Medical Research

My chiropractor's office recently put out a newsletter which advocated a nearly complete vegan diet. What prompted this was the recent death of three patients and friends of the practice from heart attack, cardiovascular disease and cancer, at relatively young ages. This caused the author of the newsletter to do more "clinical reading". According to this chiropractor, research in the last 10-15 years had revealed that there is such a thing as a "natural diet". This diet would call for the near elimination of meat as a diet constituent, and the substitution of plants instead.

He makes a big deal about the fact that 52% of all U.S. deaths are from cardiovascular disease, and 38% from cancers. (I don't have time to verify these facts, but I suspect he meant to write "U.S. deaths from disease", since I imagine accidents are a much larger cause of deaths.) He makes a big deal also about fat. Somehow fat is the bane of our existence, and the cure is to eat veggies almost exclusively. I won't go into all the details, but the above is the gist of the newsletter.

I can poke a lot of holes in his arguments. For example, does fat actually cause cardiovascular disease and cancer? Or is it more likely that our sedentary lifestyles are major contributors? A lot of poking holes in the arguments is a matter of common sense. You could do it for days and make a real game out of it.

My point isn't really to make fun of the guy and rip up his arguments. My point is that, throughout this newsletter, he pointed to "studies" which proved this or that. If you listen to the news with any regularity, you've heard about these studies. This week, eggs will kill you. Next month, eggs are good for you. We've all heard of these kind of contradictory studies. How can doctors, who supposedly know all about the human body (and whom we trust with ours) come up with such silly and contradictory pronouncements?

The partial answer is, they get paid to do so. They apply for government grants and accept research dollars from pharmaceutical companies to do this or that kind of research. Now, ask yourself what kind of research governments and pharmaceutical companies would pay for. Better yet, let's take a concrete example. Let's take "global warming", or its current fashionable incarnation, "global climate change". Try to get government (or any other) grant money to do a research project which purports to disprove global warming. Good luck. Now, try to get a grant for research to prove global climate change. You can just about hear the coins falling from the sky on you. In the same way, you can imagine that tobacco companies wouldn't pay money to research the damage cigarette smoke does to the lungs. But they might pay for research into which flavorings, when added to cigarettes, might entice people to switch brands or start smoking.

Medical and other research is driven by money. It's government money, drug company money, National Egg Producers money, National Potato Growers money, or whatever. Researchers know going in what type of conclusion they want to reach. It's part of their applications for grant money. And the sympathies of the funding entity will determine whether they get their money or not.

Am I saying that medical research can't be trusted because it's funded by entities which have a vested interest in the outcomes? Not exactly. Because there's another piece to this puzzle.

A lot of what passes for "medical research" these days is really just statistical analysis. They don't sit people down and feed them masses of salt to see if they'll die. They survey medical records. Even when the research is conducted on live people, it often involves questionnaires about what they eat, smoke and drink (and tests of their body chemistry). The results are tallied and analyzed. And in the end, you get a "study" that says something like, "Seventy percent of people who eat Wheaties die within 24 hours".

Just think about that silly conclusion for a moment. The truth is that those people ate Wheaties every morning for breakfast, and some time in the next 24 hours, they died. They could have been eating Canadian bacon for breakfast, in which case it would be, "Seventy percent of people who eat Canadian bacon die within 24 hours". The truth is that the Wheaties or Canadian bacon had nothing to do with their deaths. But it sure sounded like it did, from the conclusion of the study.

And that's the problem. Correspondence is not causation. Just because two things seem to happen together statistically ("correspondence") doesn't mean one caused ("causation") the other. But this kind of error is common, at least in the way medical research is reported.

You might ask why it's so common. First, as I said, doctors get paid to come up with conclusions like this. They go into their research projects with an idea of how things are going to work out. Second, doctors don't know. They're guessing.

What?! Doctors are guessing? You think doctors know all there is to know about the human body, right? Wrong. They know a lot, and they know a lot more than you do. But ask a doctor sometime why only certain people in an office will get the flu or a cold. Clearly, the germs are in the air, being recirculated by the air conditioning system and smeared on doorknobs and keyboards all day. Yet only some people get sick. Doctors don't know why, and an honest one will tell you so. Again, they're not completely in the dark. But judging by the number and variety of studies they do, they clearly don't know as much as you think they do. (Remember this the next time someone with an M.D. behind his name gives you some profound pronouncement.)

But there's a third flaw in medical research as it's conducted today. There's no testing of the hypothesis. I don't know about today's science education, but way back when, we studied something called "The Scientific Method" in science classes. It works roughly this way: You figure out what you want to test and make your experiments. The results point in a certain direction. That's your "hypothesis". Now you go back and figure out how to test that your hypothesis is true and factual. If you conduct your experiments correctly (and your hypothesis was correct), your hypothesis becomes a real live reproducible phenomenon, maybe even a "law".

Imagine a study done on gravity. The guy drops some apples. They fall pretty consistently. Hyphothesis: The Earth Sucks. End of study. What? No, no, no. That's not the way you do it.

No, it's not. But that's the way this type of research is done these days. Survey patients or medical records or both. Draw conclusion based on statistics and data (hypothesis). Publish study. There's no going back to devise experiments which confirm or invalidate the hypothesis. So the "research" you're getting is half-baked.

(Unfortunately, having dealt with the alternative health care industry for decades, I can say that chiropractors, nutitionists and the like are very prone to accepting the silliest conclusions based on books they read from people they trust, or studies which tend to echo what they already suspect is true. For example, an awful lot of them believe that microwave ovens destroy the nutrients in food, based on whatever studies or books they've read. So how come the rest of us haven't ever heard of this "solid research"?)

In any case, the next time someone (including a news agency) cites some medical study, take the whole thing with a grain of (iodized) salt. Consider these things:

  • The researcher(s) probably knew what they were going to find going in.
  • The doctors or researchers got paid to come to this conclusion.
  • The entity that paid for the research probably is or was sympathetic to the conclusion drawn. (I.e. they had an agenda.)
  • The research was probably primarily statistical analysis.
  • The correspondence in the study implies a causation which may not exist at all.
  • There was likely no effective testing done once the hypothesis was drawn, so as to determine if the hypothesis was correct or not.
  • And finally, never assume, just because someone has (or purports to have) more education or training than you do, that they know more than you do on any given subject. (Example: How many businesses have failed at the hands of guys who had MBAs?) Use your own common sense. If you don't have any, figure out a way to get some. (And then tell the rest of us how you did it.)

    Add Comment: