Thursday, February 3, 2011

News of the Not-Helpful

I like to think I maintain a healthy sense of skepticism. Not for the sake of being contrarian, but because what is thought of as "conventional wisdom" is sometimes neither.

My skepticism of different ways of understanding the world, generally, is sort of a sliding scale. As a layperson, I tend to be more skeptical of the social and behavioral sciences and less skeptical of the natural sciences. Astrological, Freudian, and religious claims would land at the "most skeptical" end.

That being said, I'm not sure what to make of this Newsweek article. The gist of it is that, basically, "almost everything [we] hear about medicine is wrong," because:

"...[T]he 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."

The article continues on to cite a physician who criticizes the "shoddy statistics" and other claims made in many biomedical and genetic studies.

I initially had trouble articulating what bothered me about this article. After some thought, it seems to fall into that category of ScArY HeAlTh NeWs that the mainstream media lurves feeding us but that essentially makes us lowly laypeople feel helpless, frustrated, and scared.

In general, I think mainstream reporting of science and health studies is pretty shoddy. Results get oversimplified, broad conclusions get drawn, and headlines get exaggerated.

Studies about sex differences that show remarkable overlap between men and women get misinterpreted as "she talks a lot, he listens a little," creating narratives about reality that are actually fictional.

Folks who are perhaps well-intentioned nonetheless create totally-scary-but-unhelpful health advice and "warning signs" for cancer with lists of symptoms that are so vague and common they could apply to any number of conditions.

Two years ago the media had us all fixin' to bunker down and then ultimately perish from the swine flu.

Now, we learn, Don't Believe Science. Which, of course, anti-science folks will latch onto as proof that we should reject science, global warming, and vaccines in favor of Christianity.

But wait!

Not so fast. After telling us how sucky science is, the Newsweek article ends:

"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."

Alrighty then.

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