Beyond bad reporting of good research, there’s also bad research

I just saw a new study that indicates taking vitamins may increase your risk of developing cancer. Really. I also saw one that clearly shows no link between vaccinations and autism.

I also saw one that clearly shows that re-using plastic water bottles will cause you to develop cancer of the left nostril. There have been studies that show a link between marathon running and early death. Studies that link statin use to reduced and increased cancer risks.

There are even studies that show that reading too many studies can cause stress, which studies have shown can cause weight loss, weight gain, more stress, lack of sleep, which can cause weight gain and cancer.

Are you dizzy yet? Confused? That makes umm, well, all of us.

The problem with all these studies is that the way they’re reported causes almost as much trouble as they way they’re performed and interpreted. Here’s how it works.

First off, a (hopefully) legitimate scientist gets a grant to do a study on a subject. The scientist and his or her staff does the study over a period of time and then publishes a paper in a scientific journal that tells other researchers about the study, the methodology, and the results.

And finally, they note their conclusions based on the results. I worked for about 10 years with many scientists doing this type of thing, and they showed me their completed papers. And to be honest, I could not understand about 95 percent of what they were writing about. Really.

You see, scholarly papers are written for, and by, people with advanced degrees using terminology only understood by other people with advanced degrees. I think before you get a Ph.D., you have to take several highly secretive courses in obfuscation, obscure terminology, and just plain old BS.

So what does this have to do with the cancer-causing properties of kale? Look up one of those news stories. They usually say something like, “Researchers today announced a clear link between eating too much mint chocolate chip ice cream and increased risk of uvula inflammation in South Sea islanders, according to a study published in the journal Advanced Studies in Obscure Ice Cream Maladies.”

Having seen real scientific journals, I can say, with a fair degree of certainty, that most mainstream journalists (especially TV types) would not understand enough of a true journal article to be able to actually report intelligently on what the article said or means.

So, they wing it. Thus, we have reports of every sort circulating on TV and especially on the web, where editing is rare and oversight nonexistent. And then the TV types pick up the web reports and repeat them or even embellish them with some sort of local “expert” commentary.

If you really want honest scientific reporting, try The New York Times or a similar large media outlet with enough budget and staff to actually hire scientifically literate staffers who focus on science reporting, as they have actual scientific training. Beyond that, unless you can read a journal article yourself or have a friend who has a Ph.D. who can translate for you, you’re pretty much in deep trouble. As are we all.

But, beyond bad reporting of good research, there’s also bad research. Every once in awhile, you’ll hear a story that seems so in opposition to everything else, that you have to wonder where it came from.

This leads you to the world of commercially sponsored research. These are the sorts of studies cigarette makers used to commission to show no link between smoking and heart disease, lung cancer, oral cancer, throat cancer, and ummm, well, death.

Large corporations, hiding behind “charitable foundations” will quietly give researchers grants with a specific task in mind and then loudly trumpet the favorable results. Just remember the age-old axiom about statistics: They can be interpreted in such a way as to show pretty much any result you want.

So now we have questionable studies compounded by questionable reporting. So what do we, as health conscious people who worry about our uvulas, do to keep ourselves informed?

Well, I suppose the best advice is that, if you hear a report of a study that causes you concern, look up and find out the truth. That is, find out who did the study. Are they from a reputable institution? Where did the study get published? Maxim? Bad sign. Cell? Good sign.

And can you find a legitimate story about the study from a trusted news organization? You could even ask your doctor or another professional who would be qualified to actually understand and explain the study.

I know it sounds like a lot of work, but studies show that having real knowledge lowers stress, which other studies show makes us all much saner and live longer.

Editor’s note: Michael Seinberg says he is considering trying to get a grant to study how much misinformation negatively affects people without Ph.D.s. And their uvulas.