Almost daily we read of some new medical study which declares a certain food or substance to be beneficial to our health, and then several months later we read another report that claims the same substance is not beneficial or even harmful. These all too common events beg the the following questions:
- How can supposedly scientific studies contradict each other?
- Are scientific studies reliable?
- How can we determine the truth?
Modern double-blind studies are the gold standard of medical science today. As a result most Americans place unqualified faith in them, including medical professionals, government and court officials, and the members of the press. Is this faith well founded? Are double-blind studies truly reliable? This article will answer those questions and more – you will learn for yourself how to determine what is best for your own health.
Living organisms are exceedingly complex. As a result, it is difficult to devise a study to reliably show the health or harm of any given substance. It is even more difficult to remove human bias from the interpretation of the study. The fact that unqualified trust has been placed in modern double-blind medical studies has resulted in the suppression of many natural substances that do indeed provide valuable health benefits, while at the same time the promotion of harmful pharmaceuticals which not only provide little or no benefit but cause actual harm. These mistakes are supported by this reliance in medical studies. The problems with such studies are myriad. Removing them is difficult. In this paper, I will explore some of the problems with designing, conducting and interpreting medical studies, and offer recommendations on overcoming these problems for yourself.
Problems with Human Bias
Double-blind studies were designed to overcome the inherent problems with first hand experiences when used to determine the safety and benefits of a substance on a given health condition. When we rely on personal experience or the testimony of others, conclusions may be drawn which may be far from the truth. This problem is due to the high subjectivity and possible untrustworthiness of people in general. For example, when someone declares that “drinking mangosteen juice cured me of cancer”, can we trust that testimony? What if he is lying in order to sell a product? What if he had chemotherapy at the same time and that treatment, not the juice, was responsible for his cure?
Personal bias and beliefs can also strongly influence a persons testimony or even the results of a study a researcher may have performed. Most of us are familiar with the placebo effect. This effect is when the study subject reports benefits to the substance being taken because he wants t o believe it will help him. It goes beyond just a colored judgment. In some cases actual healing can result from this belief. When this effect was discovered, single blind studies were designed to conceal from the subjects the knowledge of whether or not they were given the active substance.
Later, it was discovered that single blind studies eliminated the bias in the subjects, it did not eliminate the bias of the researchers. It became apparent that the researchers own beliefs would skew the actual data of the study in their favor. To solve this problem, the double-blind study was devised, wherein neither the researcher nor the subjects knew which received the placebo or the active agent. Problem solved – right? Unfortunately, it was not. Even more tragically, most believe it was.
Problems with ComplexityMost studies attempt to determine the effect of a substance on an animal or person by giving one group a certain amount of the substance and another group nothing. Sometimes the study may attempt to measure multiple parameters, but in most cases, only a single parameter is measured – one substance and one quantity. It is because of the high cost of a study that only one such experiment is conducted. The problem should be obvious to all, but it is not. What if the amount being given is too little to have an effect? What if it is too much and is therefore toxic? What if certain co-factors are needed for the substance to work, but are missing in the study? What if… I could go on and on. To put it simply, there are so many variables, there is no way to simplify the problem into just a single experiment with one variable.
Yet that is what the modern double-blind study does. I was recently reading a book on the use of magnesium to heal and the author had just finished citing the numerous studies showing the efficacy of intravenous magnesium as a treatment for heart attacks in the ER, when he says:
The medical authorities and certainly the pharmaceutical companies are in a pickle with magnesium chloride. They have a powerful medicine that is non-toxic, inexpensive, and effective in a wide variety of medical situations. So what do they do? The have a study designed to show the opposite, thus sabotaging medical clarity on the used of a valuable and safe medicine. Specifically, a single negative study showing that magnesium had a worsening effect on survival employed a far higher dose of magnesium (80 mmol) than the studies mentioned above, and another study, showing no benefit with magnesium, employed the low dose of 10 mmol in the first 24 hours.
Just imagine the possibilities to manipulate a study – too much of a good thing and it becomes harmful; too little and it has no effect. Either study can be performed and the results trumpeted by the press who carries the advertising paid for by the drug companies. The verdict is announced and both doctors and the public forevermore dismiss any use of the given substance as quackery.
Even honest studies can make the same mistake. Not only is it difficult to study the right amount of a given substance, the problem is multiplied several-fold if we consider the many co-factors that should be included. For example, many studies show vitamin E to be ineffective in preventing cancer, yet those studies failed to include the necessary co-factors such as other vitamins, minerals and such. Studies which include these co-factors often show wonderful benefits that the former studies do not.
Overcoming the Problems
So, given the insurmountable problems with medical studies, what do we do? Despite the difficulties in getting at the truth, I believe a thinking individual can overcome many of these problems. The first step is to recognize the problems. The common man tends to believe personal testimony. His faith is often misplaced. The doctor scoffs at personal testimony and places his faith in medical studies. His faith is also misplaced. I don’t believe either source of information should be discarded, but neither should anything be believed without further scrutiny. Instead of throwing out the baby with the bath water, we should instead chew the meat and spit out the bones.
In the case of personal testimony, we should first examine the source to see if it is credible. If the source is someone who stands to gain by the testimony being believed, we should tend to discard his testimony. If the source has nothing to gain, we may want to inspect further. What basis is there for the claimed benefit? Does it fit with our current knowledge? Is there physical evidence to support it? It is reasonable and plausible? Someone can claim drinking Pepsi-Cola cured their headaches. Does this mean Pepsi-Cola can cure headaches? If it can, then there must be a mechanism by which it does so. You can do your own research – both by examining studies and other testimonies, as well as experimenting on yourself. Don’t believe anything you hear without substantiation, but don’t write something off either just because it is someone’s testimony.
In the case of medical studies, we can derive benefit from most of them. Think of medical studies as a person trying to hit the bullseye of a large target. The bullseye is perfect health. Those studies which show a strong benefit to a particular substance, have struck close to the bullseye. We can confidently try taking the same substances ourselves (along with the co-factors used in the study) and see if it benefits ourselves as well. Some benefits may not be immediate however, so for those, we will just have to trust the studies. At worse case, no harm has been done.
Those studies that show no benefit or harm to the same substance have missed their mark. While this failure would seem to disqualify the study, it can still provide some benefit. For those showing little benefit, we should compare the dosage and co-factors that may not be present with the studies that were more successful. That information can provide a more accurate guide to the dosage and co-factors we need and it can boost our confidence in the other studies. For those showing harm, we should ask some questions. Are there co-factors missing? Is the substance tested the same form as the one used in the successful studies? Very few studies of natural substances indicate any harm, so in most cases we don’t have to worry about them. For the few that do, asking these questions will often provide the answer.
We have examined some of the difficulties in studying health issues in people. I have demonstrated that the gold standard in medical studies is no more reliable than personal testimony. While these studies can provide valuable information, they are often used by the medical industry to discredit natural substances which are safer and more effective than highly profitable drugs. Rather than discarding such studies, I have shown how they can be used to further the truth when used wisely.
In general, personal testimonies at best can provide a direction to look, but are otherwise unreliable. On the other hand, medical studies are reliable only when they show positive benefits. Please be aware, that this generalization applies only to vitamins and other natural substances and nutraceuticals because they are almost always inherently safe. Pharmaceutical drugs on the other hand are inherently dangerous, so only a plethora of studies indicating their safety are to be believed.
The only true test is your own body. Testimonies and studies can, at best, provide a direction to travel. Your personal health is all that matters in the end.