Why every student should be a health science student in some way, shape or form.
What if I told you that I could prove to you that apples were bad for you? What if I also told you that, with very little scientific knowledge, you could easily prove me wrong? Even just a little bit of knowledge about the health sciences can help distinguish facts from fiction in research.
Let’s pretend that I, a renowned researcher from Big Name University, conducted a popularized study, in which I concluded that those who eat apples more often than the average American were at higher risk of getting diabetes, because of the high sugar content in apples. Then, the local T.V. news station pitches my findings in a segment they will label with ‘apples are bad for you’, or something more creative but of the same sort. This news, which will eventually spread all over the community and, if I’m really that renowned, maybe even all over the country in the world, which will result in lower apple consumption, which will cause farmers to lower apple production and lose profit.
What will probably not be reported to you in the news is the smaller-than-recommended sample size the study used, other variables which might have influenced the results (such as the age, gender, or race of the participants), and in my opinion, one of the biggest factors to be considered: who funded my big research project, and why? In this case, let’s suppose my research project was funded by the National Orange Association, the official association of orange farmers who regularly compete with apple farmers. If all of these factors were included in the news report, how valid does my study seem now?
What many might forget is that behind providing the public with any information, scientists always have a motive for conducting and presenting their research. And many times, these motives are the same two things that most people want: fame, and money. Something that I wasn’t aware of until I was able to further explore the field of research is that research And because it is your health which is influenced by the presentation and use of this information, that ulterior motive is well worth investigating.
In other words, falsifying data is considered unethical by the research community, but this doesn’t say anything about the way the data is presented, what conclusions are drawn by researchers and in the end, what conclusions about the data are fed to the public. Facts don’t need to be miscalculated in order to be misrepresented. That’s why it is up to you to understand them, and not just the opinions of experts.
A real example: SSRI’s in the media
Here is an easy, real life example of data can be misrepresented by the media. Those who are familiar with depression know what Selective Serotonin Re uptake Inhibitors (SSRI) are, and explaining their function is actually not that difficult.
Serotonin is a chemical messenger called a neurotransmitter, which is found to be linked to chemical messaging in your body connected to conducting the processes of digestion and sleep. When one neuron sends a message to another neuron, it released neurotransmitters, like serotonin, which opens an ion channel in the receiving channel. The intake of ions in the receiving neuron causes the chemical signal to be received by that neuron, and the message travels forward this way, from one neuron to the next.
After doing its job, serotonin is supposed to be taken back into the sending neuron, a process known as neurotransmitter reuptake. But what SSRI’s do is block this function of that sending neuron. Because of this, the neurotransmitter is kept between the two sending and receiving neurons longer, causing more signals to be sent between the two neurons, and creating a stronger relationship between the two neurons.
This is literally all that happens. But instead of explaining the process completely, WebMD synthesizes it as “enhancing the function of nerve cells in the brain”. Serotonin has a specific function of inhibiting serotonin neurotransmitter reuptake. SSRI’s do not enhance the function of neurons.
So, what can you do?
The media is rich with examples of how knowledge which can be explained and spread is instead misinterpreted. As of right now, there is no way to stop this from happening! But there is something you can do, and that is to educate yourself. Learn as much as you can about the health sciences, and when making decisions about your mind and body, make them based on what YOU know about your mind, and your body.