How to read articles about health issues

obatBen Goldacre's book goes at length to explain why evidence-based medicine with proper peer-reviewed and transparent science is better than so-called alternatives. Some 200 pages of his book goes through flaws in popular alternative medicines and therapies and also highlights how some popular television programs on nutrition involve people who appear legitimate but in various ways are not.

But he also gives a cautionary note about the reaction we have to one of the partners in the evidence-based medicine approach: the pharmaceutical industry, accusing, both drugs companies and the alternative industries of using the same "tricks of the trade" to manipulate citizens:

"We all feel nervous about profit taking any role in the caring professions, but that feeling has nowhere to go. Big pharma is evil: I would agree with that premise. But because people don't understand exactly how big pharma is evil, their anger and indignation get diverted away from valid criticisms — its role in distorting data, for example, or withholding life-saving AIDS drugs from the development world — and channeled into infantile fantasies. "Big pharma is evil," goes the line of reasoning, "therefore homeopathy works and the MMR vaccine causes autism." This is probably not helpful.
— Ben Goldacre, Bad Science, (Harper Perennial, 2009), p.201)

(This web site's page on pharmaceutical companies looks at some of those above concerns in further detail, including issues such as withholding life-saving AIDS drugs that Goldacre mentions.)

So, given the myriad of problems with health coverage and news, how do we read health articles without getting so cynical about everything that we distrust even good coverage and label everything as wrong, and ironically, as "bad science"?

Here are some reputable sources that explain how to interpret and read articles about health in the media:

  • From the British NHS web site:
    • How to read health news by Dr Alicia White, from the NHS web site
    • Behind the Headlines leads by example by looking at the major health headlines with a fact-based approach to explain what the issues actually are.
  • From the charity, Cancer Research UK Science fact or fiction? section:
    • How does science work?
    • Top tips for reading science stories in the media
  • Ben Goldacre's book, Bad Science is written more for the general audience than as a scholarly text, so is highly accessible and provides detailed insights into the above issues (and a lot more). His Bad Science blog has a lot more articles.
  • Sense about science is a charity that attempts to respond to the misrepresentation of science and scientific evidence on issues that matter to society.
  • This is a news website article about a scientific paper, by Marti Robbins, The Guardian, September 27, 2010, pokes fun at typical science articles found in many mainstream media outlets. In doing so, numerous issues are highlighted in a unique way.