Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science

Much of what medical researchers conclude in their studies is misleading, exaggerated, or flat-out wrong. So why are doctors—to a striking extent—still drawing upon misinformation in their everyday practice? Dr. John Ioannidis has spent his career challenging his peers by exposing their bad science.

By David H. Freedman

Image credit: Robyn Twomey/Redux

In 2001, rumors were circulating in Greek hospitals that surgery residents, eager to rack up scalpel time, were falsely diagnosing hapless Albanian immigrants with appendicitis. At the University of Ioannina medical school’s teaching hospital, a newly minted doctor named Athina Tatsioni was discussing the rumors with colleagues when a professor who had overheard asked her if she’d like to try to prove whether they were true—he seemed to be almost daring her. She accepted the challenge and, with the professor’s and other colleagues’ help, eventually produced a formal study showing that, for whatever reason, the appendices removed from patients with Albanian names in six Greek hospitals were more than three times as likely to be perfectly healthy as those removed from patients with Greek names. “It was hard to find a journal willing to publish it, but we did,” recalls Tatsioni. “I also discovered that I really liked research.” Good thing, because the study had actually been a sort of audition. The professor, it turned out, had been putting together a team of exceptionally brash and curious young clinicians and Ph.D.s to join him in tackling an unusual and controversial agenda…

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Our Comments:

If you’re not already suspicious of medical research funded by drug companies, this article will probably change that. But more importantly, it should make you think twice before accepting ANY advice that doesn’t sound right to you, even ours.

When I tease “Dr. Lana” for not knowing some arcane medical fact, she’ll sometimes reminds me that doctors are people too, That means they’re subject to the same human biases we all are, and one of the biggest of all is the desire to be right and to have your voice heard. In medical research, this creates unconscious pressure to make research data fit a hypothesis so it can be published.

A great example of this is the NHANES study which allegedly proved that cutting salt consumption was good for high blood pressure. Years after this became commonly held wisdom, The Lancet published a paper in 1997 showing the original study was intentionally faked, and the authors only disclosed it after a lawsuit. More about salt here.

Our upcoming book looks at studies and verifies them with understanding of metabolic processes. We are suspicious of studies that don’t make sense given how our bodies work, so we test them. Salt is a great example. If we listened to the popular press, we’d avoid it. But 10,000 years of history seem to contradict that advice. Ever wonder why a man is worth his salt? Salt is so valuable when you don’t have enough that it’s more precious than gold. So our advice is to add a little sea salt to drinking water in the morning when your adrenals are working extra hard to make sure you have enough salt. Doing that actually reduces stress and increases health!

As you build your health in preparation for a baby – or just to feel good – the best thing you can do is learn to trust how you feel and to associate it with what you eat. Then, if you read a study that says soy is good for you (it’s not!) and decide to try it, you will notice that you don’t feel as good on soy.

Blindly believing medical myths is bad for you. As one of our Presidents used to say, “Trust but verify.” That’s how we created the Better Baby Book program.