One of the problems that us layperson types have is in trying to understand what’s true in areas where we are mere laypersons rather than experts. One of the common areas where this crops up is in medical news. We hear about studies that say they found a cure for cancer and we go “Yeah! Screw you, cancer!” but nothing comes of it. We hear about studies that prove a link between mercury and autism and we go “Yeah! Screw you, mercury!” but then someone else says it isn’t true and who do we believe? How do we figure out the truth when there are two sides to every story?
It’s situations like this that are breeding grounds for the conspiracy theorists. “They can cure cancer, maaaaan, but the Drug Companies, maaaaan, Big Pharma, maaaaaan, they don’t WANT cancer cured cuz they make more money treating it, maaaaan! And mercury? Maaaaan, mercury is in the vaccines, maaaaaan, and that’s their cash crop, maaaaan, so they want you ignorant and full of toxins. Maaaaaaan.” But both those arguments (and, indeed, most conspiracy theorist talk) are so full of stupid as to warrant a rough kick in the pants.
So it’s important to be able to discern fact from fantasy and proper from paranoia. The first thing I do is assess the sources of conflicting information. In terms of credibility, I’ll take independent scientists as the top dog and Google moms as the bottom, with information from drug companies and anti-vaccine groups just slightly above them. Generally, when there is an earth-shaking piece of research, finding actual scientists on the internet who have read the research and can comment on the validity of the findings is fairly easy. That’s the nice thing about so many scientists, they have a personal desire to disseminate information relating to their fields. If it is good, they will say so. If it is bad, they will say so. Not all scientists are like this, but there are a lot of them out there.
(Note: I start a lot of paragraphs with “so”, which I’m fairly certain is really bad writing style… It’s how I talk, and I’ll need to work on that one… Sorry, grammar nazis!)
Now, you might say to me, “But Jim, those scientists probably all work for Big Pharma, maaaaaan. Conflict of interest, maaaaan!” but I would call you a conspiracy nutter, flick you in the forehead, and sell your children on eBay. I’m not about to take one person’s word for it, but instead look to sources I trust as being honest and see if many of them agree. What we ultimately want is to understand as best we can the scientific consensus or, barring a true consensus, the direction in which the sources we trust most seem to be looking.
Another thing to keep in mind is that a single study is never enough to answer a question. This may frustrate some people, especially those who read a single study that backs up their preconceived notions on a subject. But tough noogies, baby. If a single study were always accurate, then there really would be a link between vaccines and autism. Given the massive mountain of data that shows otherwise, it’s back to the drawing board for that single study.
Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s autism/vaccine study is actually a good case-in-point for a lot of reasons. For starters, the research was panned fairly quickly by experts and touted by Google moms. Then the details of his research methods came out and he lost his ability to call himself a doctor. But through it all, he stood resolute, a maverick, a modern day hero who knows that abusing autistic children for money and lying about your conflicts of interest are just stepping stones towards saving all of humanity from the scourge of vaccine injury. With all the information we possess about how Dr. Wakefield ran his research, how biased he was, and how crooked he was, taking his findings seriously in the face of all the contrary information just doesn’t make sense.
But leaving the whackadoos alone for a moment, there are other things to consider when evaluating research. There is how they interpret the data, which is an entire branch of craziness. To get a good handle on how that can be misleading, I’d strongly suggest reading Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science. It has a lot of really great examples that show us how information can be misleading and how to spot it.
And then there is the issue of knowing what makes for a good scientific study. Yesterday, I read a great article by Steven Novella on the subject of Pragmatic Studies which was actually the seed point for my post here today, and today Dr. Novella has added another interesting and related article on Neurologica, his primary blog, about the Decline Effect. Sites like these regularly have great articles that help one to understand what makes up a good study.
I’ve had friends tell me that understanding all of this is just too much hassle. They aren’t scientists or medical researchers, so wading through the information is boring and pointless. Ultimately, I agree. If you aren’t interested in it, then it probably is a waste of your time, but that means you are going to have to rely on the educated opinions of others who you consider to be trustworthy sources. Your other option is to simply not have an opinion, and most people have trouble doing that.