Saturday, June 18, 2011

Juneathon 2011 Day 18: Research findings in the press

2011 Streak Day 169/365: Walk - 3.1 miles, Time- 55min, Weather - showers (some fierce)
Obedience Training
One of the pleasures of Saturdays is to spend time in a coffee shop, reading the paper.  I positively enjoy the sensory experience of opening and turning the pages of a traditional paper and the way it feels luxuriant to be at your ease and give each story its proper attention.
So today’s exercise was a 1.5 mile walk out , a long gap and then 1.5 miles back. (On my way I saw a man in the park training his dog and took a photo)
One of the ‘must reads’ in Saturday’s Guardian is Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column. Today his subject was his research into the quality of health advice in newspapers. Although it is unsurprising that he found it to be shaky (of the 111 claims made in a week the majority were supported by evidence that was categorised as ‘insufficient’) there are serious consequences. People make decisions based on what they read in the papers because it is the most important gateway to advice.
The problem is the jackdaw approach to research papers: those with quirky, amusing, counterintuitive, or controversial findings tend to be picked-up regardless of how well founded they are. They are then given the intro of “science has found...” as if the voice of authority has spoken. This can be very confusing.
Specialist publications should be better but I don’t think they are. If you look at Runners World or Men’s Health, or the like, there are often suggestion that a particular food has specific properties based on some research, or findings about the effects of different ways of exercising. Frequently they are short paragraphs and completely avoid anything as pesky as an evaluation of the evidence base.
My assumption that specialist publications should be better informed because as they have a narrower focus is probably unfair. They are written by journalists with space to fill and research findings can be an easy way to produce copy. If a subject becomes a hot issue it will then be looked at in more detail with a more balanced approach but otherwise there are a lot of throw-away paragraphs.
This approach might be OK for running (just), whilst still being dangerous for general health. Health consequences are long-term and diffuse. It is difficult to know the full effects of any change of behaviour and there are just too many confounding factors. Running in contrast is very specific - you want to go longer or faster (or ideally both) and you can directly measure your progress. It is thus possible to try something for a couple of weeks and then either abandon or continue according to results.
Research can therefore offered in the spirit of “this might be worth a go” and I am happy with that. We should never forget that we are an experiment of one.
However when advice becomes definitive, or strays from training into nutrition and general health, we really owe to ourselves to check the evidence base to see that it is solid.

1 comment:

Luxembourg said...

I've been buying Runner's World off and on for years and everytime I pick up a copy, I never feel warded off the sport. I'm trying to train for a triathlon and everytime I pick up a magazine relating to triathlons in general, I feel like I'm the laziest ass on the planet. I'm not going to not do one because of this but it doesn't really help motivate a beginner. I love Runner's World because it's all-inclusive, for any level, for any age.