LIVING NATURALLY with Olwen Anderson
YOU'VE probably had this kind of lightbulb moment. The television presenter breathlessly reports research that seems just the answer to your health problem. Maybe it's about the importance of a vitamin, a magic formula for weight loss, or reassuring news that red wine and chocolate really are good for you. But you know that some reported 'research' might not be genuine or credible when examined closely. How can you uncover what's real and what's not in science?
We used to have to physically thumb through card catalogues and roam through dusty library shelves to locate a single study. But since the internet was born, the computer does this work for us. There's now an overwhelming amount of information available with just a few clicks: good, mediocre and useless varieties. And the speed of our 24/7 news cycle can mean that research might not be checked diligently before the broadcasting begins.
We now have this problem because the internet doesn't differentiate between what's real and what's make-believe. To help out, there's a process in academic publishing called 'peer review', where a study is subjected to the scrutiny of several experts before the journal will agree to publish it. Although the process isn't perfect, it does winnow out a lot of the chaff of research. Good quality scientific information is peer-reviewed, and worth reading; the rest might not be. Here's how you find out if what you're hearing is worthwhile.
First, seek out the journal. If where it was published isn't mentioned, do an 'advanced' search through Google Scholar using clues from the news report. Once you know the journal name, head to their website. There, perhaps in 'instructions for submitting articles', or the 'about' section will be the term 'peer reviewed' or 'refereed' or similar. If their website doesn't mention this vetting process, or if it charges writers to publish, then you can suspect nobody's checked the article before printing.
Still not sure? You could look for studies on the academic databases. Most libraries (including ours here in the Tweed) have access to research and study databases whose octopus- like tentacles reach into vast collections of academic journal articles. You can just tick a box in your search requesting 'peer reviewed articles only' and voila, it will locate the kind of research worth reading.
Now, when you hear about some fabulous new research, you know how to reach behind the veil of publicity and see if it's real.
* Olwen Anderson is a naturopath and columnist with the Tweed Daily News. She can be contacted at www.olwenanderson.com.au