On the reliability of your sources (i.e. how to filter through the noise)

In this day and age where information is at our fingertips, available 24/7, finding articles or studies regarding health is easier than ever.

However, how do you filter through all the information and how do you know if you can trust what you read? Here are the steps that I have come up with in order to ensure (to an extend) that I am not taking health decisions based on unreliable data.

1. Where is the information coming from?

Are you reading some random person's blog (like you are doing in the very moment)? Is it an article written by a researcher or doctor? Is it published by an academic institution? Is it an actual study analysis?

Be aware of who is actually writing what you are reading. The author may be citing research but if they are not familiar with medicine, pharmacology, chemistry, biology etc, they may be misinterpreting what they read, i.e. Feeding you wrong information. Word of advice: don't take word of celebrities or health bloggers for granted, unless you see actual data from studies yourself.

 

2. Is the information relevant to the author's field?

Yes, the person writing that article may be a PhD, but what if the article is about DNA damage and the author has a PhD in literature? I've seen that on the media more times than I can count. When you have PhD after your name, it adds gravity to what you are saying, people tend to trust you more, so a lot of people are trying to take advantage of it.

By the way, I believe you should never trust a person who puts "Dr." on their title and they are not MD or PhD. When you are just self-titled as "Doctor" to try and lure people to trust you, you are not to be trusted. Check the background of the author, briefly, see what they have studied and what they have written about in the past. I am not saying that if it's not their field they are not entitled to have an opinion, but it's something to always consider.

 

3. Funding and affiliation.

Everyone has to make ends meet. Even in academic studies, funding may influence the way data are presented. I've seen multiple studies that the "results" section wasn't as promising, yet the "discussion" section was presented in such a fashion that it made me think that the results were in fact more significant than they actually were.

If you are reading an academic study, check the last page of it for funding information. If it's a blog or other sort of article, check for affiliation links. If you see affiliation links or products being sold, look for data, not just claims. For example, as this article is being written, my only affiliation is with a Hemp Oil shop and I have stated it in a previous post as well. Should you then think that my information regarding cannabis or hemp are biased? Yes, you should always question it. And this is the reason why all my articles that mention any sort of substance, have various academic references with placebo-controlled trials, so that you never take my word for granted, but rather look at the actual data yourself. Then it doesn't matter what my affiliation is, facts are facts, numbers are numbers. I chose to support the products or services that I believe are high quality and can benefit other people too.

 

4. What was the method used?

The optimal way to ensure the efficacy of a substance is through a double-blind (i.e. Neither volunteers nor researchers know until the end point of the study, whether the volunteer is taking the substance or placebo. It is randomized through computers.), placebo-controlled (i.e. One or more groups taking the substance and one group taking placebo) studies. However, some times studies claim beneficial effects of a substance or regime, without a placebo group. Never underestimate the power of the mind. The placebo effect is powerful.

Of course, sample size matters too. Many time I have read bold titles such as "This supplement boosted mental performance in 80% of the subjects"; only to find that the test took place with 10 volunteers. Certainly, it is a positive result that 8 out of 10 subjects improve their mental performance, but such a small sample should not be conclusive; there is a high chance that the sample (being so small) did not possess enough variability. If for example you find a double-blind placebo-controlled trial with hundreds or thousands of participants, well that is a much more reliable source.

 

5. When is the publication from?

The field of medicine and pharmacology is ever-changing. Even if you read a reliable study, if it is from the 1970's, you should look for further, more recent data. There are cases that the data will still be relevant, but there is a chance that the old hypothesis is disproved or that the method used in the older study is nowadays considered inefficient. If you can find data from multiple sources, throughout the years, then you know you can rely on that.

 

That's my few tips that I found useful over the years of going through hundreds of studies and articles. Remember, no matter how close to you a topic is, facts/data should never be replaced with emotion when it comes to your health.

Always consult your doctor or physician before implementing any changes to your diet and health.

Question everything.

Stay healthy.