Friday, July 6, 2012

How to not read an article

It's a good idea to read articles of various opinions, pros and cons, about an idea, new technology, advice on health, or anything, including a person or organization. I closely follow Dr. Andrew Weil, a well-known scientist on preventive, integrated or alternative medicine, on Facebook and through his newsletters. So it was refreshing to read Doctor Andrew Weil: Whose Side Is He Really On?, an article on The article reveals the business practice of Dr. Weil, his contract with the advertisement company, the nutrition supplements he's promoting, and the non-profit organization he founded and chaired. It's good to know a little of these details about the person and his organization I regularly follow. I personally never bothered to click the sales links in Dr. Weil's newsletters and never intend to buy the vitamins he recommends (sorry! I buy them from a local store, just to be lazy).

The author of the article may be at an age of vigor overwhelming reason. The numbers in her investigation or quote from somebody else's investigation may be OK. But if the tone of the language is strong, that's a sign that the article could be biased. Then I scroll down to the middle where I read "Cancer is a disease for which the alternative medical community has found cures, and it never recommends either radiation or poisonous 'treatments'." Wow! Cancer can be cured by alternative medicine! I'm sure those regularly reading medical science articles know that a serious health scientist is cautious in saying almost anything, "may help", "may have the effect", "is a risk factor",... I once read that about the only thing that we can definitively say is the cause of cancer is radioactive exposure, and everything else is a risk factor or may cause cancer. Unfortunately, that attitude is absent in this critique of Dr. Weil.

From that paragraph down, I pretty much glanced through to the end. Here's another big difference between it and Dr. Weil's articles: there's no reference to any published research. Single or double blind control studies are the gold standard in medical science. Published research is generally trustworthy. Almost all Dr. Weil's articles mention a publication by who in what journal in what year, delivered to us in a soft, "sage"-like tone. Who do you trust more?

As I said somewhere else, a scholar differs from a lawyer in that while both cannot tell lies, a lawyer can select evidence in favor of his argument, but a scholar cannot. A true, honest, scholar can select evidence that is relevant, but among all the relevant pieces of evidence, he cannot leave aside those against his point of view. Dr. Weil's articles almost always have a caution or caveat near the end apparently mitigating his advice stated in the main part of the article. This does not reduce, but instead add, weight to his persuation.

In short, a convincing article especially on a health science topic, should

* reference published research (indicate journal title, issue, and for our convenience, the authors and their affiliations)
* evaluate not just one side, but both pros and cons, of anything proposed or discussed
* speak in a professional tone (no vehement, over-zealous words, no pumped-up certainty on something the latest research is not certain about)