When medical researchers collide

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

September 2012

How do you react when the media explode with a medical discovery that seems to overturn what your doctor has been telling you for years? Cholesterol was the villain in the 1970s but now its role has been downplayed. Millions of women who received hormone therapy are on edge because those drugs have been linked to a greater risk of heart attack and stroke. Mercury in the diet is known to wreak havoc in the brain but teenagers in the South Pacific who get loads of it in their fish-rich diet have perfectly normal thinking ability and do just fine in school. Persons who take vitamins die sooner than those who don't. Calcium is good for bones; calcium doesn't matter; taking calcium causes heart disease. What can we believe?

It reminds me of a comment of one of my medical school professors: "Half of what you learn today will be proven wrong tomorrow." He was largely correct, but not because scientists are stupid.

Scientific research is subject to certain inadequacies and biases. One is the failure to gather enough data. Conclusions that are based on testing too few subjects or taking measurements on a small population base are those that are very likely to be contradicted by studies that use much larger samples. Sometimes results from one population group are correct for those persons but not from those of differing lifestyle, ethnicity or genetic background.

Sometimes researchers don't design the program very well. There have been studies done on the benefits of fiber or calcium in the diet but the so-called control groups turn out to have an intake of these nutrients that are barely distinguishable from the study group.

It should be obvious that there are enormous differences between laboratory animals and people. Scientists tend to be cautious about applying mouse data to human populations but sometimes journalists are not. A "breakthrough" drug treatment in lab rats will most often not make it to your local pharmacy.

Even though researchers are required to reveal any financial connection that they have with drug or medical device manufacturers there is always the possibility of bias. A study claiming that infant formula is just as nutritious as breastmilk turns out to have been sponsored by a formula manufacturer.

My hope is that no one publishes a study that shows that red wine and dark chocolate are bad for you. I just won't believe it!

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.