People who are interested in losing weight, or just in heir health in general, are often on the lookout for new medications, foods, or drinks than can increase their metabolism, help them shed pounds, build muscle, etc. But how does one tell whether these articles really carry the secret to a healthier and happier life? There are a few good tips to identifying a legitimate scientific discovery.
Trust Your Instincts
Trusting one’s instincts is always a good place to start. There’s an old rule of thumb that says “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
There’s a lot to be said for another classic rule that says “Most rumors contain a nugget of truth.” A lot of articles that may come across the social media feed, or show up in the news app will exaggerate the facts, but still contain facts. So if the idea of there being health benefits from drinking three cups of coffee every day sounds too good to be true, investigate it anyway, because chances are the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow won’t be the secret to a long and healthy life, but will still be some pretty good news about the health benefits of coffee.
That brings us to the next step, which is investigating.
Follow the Sources
Sources are everything. Look for as many as possible, and be sure to reasonably discriminate. A lot of sources that shouldn’t be trusted as news sources are actually pretty good sources for any science behind the next big diet trend, and vice versa.
Another great thing about these sources is that they often link back to other sources, which makes it easier to follow the trail back to the original document, which is always a must-read. Sometimes a source will link back to a source that they got it from, rather to the original study (assuming there was one), but that source might link back to the original (though occasionally there is no original at all).
The end goal is to find the original scientific article, but reading the articles that one finds along the way can be helpful for a number of reasons.
Follow the Story
Reading every article between the article one saw and the scientific claim that inspired it all has many benefits to anyone truly interested in what could be a truly revolutionary dietary breakthrough.
For one thing, this is a great way to track the progression of the story, as scientific discoveries, especially those in the health field, have a way of getting blown out of proportion, with each new article making the initial statement sound a little better than the last.
Another benefit of this admittedly tedious method is that many sources that can’t directly contact the scientists who did the study that they are writing about will instead interview scientists and researchers who were not directly involved.
Scientists who comment on a study in which they were not directly involved may lose some credibility from not having been directly involved in the study, but they also gain credibility in that they can point out weaknesses in the paper without worrying about possible harm to their own reputations. In this way they give an unattached expert opinion that can help to confirm or cast doubt on possible breakthroughs by their colleagues.
Once the genuine article has been found it is important to read that article to get to the truth of the matter. Often times an article will find very believable and humble results, which are then ballooned by later media outlets trying to get a ratings boost by exaggerating on – or worse, creating — the next big trend.
A personal favorite example was a news story from a few years ago saying that drinking wine was just as good as working out when the actual study only said that wine contains some of the chemicals found in the body after exercise. While the health benefits of red wine in moderation have long been accepted by the scientific community, the idea that it is as healthy as exercise sounds too good to be true, and while it certainly is, the misconception also came from a new, interesting, and legitimate scientific discovery.
What about Conflicting Studies?
One other interesting and confusing thing that can happen while following links and reading articles is that articles conflict. An article one weak says that fats are bad for you, the next week they are good, the following week they may be bad again. How can one know what to believe?
An important thing is, again, to read the original article. Headlines try to keep it short and news sources might try to simplify things for a general audience, and both can lead to generalizations that make things more confusing than they need to be. There are lots of different kinds of fats, and the articles may have been talking about different kinds, or different sources, or one was talking about fats and the other was talking about fatty acids. There are lots of ways that later articles can confuse the scientist’s original meaning.
Another thing can happen too: the articles really were talking about the same thing, and really were coming to different conclusions. This can happen as well, and usually means that either the action or nutrient in question has both positives and negatives, or that the benefit or harm of the action or nutrient has not yet been definitively determined. Many who have largely given up on science will use cases like this to discredit any scientific discovery, but really it’s just part of a narrative that is still unfolding, and will eventually settle out.
If it’s unclear whether an article about the health benefits or dangers of a certain action or nutrient is legitimate or not, the best thing to do is probably to play it by ear for a while. If the findings are as momentous as the headlines say then it’s not the last anyone will hear about them. If the findings aren’t true or aren’t that spectacular, they’ll eventually fade away. In the meantime, it’s probably best not to believe or disbelieve them too quickly.