Be skeptical of skeptics, Reuters Health Executive Editor Ivan Oransky urged a standing-room-only crowd at what was called a "keepers of the bulls**t filter" session.
His tips apply to all consumers and producers of science, health and medical information: keep a biostatistician in your pocket (that is, call on experts to assess the stats you read in research reports); understand the limits of the review procedures used to decide what is published in a journal; avoid disease mongering, the expansion of disease definitions in order to promote unnecessary treatments.I agree wholeheartedly with Oransky about the need for a clear-eyed scientific outlook when you're considering new medical information, especially when it comes from popular media sources. [So is Reuters Health basically responsible for all the stories on the news at 10:13 (or 11:13) pm that say things like "Is pizza responsible for your impotence? Find out next, after this break."]
My personal hobbyhorse is chemophobia, i.e. the blaming of bad "molecules of the moment" for whatever bugaboo disease is around. For a wonderful example, check out this comment (from Oransky's blog!) about what causes autism:
"Without being a conspiracy theorist, I have wondered if the vaccine scare was funded by firms that have a vested interest in preventing epidemiological or clinical evidence from emerging about their products, like pesticide makers. Cigarette companies certainly spent decades funding groups to try to push the blame elsewhere, and continue to use money to sell story that cigarettes aren’t a significant contributor to cancer and lung disease.$#$#$#^%%$#%$#! Now we're just fishing: pesticides, cigarettes, synthetics. While I'm as big a fan of the precautionary principle as the next guy, I think these statement are just about as scientific as blaming yesterday's bad reaction on demons. Why, the temperature probe read 66.6°C!
The realist in me says, though, that the millions of synthetic chemicals to which we are exposed constantly in food, water, and air in unexpected and untested combinations likely are part of the root of all kinds of health issues."
If I were to offer some things to keep in mind, here they are:
- Dose makes the poison
- S--t happens; you're going to die of something.
- I don't know what caused your cancer and neither do you (except your cigarettes, maybe.)
- Your liver is really, really good at removing things that don't belong in your body. (Yes, sometimes the metabolites can be the issue themselves.)
- If you hear the terms "millions of synthetic chemicals", "toxins" or "body burden" or any of the other weasel words, the person is punting.
- Listing acute MSDS symptoms is a scare tactic. I'm looking at you, Environmental Working Group.
- A molecular mechanism is the start of good science on the effects of chemicals on the body; an epidemiological study is the start of a media scare.
- Dose makes the poison.