Should you eat eggs or will they kill you?
Should menopausal women take hormones or will hormones kill menopausal women?
Will diet soda keep you skinny, make you fat, or kill you?
Will taking aspirin save our hearts or kill us by making our stomach bleed excessively?
There seems to be a lot of contradictory information coming out about what we should do to stay healthy. The confusion can tempt you to give up and just dive into a pile of French fries.
Still, by reading critically, you can still glean the relevant information that will help you make informed decisions:
- Make sure you know who was being studied. Was it a broad or narrow group? For example, if the aspirin study looked at only those with previous stomach problems, the results could be different than if it included those with cast-iron stomachs. Check also to see if only certain age groups were involved.
- How long was the study? A study that ends after a few months will not be able to speak to long-term problems, for example.
- How many people were involved? Sometimes in journals, you read about a study that included only a few people. While the results may be promising, a group of ten or twenty can’t truly be representative of an entire population.
- What are the actual results? Sometimes news reports can make medical studies appear much more definitive than the actual researchers ever intended. It’s worthwhile to check the actual report itself instead of merely relying on popular media reports, which are limited by space and time constraints.
- Check to see if similar studies exist. Does this study replicate others? Is it at odds with other studies? Are other studies being conducted?
- What do the actual researchers claim are the implications of their study? Media reports condense medical reports, but the actual study probably has a discussion section that states the limitations of the study and directions for future research.
You don’t have to have a Ph.D. to critically read scientific studies. You just need some basic research skills and a good dose of curiosity mixed with a dash of skepticism.