But here is the key: We must look at the trends over time, rather
than at one specific result. Sure, sometimes new studies will overturn
old studies, but this a validation of the scientific process, rather
than a failing of it.
CUT THROUGH THE GLUT OF HEALTH INFORMATION
The same can be said for health: Just as no one
study explains it all, there is no single behavior that will make you
healthy, like cutting out fat or rejecting carbs.
Health is an ongoing collection of behaviors that lead to a healthy
lifestyle, just as science is an ongoing discussion of experimental
findings. That's why staying abreast of health information is key. But
with so much information out there, it is easy to become frustrated, or
obsessed. And neither response is helpful.
Many people -- 61 percent of Americans -- go online to look
for answers to their health questions, thus becoming "e-patients,"
either to address particular symptoms, or to learn more about a new
diagnosis. But the value of health information on the Internet can vary widely, depending on the source.
The Media as Middleman and Marketer
We rely on the media to transmit study results from
the lab to the public. But according to Platkin, this "middleman"
role can also pose problems, since the media are themselves an imperfect
source. Specific study results may be highlighted preferentially,
arbitrarily, or because certain studies make better headlines than
Unfortunately, says Platkin, "people believe that the newest study
may represent the State of Science." A good example of this is when a
recent study suggested that an antioxidant in cocoa was linked to
certain metabolic changes in muscle activity:
perhaps not surprisingly, headlines suggesting that chocolate could
virtually take the place of exercise were splashed around the Internet.
Health marketing also has the tendency to link health with
happily-ever-after, which can have unwanted consequences. According to
Platkin, "the happy people running in the sunset on the healthy cereal
packaging suggests that by attaining health you can live like a
commercial." This idea is akin to the criticism of cigarette ads of the
past, which gave the impression that if you smoke, you'll be as
attractive and happy as the people in the ads.
The Perils of Social Media: Health as One-Liners
The fact is, we gravitate to these simple, happy
stories. Especially when we are confused by conflicting findings and
inspired by idealized images of perfect health, we may seek easy answers
even though there are none.
Some of the problem is quantity, and the source of that quantity is
often the Internet. When we're deluged with study results, health tips,
and advice on an hourly basis, it's easy to feel lost.
This is partly because a shower of information in tiny bits can obscure
our basic knowledge about health, which is usually fairly accurate. For
example, when lots of tempting new "quick fix" diet plans are promoted,
it can be easy to forget that the tried-and-true method for weight loss
is diet and exercise.