Studying the Studies

Not all scientific studies are created equal. Having been a radio broadcaster for a long time, I also know how they can get distilled down to a couple of sentences of highlights, potentially making a worldwide study of thousands of people sound as credible as a small study of twenty. It rests on the public to look deeper into the data, but only three out of ten will bother in a stat I just made up.

Case in point: A study published in the journal Stroke finds a link between drinking diet soft drinks and both stroke and dementia. Those who drank diet pop every day were almost three times as likely to suffer a stroke and develop dementia as those who consumed it once a week or less.

Yikes, right? Pop – or soda – drinking is on the decline worldwide. I don’t drink pop at all and haven’t for decades. But millions do, so should they be concerned? For starters, the research didn’t identify something in diet pop that contributes to these conditions. It didn’t prove cause and effect. 

Hand-written sign in a convenience store shows regular soda is 4 for a dollar while diet soda is 8 for a dollar
Photo by Paul Sableman via Flickr

The pops in question included a large variety of medically-approved artificial sweeteners. It’s not as if the scientists can point an accusatory finger at aspartame or sucralose and say, you monster! The researchers say, as researchers do, they need to do more research. In the meantime, they caution that it wouldn’t be wise to switch from diet to sugary drinks. But it’s never a bad idea to give up diet drinks for water.

And it’s always a good idea to find out more about such studies. Women and their hairstylists learned this after they panicked over a 2004 study that claimed permanent hair dyes contributed to a massive risk of bladder cancer. The studies that followed that debunked the first study, weren’t as widely publicized, and thousands of women let their grey roots go uncoloured for nothing. We will never forget! And let’s not even get into the discredited doctor who claimed to have found a link between vaccines and autism. That chestnut is still going around although it’s been disproven over and over again. I still get excited about some studies, but only in context: contextual excitement means I know that in a month, another study could easily prove the first study wrong. Meantime, a new study claims chocolate reduces the risk of a heart flutter. Be still my heart, where are the Hershey’s Kisses?

1 thought on “Studying the Studies”

  1. I’ve always taken the view, that without the context under which a given study or statistic was formulated and the correlation between cause and affect my caution flag is ever present. Unfortunately, all to often if a study or statistic falls within our beliefs, it can become a pervasive myth. Kind of like the study which has been circulating for a couple of years now, that woman are better communicators than men.

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