As a disclaimer, I'd like to mention that I'm not a doctor, have no medical training and am not a researcher. My knowledge is that of a layperson interested in science and health research.
Some topics seem to be highly personal, and therefor difficult to discuss with people who don't share the same set of opinions. Medicine is sometimes such a topic. My hope is, that by laying a common foundation, more of us will be able to discuss medicine rationally.
Science is frequently reported in the news, and popular science information is broadly available - you're reading some of it right now. I've noticed two broad categories of problems in the reporting:
- The article author might not be scientifically literate. This is usually not a problem, if the reader is vigilant.
- The reader might not understand important jargon or know what to expect from a scientific study.
My goal for this series, is to give you some tools for how to understand medical research.
How to judge research
When consuming news or popular science, you'll frequently come across studies that come to this or that conclusion. Finding answers to the following questions will help you understand whether you have reason to update your understanding of the topic of the study.
- Is the study measuring something relevant?
- For instance, a new medicine may be better than a placebo, but that's not what we want to know. A more relevant measure would be whether a new medicine is better than the best existing medicine.
- What's the sample size?
- Conclusions drawn from a study on 20 participants will be much weaker, than those drawn from a meta-analysis of 100 studies covering a total of 200,000 test subjects.
- Are the researchers using best-practice methodology?
- There are scientific best practices that should be followed. As a non-scientist, you won't know the details, but can understand some of the basics of experiment design, such as randomized controlled trials. We'll get back to that.
- Does the field have a history of poor reproducibility?
- In fields that have a history of not being able to reproduce scientific results, you need to be extra vigilant. Such fields include psychology and nutrition, while experiments in physics and chemistry are usually reproducible.
In the following posts, we'll look at these questions in depth, as well as explain some of the jargon.
Reading and watching list
Below are some great sources of information on the topic of understanding medical science.
- Healthcare Triage, a Youtube channel in which Dr. Aaron Carroll talks about current health research. He himself is a researcher. Highly recommended for an insight into the medical science landscape.
- Randomized controlled trials, a Wikipedia article on one of the most important aspects of health research.
- Crash Course Statistics, a video course on statistics. These episodes in particular are relevant to medicine:
Corrections are appreciated!