Whether you get your news from the New York Times or Fox, Reddit or Instagram, I think we can all agree at this point that you have to take everything you read with a grain of salt. There are biases everywhere we turn and it can be hard to distinguish between facts and agendas.
One way to be a more informed information-seeker is to understand what constitutes a legitimate study. News sources… and influencers… site studies often to prove their points, but not all studies are created equal!
I am so excited to have Sarah Swanberg, my friend and one of the most brilliant women I know, here for a guest post today on that very topic. We’ve been talking a lot lately about what we can trust on social media and she always has a lot to say on the subject so I asked if she would share her thoughts here.
After reading her article, I’m even more impressed with both her knowledge and the way she’s able to share it with as little bias and judgment as possible. I hope you enjoy reading and learning from this as much as I did!
How to be a Good Scientist
By Sarah Swanberg MS LAc
Licensed Acupuncturist, Founder of Indigo Wellness Group and The Fruitful Program (and one of my best friends!)
Before we get into it, You might be wondering what an acupuncturist knows about research. Well, a lot, actually. 20 years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to hear “there’s no science behind it, therefore acupuncture doesn’t work” (faulty logic, btw) but in the past decade there have been bucketloads of studies showing the efficacy of acupuncture for a variety of conditions, most notably pain and fertility.
Those of us in this field understand that we haven’t caught up to science, but rather science has caught up to us. In fact, as we learn more about the body and are able to employ techniques like brain imaging in studies, scientists have been able to gain a deeper understanding of why and how this medicine has been effective for centuries. Research has been so helpful in pushing acupuncture to the front of the line for effective, safe, and affordable treatment that many MDs now refer their patients to us for treatment, even when they don’t quite understand how it works.
As a lifelong science nerd and a currently enrolled doctoral student, I spend hours a week pouring over research, and over the years I’ve learned a lot about how to interpret the science, where to look for flaws and biases, when to ask more questions, and how to explain it to patients and Indigo Wellness Group followers. There’s so much information – and misinformation- floating around these days, whether it’s about COVID, masks, flu shots, or wellness trends, so I wanted to share some tips that will help you make informed decisions for your health and safety.
Seriously. That’s what science is all about. We question, create hypotheses, test, and then question again. We should especially question studies that “prove” our own points and keep our eyes open for the full picture. Studies have flaws, biases, and shortcomings, and the scientific field is tasked with pushing these conclusions and hypotheses further every day. If it weren’t, we’d still all be eating low-fat diets and believing acupuncture is just a placebo.
Also – science and learning are never done, we’re always learning more – so continue to stay open-minded even if you think something has been proven. I know, this may be the hardest part!
When it comes to statistics, language is super important. You may remember that from math class back in the day, a mean and a median are two very different things, though they sound familiar. In research, efficacy and effectiveness are NOT the same. Causation and Correlation are NOT the same, and a blind study is not the same as a double-blind study.
Why does this matter? Take for example a recent study (very low-quality study, BTW) that correlated the 2019 flu shot and 2020 covid deaths. This correlation might prove to have no true connection and could be explained by the fact that many 65+-year-olds are at high risk for the flu and therefore more likely to get a flu shot AND also high risk for COVID. These kinds of correlation studies can become the groundwork for further research, but it is wildly inaccurate and dangerous to say this is “proof” that flu shots cause covid deaths.
Know that not all “studies” are created equal.
There’s a real hierarchy when it comes to research quality. At the top of the heap are Systematic Reviews and meta-analysis- these sound complicated but really they are studies that review all the existing studies that exist on a topic. Reviewers discard studies that may have been proven to have flaws or biases.
Studies like these can be found at the Cochrane Library. Search for a topic here and look for systematic reviews. Read the author’s conclusions in full to help inform yourself. The key to these studies is that they are able to pull back and see the bigger picture and collect years of data. It’s really challenging to create valid conclusions when we are in the middle of data collection… we’re seeing this a lot right now as people try to collect data and statistics related to COVID. It will be years before we’ll be able to have a full and complete analysis of data regarding treatments, the efficacy of masks, co-morbidities, etc. But we’ve also come SO far in just a few months. So the best way to move forward is to look forward, and know that things are really fluid right now.
It’s also important to talk about bias in research. This is a big topic in the research world. Bias exists in lots of ways, especially when a specific study is being paid for by an industry. Bias in research can happen on many levels, from the actual design of the study to the way it is conducted and finally to the way it is reported. It’s impossible for studies to not have some level of outside variables and limitations- these are studies performed by humans, after all. The goal is to limit it as much as possible and optimize transparency and accuracy.
If you want to get nerdy, here’s a great study on the many ways research bias can exist. It’s important to note if a study is paid for by the industry that stands to profit off the research, there is an inherent bias there and it’s worthwhile to be skeptical. For example, a recent study by Boeing showing that there is “virtually no risk” of COVID while flying… well that should be questioned and independently verified because of the obvious bias. (see also, language matters- what exactly does “virtually no risk” mean?).
Often if you do a little digging, medical studies showing how healthy or safe a food or product or medication is for you might be done by that industry or a business that profits from “good” results! That doesn’t mean to throw out the info, just be cautious.
Everybody’s risk/benefit ratio is different
Let’s say a study concludes that there is some potential risk for a drug (this happens all the time IRL), it is then up to the scientists, doctors, and patients to decide what the risk vs benefit of the drug is. This calculation will be different for everyone.
Vaccines are a really hot button issue these days, and rightly so. But, in my opinion, the conversation has become very black and white, when it should be gray. Do vaccines have risks? Yes. It is well documented that there are some adverse effects to vaccines, just like there are to drugs (and also to herbs, supplements, and “natural” remedies, too).
But vaccines do save lives, which is also well documented. We need to always weigh our own risks (which can include everything from preexisting illness, profession, personal experiences with either the flu or a vaccine) against the benefits, not just to us but to society as a whole. Sometimes the risks outweigh the benefits, and sometimes the benefits outweigh the risks. This is a really personal decision.
In my personal and professional opinion, the benefits of vaccines do often outweigh the risks- but not always. I wish we had more conversations about how to reduce risk, from both a vaccine safety standpoint and also from a personal wellness standpoint.
FWIW, on the week of a vaccine, I make sure my kids are sleeping and eating well, and if they have even a sniffle, we reschedule until they’re feeling 100%. This based on a little bit of science but also my personal and clinical experience.
Mix into the conversation ideas like herd immunity, the right to healthcare and personal freedoms, and political lobbying/ big pharma issues, and things can get downright complicated and occasionally nasty. It’s a lot easier to judge than it is to take the time to understand another’s point of view.
Practice Safe Social Media
The sharing of information on social media is really a double-edged sword. On one hand, I learn a lot from friends and from colleagues on Instagram- but I also see a lot of bias and misinformation floating around, and it’s dangerous.
If you suspect something is clickbait, or question it’s validity, don’t reshare until you’ve vetted it.
We’re in a risky game of telephone these days, and we all need to own a little responsibility when it comes to sharing information. Also, there’s plenty of VALID research showing that shaming another person does nothing to change their ideas, so let’s absolutely question each other, but let’s also do it with kindness.
2020 is proving to be one of the most stressful years most of us have experienced and spreading a little more love and a little less judgment might do us all some good.
As a virologist, I really appreciate this post! Thanks for sharing, Julia.
Thanks for saying that, Cait!
This is a great post and very helpful. I think we all have to take responsibility for what we share, believe. Doing a little research will go a long way in helping our state of mind and the information out their in the world. Thank you.
100% agree. We can all do a little bit better.
Yes, yes, and YES. This could not have come at a better time. The risk/reward element is what people seem to ignore. It’s personal, unique to everyone, and needs to be acknowledged in conversations about vaccines. This article is amazing and so important – thank you both for this!
Thanks Mackenzie! So glad it resonated with you.
As someone how has a bachelor’s in biology and masters in biomedical science, I really appreciate putting this kind of post out there! I think everyone needs to take a class on this topic (or read this post!) because being able to sift through research, headlines, and news in general is an important life skill. Thank you Julia, and thank you Sarah!
I would love to read more on this if you have any other resources!
Thank you for sharing on this important topic! While there can be biases and slants in mainstream news, it is fact checked. A lot of what gets passed around on social media isn’t. Sometimes it is really hard to tease out the differences when 1000 articles are coming at you every day on the internet.
Very good point!
Thanks for this amazing post Julia! Such useful info!
I’m a public health professor who studies health communication and this is an excellent, nuanced explanation of several very complex considerations. Thank you!