Distinguishing health fact from fiction

Recently one doctor labelled sports scientist Tim Noakes’ low carbohydrate “banting” as “criminal,” leaving many to ask the question, “to bant, or not to bant?” Health-e News’ Wilma Stassen says that when in doubt, look to the science.

It is human nature to try to do things as painlessly as possible. Charlatans know this and make millions selling quick-fixes and instant gratification to a gullible public.

But when it comes to stuff we put into our bodies like miracle anti-ageing serums, detoxifying teas or unusual diets, people might be losing more than just money in this transaction. They could also be compromising their health, even if this is not immediately evident.. Here’s an example:

Between 1940 and 1970, about three million American women were given the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) to prevent miscarriage and other pregnancy complications – medical conditions for which DES worked like a charm. In 1960, when a rare cancer started showing up in young girls, scientists started questioning its safety.

Studies found that, in most cases, girls with this cancer were born to mothers who took DES during pregnancy, and in 1971 (three decades after people started using it) DES was pinned down as the culprit and withdrawn from the market.

Since then, studies have shown that mothers who used it had an increased risk of breast cancer, their daughters have a 40-fold increased risk of a cancer called vaginal clear cell adenocarcinoma, their sons are more prone to testicular cancer and infertility and irregularities are now also showing up in the reproductive systems of their grandchildren.

Another example is smoking. Today the dangers of smoking are blatantly obvious, but up until 1964, when the US Surgeon General Luther Terry announced that smoking was harmful, it was not only thought to be safe, but also considered a boon to health. Doctors prescribed it to women wanting to lose weight and governments dished it out to soldiers during both world wars to help steady their nerves.

As the real health risks of smoking only show up about 20 years later, the impact only came back to bite smokers a couple of decades down the line.

Science is not perfect, but it does learn from its mistakes. Today in most countries there are regulating bodies and measures in place to ensure that products are tested beyond their obvious advantages to ensure their long-term safety.

But science still gets it wrong sometimes. Either through human error, attention-seeking, or  greed, some scientists lose sight of the bigger picture in a search of fame or fortune.     

So what does an ordinary person do when scientists disagree with each other and both sides have “scientific evidence” to prove their points?

I’m not a scientist, but in my job reporting on science I’ve picked up a few of tricks to help me separate the wheat from the chaff:

  • Firstly, anecdotes aren’t evidence. If someone takes a pill and their headache goes away, it isn’t proof that the pill took the headache away, and it doesn’t show that the pill will do the same for others. A real study has hundreds or even thousands of participants, and products are tested against other products or a placebo.

  • Everything that is published isn’t true. Proper scientific articles are scrutinised by qualified scientists in the specific field before being published in scientific journals – hogwash and half-truths will never make it to publication, and people don’t earn money from scientific articles.

    But books published in the lay press (even if they are categorised as “science”) may contain half-truths. These are consumer products and people earn money from every copy sold.

    Newspaper and magazine articles are supposedly fact-checked, although the “facts” of the people we quote are seldom checked. And journalists earn money to write articles while the publishing houses earn money from the advertising space they sell around it.

  • “Natural” doesn’t necessarily mean “good” or “healthy” (eg arsenic is a naturally occurring substance), and “ancient wisdom” rarely applies to modern life and is mostly just a sales pitch.

It is easy to be mislead, especially if the salesman wraps it up in bacon, deep fries it in butter, and dishes it up with a dollop of cream. But in science if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Wilma Stassen is a journalist with Health-e News Service (www.health-e.org.za) in Cape Town and specialises in covering non-communicable diseases. You can follow her on @Lawim.

Siebert Mazus 2014-08-05 11:17:37 AM
I more or less agree with what you wrote, except a few things. You wrote: -Everything that is published isn’t true.- It should be: Not everything that is published is true. Amen to that. Virtually everything published on the internet should be taken with a pinch of salt. You also wrote: -Proper scientific articles are scrutinised by qualified scientists in the specific field before being published in scientific journals – hogwash and half-truths will never make it to publication, and people don’t earn money from scientific articles. - Sometimes hogwash and half-truths do make it into peer-reviewed scientific publications. The process is not perfect. Real peer-review actually starts after being published. To be published in a peer-reviewed, scientific journal is just the first step in findings being accepted or rejected.
grantcallaway 2014-08-05 11:54:45 AM
Here's my 5c. First up - even science FACT needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. As much evidence as we might have, results are still very often subjective. Let's say that eating a carrot a day guarantees that you would never get cancer, that you will live at least 10 years longer, and has no health-realted side effects at all. We could say that it is scientific fact that carrots are good for you. But now we have population booms, more elderly people past retirement. We have carrot plantations where there used to be banana trees...insects change, landscapes change...who knows. What I'm saying as that sometimes even benefits are detrimental in the greater scheme.
Paulus 2014-08-05 11:58:13 AM
Well..if you as a person on the "inside" is not really prepared to come out and state your opinion on this issue plainly, how are we as laymen supposed to distinguish the fact from fiction. I read between the lines that you don't believe Noakes, but you don't seem to be willing to put your head on the block. You say we must look at the science. What is it then? Nothing in the rest of the article refers to the science of the diet in question.
Isabel Auerbach 2014-08-09 12:00:38 AM
Regarding DES, it did not work like a charm. It did not prevent one miscarriage. In the 1953 Chicago Lying-In Hospital study, which is considered the definitive study, the DES mothers had more miscarriages. Further, British scientists had warned early on that the rats in their DES studies had cancer. See the website of DES Action for more info.