Health Studies Are Worthless to Those Who Care About Health

January 19th, 2007 by Steve Pavlina

Often people ask me what I think of the latest health study about the benefits of X or the harmful effects of Y.

I usually tell them I consider it meaningless.

Here are four reasons why I don’t rely on “scientific” studies for making personal health decisions… and just to make it more interesting, I’ll splice in some Mark Twain quotes:

1. Everyone has an agenda.

“Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.” – Mark Twain

Fat doctors write health books with nearly identical openings:  “Here’s why everyone else is wrong and I’m the only one who’s right.”  Health magazines are owned by supplement makers.  Drug companies sponsor TV news programs.  People retire from the FDA to take up lucrative positions in the pharmaceutical industry, sometimes after owning stock in the companies whose drugs they were responsible for approving.  I could spend a lifetime trying to sort it out, but I wouldn’t have enough fingers for all the finger pointing.

I’m not suggesting every agenda is negative or evil… just that accuracy isn’t always the #1 concern.

2. You never hear the whole truth.

“Honesty is the best policy — when there is money in it.” – Mark Twain

When you hear of a new study about the benefits of consuming some product, guess who funded it, directly or indirectly.  Do you think you’ll hear about the 10 other studies they funded that showed their product was harmful?

It’s pretty easy to make something sound more beneficial than it really is.  Just ask any marketer.

When you hear about a new health study on the TV news, take note that you’re watching disguised advertising.

3. You’re unique.

“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” – Mark Twain

Just because there’s a barely detectable pattern in some dataset doesn’t mean it will apply to you personally.  How do we know the average trend will hold true for a male, blond-haired, blue-eyed, colorblind, non-smoking, left-handed, vegan, married father-of-two living in Las Vegas?  When you consider your unique blend of genetic, environmental, and personality factors, how close to “normal” are you?

If something holds true for virtually everyone in a test group of reasonable size, chances are it will hold true for you too.  Jump off a cliff, and you’ll probably die.  But if the claim is of a very slight effect with less than 95% accuracy, there’s no telling whether or not you’ll get the same results.  You may very well experience the opposite.

4. The underlying paradigm is wrong.

“Be careful about reading health books.  You may die of a misprint.” – Mark Twain

A Wikipedia entry on medical error reports:  “In the United States medical error is estimated to result in 44,000 to 98,000 unnecessary deaths and 1,000,000 excess injuries each year.”  This seems to be a fairly conservative estimate – I’ve seen others that are as much as an order of magnitude higher.

What passes for modern healthcare today is still very primitive, sloppy, and error-prone, especially when compared to other technical disciplines.  If you go to a doctor to report a health problem, there’s a fair chance you’ll be misdiagnosed, and you may be treated based on that incorrect diagnosis too.  Even if you get a correct diagnosis, your treatment is likely to be qualified with words like “should,” “hopefully,” and “side effects.”  Ask your doctor why the problem occurred and how to prevent it from occurring again, and you may hear a “We aren’t exactly sure.”  If my auto mechanic used such language after repairing my car, I’d find a new mechanic.

Various forms of alternative healthcare don’t avoid these problems either.  We still end up with shoulds and maybes.

I’m not saying these problems are the fault of health practitioners.  I’m sure they’re doing the best they can.  The problem is that we lack an accurate paradigm of human health.  As long as the current paradigms remain profitable for those invested in them, there isn’t much incentive for change to occur from within.  Consequently, if your goal is to do what’s best for your own well-being, I wouldn’t put much weight in the studies that arise from today’s inaccurate paradigms.

So what to do instead?

“Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside.” – Mark Twain

One reason people rely on health studies is to avoid having to think for themselves.  They want someone else to give them certainty.  But if you accept the duty of thinking for yourself and drawing your own conclusions from direct experience, you’ll end up with a much simpler and more actionable understanding of human health.

Do you need a study to tell you that being fat is unhealthy?  Can’t you just listen to your labored breathing after you climb the stairs?  When you look in the mirror, don’t your eyes immediately signal that something isn’t right with your body?

Do you need a study to tell you that smoking is unhealthy?  Or will your nose and lungs inform you that something is off?  Don’t you notice people going out of their way to avoid the stink cloud that is you?

Do you need a study to tell you how to eat?  Or can you simply experiment with 30-day trials to find the best diet for you?

If you like studies, then study yourself, especially if that’s the person you want to keep healthy.

“Familiarity breeds contempt — and children.” – Mark Twain

That last quote has nothing to do with the article.  I just happen to think it’s funny.


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