by Mark Fisher, Ninja Master
Science is complicated. It’s complicated because LIFE is complicated and there are always many variables at play, so no matter what you’re trying to figure out, it’s often difficult to isolate a single element.
Unfortunately, humans have a tendency to be reductionist.
And furthermore, news sources like to sell papers (or get click-throughs, or however else they make money these days).
As many of you saw, a study came out recently that seemed to show taking fish oil pills led to an increase in prostate cancer risk. The media of course ran with it and we saw hyperbolic headlines, and presumably people threw out their bottles of poisonous fish oil.
Holy fuck. Do NOT take oil from this demon fish.
Was this concern justified?
Here are two big things to be aware of when you read a sensationalist headline:
#1 – Correlation is NOT Causation
The most common mistake made in these situations is using an observational study to draw a conclusion as to the cause of something.
In this case, the study in question seems to show that Omega 3 fatty acids are linked to an increase risk of getting prostate cancer.
However, just because something seems associated with something else, doesn’t mean it’s the CAUSE of something else. There are always tons of factors in play in any given circumstance.
What else were they eating? What else were they not eating? What was their stress management like? Did they believe in an afterlife? Were they fans of Downton Abbey?
As Fitness Superhero Alan Aragon has a way of bringing clarity to nutrition stuff. I once asked him about a study linking artificial sweeteners to autism.
Alan Aragon on observational studies: “When I washed my car, it rained. Therefore I will not wash my car so it will be sunny.” CLICK TO TWEET
Now there is some value in observational studies, because you can certainly learn some things from them. You just can’t use them to prove A causes B.
#2 – Context Always Matters
Science is complicated, we always have to look at context.
What else do we know about the things being examined? Are there other studies that have contradictory findings? Can we compare this against studies that actually control for more variables? Where does the current weight of evidence lie when looking at all studies done on this subject.
It’s easy to lose sight of the forest when you start obsessing over a single tree.
Admittedly, I’m not the type of guy who spends much time pulling apart actual studies on pubmed.com. I subscribe to research reviews and use resources like examine.com’s Supplement Goal Resource Guide.
That said, I don’t think you need to be an expert here to avoid losing sleep over a single study.
So remember, the next time you see a headline about some new study that purports to overturn conventional wisdom, take a deep breath, then consider the above points. Observational studies have their place, and a good study does need to be considered even if it disputes conventional wisdom. But hopefully the above points will help you from feeling like the sky is falling every time an over the top headline about a “shocking new study.”
Keep your mind open but don’t let your brain fall out! (If for no other reason than that’s a disgusting fucking visual, am I right?)
Now I want you to chime in!
Did you see the fish oil study? Did you throw out your pills? Have any other studies in the media lately caused you concern and you want me to hold you in my arms and help you decipher it?
Leave us a comment and I will hold you firmly in my arms! Gently. But so, so firmly.
Click here and get our FREE 23 page report, the 7 Habits of Sexy Motherfuckers! Check out our secrets to health and hotness, and find out the strategies you’re using right now that might be thwarting your fitness goals!