The problem with health science

Okay, nevermind the hyperbolic title to this post; it's really just about a problem with health science, which how research is done and published, and what we laypeople are supposed to make of it all. Here's what got me thinking about this issue:

There was a blurb in this month's issue of Flex magazine (a hardcore bodybuilding mag) about doing "supersets" - that is, if you are doing exercises for your chest and back, instead of doing all your chest sets and then all your back sets, you alternate one set of a chest exercise with one set of a back exercise, and so on. The question was whether doing supersets burns more fat than training with traditional "straight sets". According to the study reported on in Flex, the answer is "yes".  A few days later, I was reading through this month's Men's Fitness, and found another blurb about a study on supersets asking the exact same question. But guess what? In that study, the answer was "no".

The funny thing is that these two magazines are both Weider publications. Both have some pretty knowledgeable people on staff, and both report on current exercise science and nutrition research. And yet here readers are given patently contradictory advice. Neither magazine gave much detail about how the studies were conducted, although Flex actually detailed the workouts and rest intervals. Still, a clear answer on the matter is obviously elusive.

This isn't just related to exercise science. I read about a series of studies linking milk to an increased risk for prostate cancer. Except the studies were small, and there were innumerable lifestyle factors that weren't controlled for.

We see this kind of thing all the time. Some small study of 15 people gets done, the results published in some peer-reviewed journal, and suddenly it's the new recommendation. Exercise this way, not that way. Eat this food, not that food. We really have to take all this stuff with a grain of salt (or maybe not, depending on the latest study of sodium intake). The real test of good scientific research is replication. I repeat, for emphasis: replication. A small study, particularly one in which countless external factors may not be adequately controlled for, is virtually impossible to extrapolate to a larger population. Studies need to be done on a larger scale, over longer periods of time, with various different populations, and the results need to be consistently replicated.

This isn't a minor issue. American consumers are constantly in a state of confusion because magazines and newspapers are always reporting on this new study or that one, and frequently giving contradictory advice. Unfortunately, I don't think there's much most of us can do to stop the torrent of bad information and dubious science. We simply need to be aware of what's going on, and avoid jumping to conclusions based on small amounts of research.


  1. Mike,

    Post is spot on. So much contradictory information. It can be overwhelming some days to try and discern what is fact, what is fiction and what is just simply unknown.



Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Why Christianity is bullshit, part 1: The Bible is stupid

Why Christianity is bullshit, part 2: The Bible isn't true

There is no such thing as sophisticated theology