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Questions like this one that ask what are the benefits of X are probably on-topic, but there are a never ending stream of them. In the model of give a man a fish/teach a man to fish, I propose we create a canonical question about how to evaluate the health benefits of X. This way we can close the never ending stream of questions as duplicates while still providing the person who asked with a way of getting the answer.

The answer would focus on the quality of medical studies (meta analysis/systematic reviews, RCTs, retrospective analyses, etc) and the reporting source (peer-reviewed original research, non-peer reviewed research, secondary sources, anecdotal self reports, etc) and how to efficiently search the medical literature and evaluate the conclusions.

Is this something that would be helpful?

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  • Yes. I really don't like such questions, but I don't want to act against the community's decision. That's why I haven't downvoted the question and edited it to make it adhere to our guidelines. This would look like a great solution, because we can still help people and at the mean time get rid of the never-ending stream. – Narusan Sep 20 '17 at 16:23
  • Update: I've just gone ahead and asked that question – Narusan Sep 20 '17 at 16:27
  • @Narusan-in-coma make that an answer so the few meta users can properly up/down vote it and we can decide. – StrongBad Sep 20 '17 at 16:27
  • To late. My question can still get downvoted and VTC as too broad if people disagree. And ultimately, it could just not be answered. – Narusan Sep 20 '17 at 16:28
  • @Narusan-in-coma it probably should be a community wiki so people feel encouraged to collaborate. Further, now it needs a really good answer. – StrongBad Sep 20 '17 at 16:29
  • I can't make a question a Community wiki, but I'll turn an answer into one as soon as I have time to do so. – Narusan Sep 20 '17 at 16:30
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    I don't think "teach a man to fish" is a reasonable goal. Most literature is behind a paywall, and some papers are so hard to decipher that even scientists misinterpret what they are saying. A great example of that was the Gur et al. paper, Sex differences in brain gray and white matter in healthy young adults: correlations with cognitive performance. Talk about badly written! – anongoodnurse Sep 20 '17 at 17:19
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    @anongoodnurse good point. Make that an answer so we can properly evaluate and discuss it. – StrongBad Sep 20 '17 at 19:44
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    I think there's a good middle ground on this, deciding what knowledge level to target and how much to explain - but regardless it is definitely worth doing. – DoctorWhom Sep 21 '17 at 1:35
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I don't think "teach a man to fish" is a reasonable goal. Evaluating the literature presents many problem to laypersons.

First, most literature is behind a paywall. The abstracts are helpful, but I've read a fair number of abstracts that don't even mention the conclusion!

The easier places to get even sciency-sounding information on Googling are the blogs, and definitely the Mayo and similar sites. More often than not, the blogs are wrong. I often read the Mayo (etc.) sites to see what my patients were reading after giving them a diagnosis, even though I was "one of those doctors" who told my patients not to Google their diagnosis, especially if it was a scary one.

Another problem is how to get around the medical "jargon". I say "jargon" in quotes because though it may have started out to exclude the non-medical people, I don't think that's why we use it today. In any case, it looks like jargon, and it is intimidating to the uninitiated. We can't teach users every term they're going to meet; even the easy ones ("costochondral margins") intimidate. We can tell people to Google terms they're unfamiliar with, but it's easier to just ask someone who might know already.

Some papers are better than others. Some are so hard to decipher that even scientists misinterpret what they are saying. A great example of that was the Gur et al. paper, Sex differences in brain gray and white matter in healthy young adults: correlations with cognitive performance. It was so tech-heavy that the author him/herself actually misinterpreted their own findings data in the discussion section! Talk about badly written! And the press picked it up like free money. "See? Men are more analytical than women! There really is a difference! This is why men are better at every occupation on earth that requires reason!" And, sadly, "See? God created men to do the thinking! Women should obey their husbands, because men have more grey matter than women!"

Learning how to find and evaluate the literature is a big part of our medical education, because once we leave the umbrella of "attending physicians", we're on our own, and that means we have the literature. Conferences help, consults help, but the key is, unfortunately, the literature. There are plenty of docs who themselves cannot evaluate the literature as well as they should. I count myself among these docs, so I'd like to think there are a lot of others out there like me! When I read a paper, sometimes it's a lot of work for me. A well written, thoughtful meta-analysis is a joy to read. That Gur et al. paper, I had to read that three or four times to figure out why my gut was telling me it was wrong. When I finally understood the findings and figured out that the authors themselves misrepresented their findings, damn, that was 5 hours of my life I'll never get back.

So, the idea of teaching lay people how to evaluate the literature is problematic for me. Maybe you can do it. My intuition says not. Again, it's much easier to just ask someone who knows.

The answer would focus on the quality of medical studies (meta analysis/systematic reviews, RCTs, retrospective analyses, etc) and the reporting source (peer-reviewed original research, non-peer reviewed research, secondary sources, anecdotal self reports, etc) and how to efficiently search the medical literature and evaluate the conclusions.

I can only imagine this, and it makes me smile. I think of some poor person with one tab opened to this canonical answer, reading the paper and asking themselves, "Ok, is the Journal of Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Analysis a peer-reviewed journal?" (Googles that.) Next. Is this original research or is it a meta-analysis? :scans paper: "Looks original. Now, was the size of the study large enough?" (finds out N = 60). :thinks, hmm, I don't know if that's enough. It seems like enough.: "Well, is the control group a good one?" :um... um... I'll just keep going.: Etc.

I just don't think that's going to happen, though the thought of it actually happening does bring me joy. If only! And if we can teach laypeople to do this, can we have Philosophy.SE, Politics.SE, and Cog.Sci.SE have canonical posts about logical fallacies and cognitive biases so people can read the news and books with newly opened eyes? OK, I'm going to basque in this wonderful, joy-inducing new world for a while and get my endorphins up. Cuz, "Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity/ To seize everything you ever wanted. one moment/ Would you capture it or just let it slip?/ Yo..."

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  • I agree with you that we would have reached utopia when laypeople can evaluate scientific articles. But, most "health risk of this product" questions are very broad. The OP could at least google the product name and/or ingredients. And there are venues of the internet where on finds more information than on others. This is what I've tried to convey with this post. – Narusan Sep 22 '17 at 17:07
  • @Narusan-in-coma - Ah. If all you want is some research, I'm all for that. But the scope of the OP's second paragraph seems much more restrictive. – anongoodnurse Sep 22 '17 at 17:37
  • My goal is that we could close questions like *What is the benefit of XYZ shampooā€¯ as duplicate of the linked post. The OP should do research on their own now, and can report if they have specific questions. // By the way, someone is upvoting every single question on Health.SE even the super horrible ones. Is this just randomness of multiple users upvoting posts (mutually exclusively) or have you noticed that as well? – Narusan Sep 22 '17 at 17:41
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    @Narusan-in-coma - I have noted upvoting on every post. It's damaging to the site. But on a slow site like this, some users feel that it encourages people to come back/become participants. They don't see the damage it does; only concerned about turning a user off. – anongoodnurse Sep 22 '17 at 18:16
  • Agreed – Narusan Sep 22 '17 at 18:37
  • @Narusan-in-coma I've noticed the upvoting too, and goodnurse's theory on the source is as good as any I've got, but I've seen the same phenomenon even on super busy sites like stackoverflow. There seems to be a small-ish group who will upvote virtually anything. On a busy site it doesn't have much consequence, but on a slow site like this it's definitely damaging. Other than building the site into a busy site I don't know of any way to counteract it. – Carey Gregory Sep 23 '17 at 1:44
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    I've also noted that many bad questions aren't downvoted here, even when they get closed. If you're voting to close, you should be downvoting at the same time. It pushes the question out of public view and makes it go away faster. – Carey Gregory Sep 23 '17 at 1:48
  • @CareyGregory - Thanks for pointing that out. – anongoodnurse Sep 23 '17 at 5:00

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