When it comes to questions about your health, how do you know what’s true? Do you rely on what your doctor says? Maybe a quick google search? Should you trust a friend or family member who may be knowledgeable on the subject? Is it enough just to trust what any healthcare practitioner tells you? The only true answer to this question is science. Science gives us the best way to get at the truth when it comes to popular claims about health. The problem is, interpreting the science is rarely straightforward.
When someone reads a scientific paper about a given subject there is rarely a big thumbs up or thumbs down at the end of it giving us a final answer. We are constantly dealing with shades of gray. There are many confounding factors. There are difficulties actually conducting the research. Errors of judgment and logic can lead us astray. The role of science and statistics itself in medicine is debated. These factors lead different people to different conclusions about our health. A simple question like “does saturated fat cause heart disease?” has taken decades to research, and there is still not a clear answer.
Simple Questions Don’t Have Simple Answers
A seemingly simple question becomes much more complex when you actually try and answer it. How much saturated fat is too much? How many people do we need in the study to prove it? How do we keep track of what people eat? Will they lie about it? Does it matter if people have other diseases or conditions? Should we track how many calories people eat overall? Does it matter where the saturated fat comes from? How long do we have to track people over time? How are we going to pay for all of this? I can ask more questions here than you would be interested to read, and this complexity is true for almost every question you can think of.
Given that many questions about health don’t have straightforward answers, some can provide ostensible advice that fails to stand up to any scientific scrutiny later on. They might simply be mistaken about what they suggest, or they might know better and have less-than pure intentions. Let’s look at back pain, for example. Back pain is extremely common. One study reported that in 2015, about 7% of the world population had back pain at any one time, and it is the leading cause of disability globally. Despite how common it is, we really don’t know how to address it effectively.
A Case Study In Shades Of Gray
Depending on who you ask, answers can vary. If you asked a doctor from 20 years ago, they might have said extensive bed rest. If you ask a doctor now, they might recommend some painkillers. If you ask a chiropractor, they might want to correct all of those supposed subluxations in your back. If you ask an acupuncturist, they will tell you your Qi might be off. A massage therapist would focus on releasing all those tight muscles. If you ask an orthopedic surgeon, they might recommend a fusion surgery.
Even within my own profession, there is serious disagreement. Some physical therapists might say your core is weak, or your pelvic bones need an adjustment, or you are not flexible enough, or it’s all in your head, or it is tight connective tissue, or you have trigger points that need to be addressed…the list goes on. The truth is, by all scientific accounts, back pain can be extremely complex, we don’t alway know what causes it, and we don’t always know how to treat it. There are a few things we can say confidently, but most of the time we are dealing with significant uncertainty.
My Only Goal
Many topics in healthcare have this same type of complexity and nuance that makes it difficult for healthcare professionals to address and even more difficult for the average person to understand. My goal with this website is simple: I want to provide honest, reasonable, and sensible translations of the scientific literature on health claims to educate you and put you in a better position to make decisions. If you are a regular reader of this website, you will be better informed, you will be able to critically evaluate and assess claims about your health, and hopefully you will be a healthier person for it.