Starting in a separate post today and continuing each day of 2011, if I can manage, I will write a post each day about reporting in the health news that offers unhelpful analysis, gives unhealthy advice, draws unsupported conclusions, or generally perpetuates or creates scientific illiteracy. The “unhealthful news” for short.
You might ask why we need yet another regularly scheduled quick-hit critique of the health news (as opposed to occasional deeper analysis that I and some others prefer to write). It is indeed true that there are several good “what is wrong with the health news of the day” newsletters, blogs, etc. out there. But I am sure that anyone familiar with the situation would agree that there is a lot more bad information that needs to be fixed than there are efforts to fix it, so the more the better.
Additionally, I aim to do something a bit different. Instead of focusing on contradicting incorrect conclusions, I am going to try to focus on incorrect reasoning that anyone can be educated to recognize. Kind of a “teach a person to fish” thing. I believe I am in a particularly good position to do this, given my background in scientific epistemology (including both the nitty gritty of the statistical and data gathering methods as well as broader viewpoints), health policy analysis, and many specific scientific topic areas. Indeed, I used this teaching method (culling examples for discussion from the week’s news) as a major part of my flagship course for over a decade. My syllabus was half blank at the start of the semester (much to the annoyance of narrow-minded administrators and those who wanted to try to clone my course) – after all, how could I know what the teachable health research and health policy moments of the semester are going to be before the semester started?
My goal is that someone who reads most the series will be much better at scientifically analyzing health research/information than almost all of those who are reporting it in the press and, frankly, better than the vast majority of those publishing in the health science journals.
I will have to see how things play out in this medium, which might be somewhat different from culling news items for use in class. My expectation is that most days’ blogs will:
-be based on a current story, often from the past day or so, but sometimes a bit older (I will not try to always find something from the same day. I do not want to make the same mistake that the reporters (and some of their critics) do, trying to rush something out with inadequate thought as if I were reporting a weather forecast or political rumor which will time-out in a day, rather than scientific information that should stand the test of time.)
-not necessarily focus on the entire story or even its conclusions, but rather on specific analysis methods, misunderstandings, errors, or other factors which are not unique to that story; there may be much wrong with a story that I ignore, and it may be that the conclusions are generally right but there is still an error worth emphasizing
-go negative: as the previous paragraph implies, most of my analyses will focus on errors since those are the easiest source of teaching material, though I hope to find a few gems where I can celebrate someone who got something more correct than is typical
-sometimes focus on the reporting and sometimes on the research that is being reported
-emphasize public health over medicine, and generally avoid the purely biological/mechanical side of health reporting (the average reader can benefit from understanding public health or personal health information, and thus suffer from bad information, but information about a new cancer drug or genetics research is similar to astrophysics – it is great that someone knows it, and many of us are entertained by reading about it, but only a few experts can really make any use of the information)
-tend toward my main areas of interest/expertise, for obvious reasons, though I will try to keep it as broad as possible
-focus on the economic side of health more than most commentators (this includes policy implications as well as individual preferences and tradeoffs – i.e., what people really care about when it comes to their health; note: do not confuse “economic” with “financial” – I will have very little, if anything, to say about that dominant health news topic, paying for medical care)
Beyond that, this should be self-explanatory, and indeed what evolves will probably differ from whatever I can plan now, so on with it. This series will probably crowd out most or all of my random short essays that I previously posted, but I will still use this blog to publish some of my more in-depth analyses.
Happy New Year.