Friday, November 4, 2011

Look at the slighly bigger picture.

Sciblogs.co.nz has two stories at the moment which fit together quite nicely. One that came through this morning was on coffee and cancer. There was an article in the Christchurch press touting coffee as a beneficial in preventing skin cancer. Which is all well and good, but coffee also contains known carcinogens. So which is it, good or bad? The answer is a common one - it depends. There's a variety of factors that are in play such as the levels of good stuff/bad stuff, and the fact that cancer is a single disease (something that needs to be stressed more often), it's an umbrella term for a diverse bunch of disorders that create similar effects (death) via a variety of mechanisims.

The point being, that when an article comes along that says "Yay! this thing stops cancer", it pays to remember that it's never quite that simple. Which is a point made in this post. Basically, you should trust the science rather than the scientist. Take coffee for example, one study comes out and says it's good, another says it's bad. it's not a good idea to rely on the latest study, different scientists are looking at similar things for different reasons. Before you run out and start overdosing on coffee though, you need to look at the science. Look at as many studies as you can find - how many are bad? how bad is it under what circumstances. What benefits does it give you? then you get to make a judgement call (which of course benefits+taste >> drawbacks)

Most of this is missed when the latest next best thing gets reported. Which is bad becuase if you only pay attention to the latest publicized result, it can lead to people actually thinking scientists are debating whether global warming exists. the odd scientist is claiming that it doesn't, but the science as a whole amkes it painfully clear that it is happening and we've probably underestimated it so far. Or that there is a cure for cancer just around the corner - there isn't, we've got promising treatments for some cancers and have identified numerous risk factors but we're a long way from figuring all out how to solve all cancers. These things become evident when the science is considered but can easily become hidden or confused when individual reports are relied upon.

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