Don’t trust us. Which is to say, the press isn’t always the most reliable transmitter of information about well-being. But thanks to changes in funding and new publishing models, you can now bypass us altogether and read the actual research papers yourself. The problem is, that’s harder than it sounds. Reading an original paper isn’t the same as understanding it. Science journalists try to help on that front, but as with any filter, important bits can get lost in translation. So you need to explore a few critical elements—of the study or the media coverage about it—to determine whether it contains life-changing advice or something best deposited behind the couch in the dentist’s office. And what are those elements? Glad you asked.
Causation vs. correlationHow do you know if a study’s results answer the question it set out to ask? Sometimes an outcome is just a coincidence—there’s a correlation but no causation. Meta-analyses pool the results of smaller studies and filter signal from that kind of noise.
True size of the effectWatch out for weasely language—a “threefold increase” might only be a shift from 1 percent to 3 percent. One recent paper reported that women’s mortality risk rose 133 percent. That sounds scary, but the elevated mortality rate was still just 1.9 percent.
Statistical powerLook at two key factors, the n and the p. The n is the number of subjects used in the study. Multifaceted experiments typically have fewer subjects than simple surveys. Genetics studies need a big n. The p value lets you know whether the result is “statistically significant”—it’s the probability of something occurring by chance alone. You want to see a p of less than 0.05. (Results can be statistically significant and still only show correlation, or have confounding factors.)
Conflicts of interestMost journals now note this as a matter of policy. Was the company making the drug or product associated with the laboratory that did the study? Are any of the authors trying to sell a product? For example, the authors of a study exploring the effectiveness of “brain training” techniques on cognitive enhancement worked for the company that developed (and sold) those techniques. They disclosed this, but that’s still a red flag.
Input | Exercise
1 Conserve Your Willpower: It Runs Out
2 Shorten Your Workouts
3 Make a Sport-Specific Playlist
Input | Information
4 Learn to Read a Scientific Report
5 Don’t Ignore Data
6 Check Your Genome
Input | Sleep
7 Sleep or Else
8 Know Whether to Caffeinate or Nap
Input | Nutrition
9 Be a Discerning Pill Popper
10 Eat This Meal
11 Beware of Food Trends
Output | Performance
12 Do the Right Things at the Right Time
13 Heighten Your Senses With Call of Duty
14 Get to Know Your Poop Bugs
Output | Wellness
15 Dial In Your Happiness
16 Avoid Unnecessary Procedures
Output | Longevity
17 Get a Standing Desk
18 Learn to Live Longer