How to read articles about health

The-girl-and-the-boy-snippetAlicia White explains how to make sense (if there’s any sense there to be made) of new reports about medical breakthroughs and health advice.

The girl-and-boyIf you’ve just read a health-related headline that’s caused you to spit out your morning coffee (“Coffee causes cancer” usually does the trick) it’s always best to follow the Blitz slogan: “Keep Calm and Carry On”. On reading further you’ll often find the headline has left out something important, like “Injecting five rats with really highly concentrated coffee solution caused some changes in cells that might lead to tumours eventually. (Study funded by The Association of Tea Marketing)”.

The most important rule to remember: “Don’t automatically believe the headline”. It is there to draw you into buying the paper and reading the story. Would you read an article called “Coffee pretty unlikely to cause cancer, but you never know”? Probably not.

Before spraying your newspaper with coffee in the future, you need to interrogate the article to see what it says about the research it is reporting on.

So writes Dr. Alicia White in her essay “How to read articles about health and healthcare“.

(Spotted thanks to Ben Goldacre.)