Friday, June 21, 2013

Is It Real Science?

Consider these two articles.  The first from USA Today explains the new practice of placentophagy.  New mothers are opting to bring their placenta home from the hospital to ingest as a means of recovering from childbirth.  The second is from Johns Hopkins asking if it is safe to take beta-carotene supplements while receiving radiation treatments for prostate cancer.  On the surface the two seem unrelated, but as a contrast between real science and something else they are very informative.

To explain placentophagy, the first article uses word like “some believe it can help mothers recover from childbirth by improving mood, leveling hormones, increasing iron levels and boosting milk supply” [emphasis added].  “One process now taught nationally was developed in 2005, based on traditional Chinese medicine, said Jodi Selander, founder of Placenta Benefits LTD in Nevada.”  The reference to traditional Chinese medicine ensures automatic credibility with the science-challenged audience.  The quote comes not from an impartial source, but from someone in the business.  Finally comes the celebrity endorsement:  “Kim Kardashian recently announced she is interested in the practice, if it can maintain her youthful looks.”

See how different the second article is.  After providing the reference to the full study in a scientific journal, it goes on to explain the sample size (383 men) and the experimental method:  “The men were randomly assigned to take either beta-carotene (50 mg) or placebo every other day. At a median follow-up of 10.5 years, the researchers found no significant differences between groups in terms of prostate cancer spread to the bones or mortality.”  The summary statement explains the limitations of the findings:  “they apply to a 50-mg dose of beta-carotene taken on alternate days. The safety of larger doses or more frequent use was not examined.”

I think comparing these two stories makes it easy to see the difference between real science and promotion-by-endorsement that is so widespread in the media.  The second is clearly good science, reliable advice to follow.  The experimental conditions have been specified and the findings limited to those conditions.  It is from a known, impartial source with reference to the original study.  The first is a lot easier, though.  You don’t have to worry about any studies or sample sizes, just take the word of Kim Kardasian or the founder of a company who benefits from your decision to spend time and money on what appears to be a fad, another magical cure.  It probably won’t hurt you, but there is no evidence that it will help you either.

Taking action on weak, incomplete or non-existent evidence or unsupported endorsements, whether from friends, family or celebrities, is a potentially dangerous habit.  It wastes money on a host of non-value-added products and services, none of which have good science behind them, and therefore, are likely to be of little value and may easily turn out to be harmful.  A little critical thinking is all it takes.  So how do all these other folks stay in business?

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