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The Harm of SIGH-ence

Rest assured that tomorrow, or even in a few minutes, a contrary finding will hit the headlines.

If you’re like most folks who read websites, magazines and newspapers, listen to a myriad of podcasts or TV news broadcasts with experts from all walks of life, you may be totally confused by the sensationalism and shock tactics covering COVID-19, mental wellbeing, physical health, obesity, exercise, nutrition, stress and a whole host of other related topics. Much of it is twaddle, claptrap, and sheer poppycock. And we don’t need research to tell us that stuff isn’t good for your health.

It seems on Monday obesity is caused by something new, on Tuesday we’re told to drink disinfectant, on Wednesday there’s a new 4 second workout everyone should do during quarantine, on Thursday we’re told everything we’ve heard this week is incorrect, just in time for Friday to eat a bag of Oreos which have been found to be not all that harmful and do some required meditation and journal entering, until Saturday when we read that meditation isn’t really all that valuable but being vulnerable is the  new hot secret sauce. Sunday? Isn’t a week of gobbledygook enough? Go for a walk!

Russell Baker observed, “An educated person is one who has learned that information almost always turns out to be at best incomplete and very often false, misleading, fictitious, mendacious—just dead wrong.”

It’s time to become sharper, more perceptive consumers of what I’ve long called “SIGH-ence”—(“science”) the way the media portrays sometimes good research, and indeed, oftentimes very shoddy research. 

The “fitmyth experts” who’ve curated hundreds of thousands of followers in social media, promote and endorse so many products and services based on “data,” “research,” “scientific findings,” and “opinion of experts,” it’s hard to know what’s accurate, factual and verifiable any more. In my “Daily5” that I post every day in social media, I recently defined the issue this way:

#MantellDaily5
#Thursdaytruth?
1. Data: what one’s sales efforts and political leanings need it to say 
2. Research: what one’s political and financial needs require it to find 
3. Scientific findings: what one’s politics and purse need it to support 
4. Opinion of experts are attended to, or ignored, based on one’s financial needs and politics 
5. What’s truth? Depends on what one needs it to be for financial gain and/or political power.

Here are 5 tips to watch out for to best spot “SIGH-ence” as you hear the latest “data-driven,” “evidence-based,” “scientific finding.”

1: Sensational headlines and misinterpreted results“Thinking Can Make You Fat”Sensational? You bet! If the headline is overly simplified, it may well simply be designed to get you to click on it and may have little to do with the actual data of the study. For the sake of making a good story, the article may have little to do with the actual research. Solution? Read the original research if you are interested. The federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines health fraud as the deceptive advertising, promotion or sale of unproven products claimed to be effective in preventing or treating a condition or illness. The media have long operated on the “if it bleeds, it leads” guideline knowing that first impressions matter. Don’t be carried away by the headline-making, click bait of preliminary findings.

2.  Correlation and causation. There’s the old adage, “correlation does not imply causation.” Lots of murderers drank milk when they were children. That doesn’t mean that milk causes someone to become violent. When a team of researchers study the correlation between two variables, this does not lead them to be able to state that one causes the other. You might question the “findings” that the number of people who drowned by falling into a swimming pool correlates with the number of films Nicholas Cage appeared in. Or, the amount the United States spends on science, space and technology correlates with suicides by hanging, strangulation and suffocation. 

3. Conflict of interest. Obvious but always follow the money. Who’s paying for the research, who benefits from the findings and who makes the money the findings lead to? Scientists being paid to do research are often quite honest and ethical. But sometimes, the lure of personal and financial gain can lead to results and conclusions that are, well, “SIGH-entific.” If, hypothetically, a soda company that was also heavily invested in gyms or health clubs was found to fund a study that determined that drinking sugar-filled beverages is not harmful to your health, and that exercise following drinking soda would boost muscle development, uhm, er, you might just want to turn the page and get another opinion. 

4. Was the research peer reviewed and evaluated by independent, experienced researchers with relevant expertise? They look at things like bias, the design and statistical methods of the study, did it last long enough, were there other possible explanations for the conclusions, did the findings fit with other scientific evidence, whether trials included randomization and blind assignment to groups.

5.  Small sample size or sample that does not relate to you. Here’s a simple rule: the smaller the sample used, the less confidence you can place in the results.  Draw your conclusions cautiously if the research was based on, let’s say, a group of 20 “gym rats” all ages 18-23…when you are a moderately active baby boomer. When you read research, also ask whether there a control group, is there an agenda on the part of the researchers related to the findings, who paid for the research and who benefits from the findings?

There are many ways to determine “SIGH-ence,” but if you spot one of these 5, you may want to question the results before you go buy that new diet, drink that new shake, purchase that new piece of exercise equipment, try that new exercise, or swallow any piece of sensational sounding noise. Rest assured that tomorrow, or even in a few minutes, a contrary finding will hit the headlines. 

In the words of the brilliant Mark Twain, “Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.” 

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