one is an experimental group and receives some form of experimental treatment and the other is a control group and receives no treatment. The double-blind feature of a study means that neither the researcher nor the subjects know who is receiving an experimental treatment. If a researcher wanted to prove, for example, that a particular brand of soap prevents athlete’s foot, two groups would be needed. One would use the experimental soap, and the other would use a placebo or soap substitute. Researchers administering the soap treatment would not know which soap they were using, nor would the subjects in the experimental and control groups. Therefore if the experimental group has significantly fewer cases of athlete’s foot, the results can be attributed to the treatment.
The experimental-control, double-blind requirement of scientific research is a difficult standard to pass. When evaluating new health claims, consumers should inquire about the nature and design of the study behind the claims.
A final consideration of a scientifically controlled study is characteristics of the study population. Scientific studies require random sampling of subjects that represent the racial, religious, gender, and cultural characteristics of the population at large. Medical breakthroughs should not be based on a small number of homogenous, or similar, subjects. Broadly designed human clinical trials that are randomized, placebo controlled, and double blind offer the strongest proof of reliable information. Remember, true breakthroughs in medical research are the exception rather than the rule. Be skeptical of headlines to the contrary.