Assessing Medical Research (2)

How can a person without formal medical training assess health-related information presented by the news media?  We can start with wisdom from over 400 years ago:

“For as knowledges are now delivered, there is a kind of contract of error between the deliverer and the receiver: for he that delivereth knowledge desireth to deliver it in such form as may be best believed, and not as may be best examined; and he that receiveth knowledge desireth rather present satisfaction than expectant inquiry; and so rather not to doubt than not to err: glory making the author not to lay open his weakness and sloth making the disciple not to know his strength.”    Francis Bacon, 1605.

There are a number of clues and techniques that can help you “not to err”.  By using “expectant inquiry” you can “know your strength.”  None of these methods is perfect but collectively they can help you decide how skeptical to be about what you hear.  First, take note of the author’s credentials.  Are they currently (not formerly) associated with a well-known research institution or are they merely a “best-selling author?”  Second, was data to support their claim published in a recognized medical or scientific journal (and therefore subject to review by independent experts) or only in the author’s book or web site?  Third, is the information independent of any product the author is selling (they may not mention it during an interview but their web site may promote it)?  Fourth, after reading/hearing about the new research from the author, do you also read/hear an opinion about the new research from another authority in the same field who was not part of the study?

The more these questions are answered in the affirmative, the more likely the information is valid.  More in the next post.