It never ceases to amaze me that every other day, it seems, there’s a new story in the media about something being bad for you. Or good. Sometimes the same thing is bad one day and good next time you hear about it (or vice versa). So, I was eager to check out a clever flip-over book, Bad News About What’s Good for You/Good News About What’s Bad for You by Jeff Wilser. Wilser writes mostly for magazines but has four books to his credit as well. This one combines two of my favorite things: information and humor.
How can it be that coffee/wine/nuts/fat/you-name-it is bad for you? No, wait, good for you? No, wait. . . A lot of it can be explained by the simple fact that television and radio outlets are constantly on the alert for “the latest thing” to grab our attention. Unfortunately, it seems that the two best ways to grab our attention are one, fear and two, easy answers. So, if they can scare you with “how coffee is killing you,” works for them. If, a month or two later, they can tout “drinking three cups of coffee a day cures everything that ails you,” there you go. So, easy enough to understand the motivation behind the good for you/bad for you “news” cycling constantly, but how do they make the claims? Our old friend statistics.
As Disraeli (according to Mark Twain) said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” Other books I’ve read (like Freakonomics and its kin and the previously reviewed Less Medicine, More Health have opened my eyes to the ways that data can be twisted like a pretzel to make a point, whether it’s valid or not. There’s a lot of that going on with the good/bad information out there. Small, sometimes tiny, studies are used as proof that something is good or bad, never mind that only 100 cases were looked at. Failure to account for other factors shows up a lot. Maybe the fact that people who floss regularly have better health is tied, not so much to flossing, but to those who floss regularly also being higher on the socioeconomic scale and able to afford better food. Or maybe flossers also tend to have something else in common which improves their health like eating less sugar to avoid dental decay. At any rate, there’s a lot of bad science out there being used to persuade us to eat/do one thing or avoid another.
So, you say, could you be specific? What’s good/bad/who-knows-which for you? Let’s take the aforementioned coffee. For years, we were warned against coffee, particularly the pernicious caffeine it contains. Heaven knows why coffee/caffeine was so condemned since, it turns out, that coffee (in reasonable amounts, mind you) can have some really positive health effects. Lowering the incidence of oral cancer and Type II diabetes, improving long-term memory, and an overall decrease of 10% in death rates. Wow! Sounds pretty good! Well, at least until the next study comes out.
On the other side, how about something we all know is good for us? Stepping away from food (hard as that may be for me), we’ll look at something I’ve read about in the aforementioned Less Medicine, More Health. The we-all-know-it’s-best annual physical. Weren’t we all taught in health class in school that we should all get an annual physical? It’s the “gold standard” of health care, right? Catch it early, get it fixed in the best case. Worst case? Spending a few dollars and a little time to find out nothing’s wrong, right? Well. . . Not so fast. There can be distinct downsides to annual physicals and arrays of tests. False positives lead to unnecessary tests and treatments that can cause real harm in addition to simple unnecessary worry. I’m not saying (nor is the author or any responsible party) that you should never see a doctor. If you have symptoms or a family history that warrants concern, by all means seek medical advice and help. If, on the other hand, you live healthily, feel well, have no symptoms and no genetic predispositions to worry about, take the annual physical off your to-do list. Or not. Maybe next week there will be a study proving that annual physicals would save 100,000 lives a year. I guess we’ll just have to wait and watch the news.
Well-written, informative and amusing, I recommend Bad News/Good News to get the info on kale, red wine, yoga, procrastination and apologizing and a plethora of other things that are bad for you. Or good.