Great Courses: Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media

The Great Courses offers continuing education for adults in a wide variety of subjects. They search out the best college professors and have put together over 500 expertly-produced video courses. You can buy them individually or subscribe to The Great Courses Plus, which gives you unlimited access to all their courses. I am a long-time customer, and I recently watched a course that is a perfect companion to the Science-Based Medicine blog. The lecturer is Roy Benaroch, MD, from Emory University. The title is “The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media“.

We are constantly bombarded with alarming headlines. They often contradict each other; we can’t believe them all. How can we know whether the articles we read are based on solid science or trash? Dr. Benaroch teaches us how. He offers an invaluable “skeptic’s toolkit” with six questions we can ask. This is essentially what we do on the Science-Based Medicine website, and after watching this course, you will be able to do it too.

The Toolkit

Dr. Benaroch’s Skeptic’s Toolkit consists of these six S’:

  • Source of the story Is it based on a valid scientific study from a reputable institution, or is it anecdotal information from a non-scientist? Is there any reason to think that the writer might be biased?
  • Strength of the evidence. Was it a small preliminary pilot study or a large double-blind, placebo-controlled trial? Was the effect a large one? Was it a clinically meaningful effect? Does it only report a correlation, or is there evidence of causation? Do they report relative percentages or absolute numbers?
  • Salience – is the study about people like you, and are the results important to you? If it was a study in mice or test tubes, it may not provide information that is meaningful for you. Are you a mouse?
  • Sides of the scale. Does the story provide a balanced view with input from experts not involved in the study? Are there legitimate disagreements?
  • Sensible – does the story make sense and fit with other information you know? Does it use “red flag” words like “miracle cure?” If it claims that breatharians can live without food, you know that can’t be true, and a little digging will show that they do, indeed, eat food.
  • Salesmanship – is the purpose of the article to sell you something or to promote a particular treatment or brand? If so, the information may not be trustworthy.

Top medical controversies

In 24 half-hour lectures, Dr. Benaroch covers many of today’s top medical controversies and many of the topics we have addressed here on SBM. The new blood pressure guidelines; whether we should floss; cancer screenings; the opioid epidemic; obesity; the best diet; the price of prescription medications; Gordie Howe’s stem cell treatments; the pitfalls of marijuana research and confusion between THC and CBD, between derivative compounds and smoking; fish oil; vitamins (supplements not the same as food); what is the maximum human lifespan? (Benaroch says he’s looked at all the evidence and still doesn’t know); infant mortality (comparison with other countries are not valid because we count all births and they don’t count babies not expected to live); hormone replacement; Monsanto and the Seralini rat study; concussions, football, and brain injuries; environmental toxins; coffee; wine; and much more.

In each case, he starts with the headlines from major news sources and digs deep to find the actual studies and see what they really said, showing how the media distort the truth. He points out that bloggers have been instrumental in correcting media errors. He says if a headline asks a question, the answer is usually no. He reports that Lou Gehrig may not have had Lou Gehrig’s disease; some researchers think his symptoms might have been caused by his repeated concussions rather than by ALS.

Finally, he gives viewers a sort of final exam, an exercise to see if they can use what they have learned. In “Cures for the Common Cold”, he guides them through an investigation of the evidence on whether chicken soup, echinacea, zinc, or any other treatment will cure the common cold or shorten its duration.

Conclusion: An invaluable course

Dr. Benaroch gives his students the tools they need to do what he does, and what we do on the Science-Based Medicine blog: dig down to the facts behind the headlines and the health claims, evaluate the studies, and distinguish between the reality and the hype. It is fascinating to watch him in action as he seeks out the actual evidence and judges its quality. By making his methods and his thought processes transparent, he sets an example that anyone can aspire to follow. Highly recommended. Everyone can benefit and learn from it, whether gullible novice or experienced science-based skeptic.

This article was originally published in the Science-Based Medicine Blog.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine Blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.

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