Unreliable Medical Reporting? Apply Judgment

Do you ever get the sense in the world of medical reporting that one study refutes the next? This can be especially true in the world of obesity research. First we hear high fat, low carb diets are the best for losing weight. Then we hear low fat, high carb diets are the best. First we’re told everyone should be doing all they can to lose weight. Then we’re told that obesity becomes so ingrained in the body that even if one lost weight it would be nearly impossible to keep it off. David H. Freedman, in a story in the Columbia Journalism Review called “Survival of the Wrongest,” hypothesizes that two-thirds of all medical reporting is misleading.

Part of the problem comes from scientific methods such as study sizes that are too small and shorter-term animal studies serving as surrogates for longer-term human testing. But there is also the bias in journals to publish engaging, positive studies and the bias reporters have to report surprising or compelling results, not to mention that many reporters misreport the findings. It’s little wonder that by the time we read an article about a recent study, we are sometimes left scratching our heads. According to obesity clinician Barbara Berkeley, “Scientific research needs to square with what we see in clinical practice. If it doesn’t we should question its validity.” Indeed, that is what Freedman suggests as the surest way to counter the alarming propensity of scientific research to be wrong or misleading: “Look at the preponderance of evidence, and apply common sense liberally.”

Click here to read the Freedman piece in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Medical Journals image © Margaret Shear / Wikimedia