Monday, March 21, 2016

Guest Post: How to evaluate a mass-media health article by Syd Salsman

I was thinking about all the information that bombards us on the news and in magazines and all over the internet.  As you may know, my son is studying to be a librarian and information professional, so rather than ask him and paraphrase, I asked him to write a post.  This is what he says.  Syd wanted me to use a photo of Melvil Dewey, the decimal system guy, but I am lame and couldn't get it to work. Instead, because I am his mom and can do it, here is a picture of him with his mouth full - js

The first step is to read the article critically and thoughtfully, looking for exaggerated claims and sales pitches. Many otherwise sensible articles have exaggerated headlines. A headline claiming a miracle cure isn’t necessarily a sign the article isn’t reliable, but if the article itself makes claims of a miracle cure or outrageously effective weight loss method, be suspicious. There are no shortcuts and a reputable health article will not claim there are.

Look for specifics of the scientific study or studies the article is based on. Is this a report on one study, or a pattern that scientists have identified across studies? Who did the studies? Look for MDs and PhDs, not vague claims of expertise. What organization are they affiliated with? If you’re not familiar with the organization, Googling it can give you a good quick impression of whether they are a reputable medical center like the Mayo Clinic or a fly-by-night snake oil outfit. As a general rule, if the organization’s website focuses on selling a product rather than facilitating access to information and services, suspect snake oil.

If you’re satisfied that the article is reporting on a study done by real doctors working with  a reputable organization, and the article has quoted from the study extensively and provided clear context, the article is likely reliable. If you’re still not sure how reliable the article is, the quickest route to certainty is to find the study itself.

To find a study, pull as much information on the study as you can from the article itself, and plug it into Google. This will usually work, but if it doesn’t try plugging the same information into Pubmed ( Once you’ve found the study, skim the summary, chapter headings, and conclusion. Do they seem to reflect what the article says? Do they suggest anything useful for you as a health-conscious person? Many studies are done on rats or with very small, non-representative samples of people, so even a solid study can fail to offer much to incorporate into your own life. This doesn’t mean it’s bad information, but it may not have the implications for human lifestyle choices a mass media health article might suggest.

In general, regard mass media health information with skepticism. Some good sources for health information on the Internet are Pubmed Health (, and The Mayo Clinic ( Pubmed Health has a specific search option for consumer information, and the Mayo Clinic website allows you to search  a library of symptoms, tests, procedures, and diseases. Both of these are far more reliable than say, The Huffington Post. Most of all remember, before you apply health information to your own life, consult with your doctor!

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