Among the information that crossed my desk today was this fascinating article from The Atlantic on the unreliability of scientific studies. It’s a looong, riveting article – go read it when you have a half hour. The article looks at the “meta” research of a Greek scientist and mathematician named John Ioannidis. I can’t possibly list all the reasons why his research shows that most studies are suspect, but throw in money, bias, ego, and our natural desire to be proven right, and you get the idea. Ioannidis’ point is that most researchers start out with a premise, and they usually succeed in proving their point. His research revealed that 80 percent of non-randomized studies (by far the most common type) end up to be just plain wrong. His advice: ignore them all.
Now, if I was going to ignore everything I’ve ever read that shaped my health, dietary and exercise choices, my life would look a lot different, and my bank account would be a lot fuller. I consider myself an intelligent, educated person, and I know that I can’t believe everything I read, but a peek into my vitamin drawer might indicate that I’m a sucker. Vitamin D? Check. C? It’s in there. Calcium? Magnesium? Multi? Yup, yup and yup. I have an organic farm share – yes, the winter one starts tomorrow.
So how is the ordinary non-scientist supposed to know what choices to make?
There are things that experience has shown me that I need. I bruise easily, less so if I put some extra Vitamin C in my diet (I discovered by ugly accident that sharply and suddenly reducing your Vitamin C intake gives you symptoms of scurvy – in my case, severe bruising). Calcium? Maybe not – I eat a lot of yogurt, greens and fortified soy milk, but every doctor I’ve seen in the last 10 years told me I need more. Not, apparently, that they actually know. A multi-vitamin? Maybe not.
I eat organic when I can afford it because it’s pretty clear to me that chemicals are nasty and can cause severe health problems. Still, I may have more chemical exposure sitting on my couch than I do eating a tomato that’s been sprayed with pesticide.
I suspect that what we really all need is a big dose of common sense. There are some things that I know make me function better. Exercise improves my mood and keeps my weight down. I love wine, and a little bit relaxes me at the end of a hard day. Maybe we just need to treat the headline of the day with a lot more skepticism and listen harder to our bodies and our guts.