We all want to be healthy. We love having the internet as a resource at our fingertips to find the latest and greatest information about nutrition, fitness, and new magical cures. But there's a problem.
The first problem is that the internet isn't actually a resource, per se. No, it is means to access thousands and thousands of resources, but in itself, it is just a bunch of machines connected to each other by wires and electromagnetic radiation. Actual resources may be websites like: Earth.Clinic, WebMD, Google Scholar, and databases like PubMed or The Cochrane Collaboration. As you recognize this, you may realize that not all resources are created equal. Some are run by individual bloggers in their spare time (like me), while others are well-funded and well-regulated private or government publications headed by committees of well-qualified professionals. There are obvious pros and cons to each of these, but what is important is to evaluate the validity and reliability of each resource. (In case you were wondering, I happened to sort the list above in order of least reliable to most reliable, according to my personal opinion). A recent article floating through my social media stream serves as a great example of the specifics.
Ginger, the wonder-drug
GINGER DESTROYS CANCER MORE EFFECTIVELY THAN DEATH-LINKED CANCER DRUGS mysciencacademy.org
This was the title of an article a friend posted on Facebook. It certainly caught my attention since #1 I love cooking with ginger, #2 I have family members who have suffered from cancer, and #3 I could help but wonder how the hell they could claim such a thing. I read the article and then, as any scientifically literate human being ought to do, scanned the article for any source of the claim. The only reference was an inconspicuous "Read More" link at the bottom of the page. It led me to the Natural Society website and an article identical to the referencing page. (Strike one for reliability. Plagiarism isn't exactly the first hint of scientific accuracy.) Fortunately, this second version of the article had more links, and they led to what appeared to be much more reliable sources (including PubMed and a research article linked from Cell.com).
There are more problems with the article, but I realize I'm getting long winded, so I'll make a short list.
There was only one research article relevant to the original claim. And it was titled "Benefits of whole ginger extract in prostate cancer." The problem with one study is that it simply is not enough. You need multiple, reproducible studies to even begin to make a claim of cause and effect.
The other main issue is that the study contributes relatively little to the claim of ginger fighting cancer better than anything else. When you go on to read the details (which you can find here), you will notice that the study was limited to a particular preparation of ginger used to treat cells in vitro (i.e. in petrie dishes, not live humans or even mice) and tested prostate cancer. Do you see how we went from benefits to destroying cancer? When I first read the title – and I don't think I'm alone in this – I thought a cure had been discovered. Truthfully, we're still a long way off from a cure.
The article has statements such as "[metastasis means] they come back bigger and more stronger than their original size." No, it doesn't. To come back stronger, they have to go away. They don't. They (meaning cancer cells) move from where they are to other tissues/organs. Look it up. Granted, I'm being a little bit picky. What they may have meant to say is that a tumor can be treated, reduce in size or go into remission, and then come back… and then metastasize. But they didn't say that. And it doesn't have to go anywhere.
In a nutshell, what I'm trying to say is that we fallible humans can be misled quite easily by others' misinterpretations. This is why we need to learn to be scientifically literate. It is our responsibility to educate ourselves about health claims. Most of us (and I do include myself here) do not know how – or are afraid – to ask the right questions.
"Is that what metastasize really means?"
"What do they mean by destroy?"
"What evidence do they have to support their claims?"
These are the types of questions that need to be asked. And we need to ask them about not only health issues but politics and gun laws and all of the other important issues. It's unfortunate that our public schools fall short of this education, but I've begun to learn what it means to be scientifically literate on my own, so I think others can too.
If you're still with me, I'm impressed. I couldn't even finish this in one sitting. Lest I lose you after all that, I'll turn you over to someone who can really explain what scientific literacy is all about.
So what do you think?
Is scientific literacy important? Should we rely on media sources for health information? Do you find yourself believing things that are too good to be true?
I'd love to hear your thoughts.