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by Harriet Easton Published on 9th Sep 2015
by Harriet Easton Published on 9th September 2015
A lot of bizarre things get put on the internet these days. However, given that almost anyone can contribute practically anything they like to the worldwide web of information, it’s getting increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction. Due to the misinterpretation, misuse or misunderstanding of scientific evidence, many minor studies are often seized upon, and portrayed as concrete fact in spite of a lack of basis. One scientific area which is particularly affected by this issue is the field of healthy life extension. There are literally thousands of websites and articles out there which offer advice on how to overcome age-related diseases or radically increase lifespan, many of which are highly misleading. By following some simple rules however, it can be relatively easy to identify what is legitimate and what is not. And using these rules to scrutinise some of the most radical ideas - reported to be so beneficial to human health that following them can significantly increase our lifespan - highlights a range of issues prevalent within coverage of science as a whole. Consider the number and quality of the studies backing a hypothesisRather than focusing solely on the results of a scientific study, journalists would do well to pay some attention to the methods which have been used to generate them, since this can provide a good indication of how valid and applicable such results might be for their readers. Too often, articles imply that the results of a scientific study are of far greater relevance to the reader than they actually are. When it comes to examining the association between an exposure and an outcome, the most widely trusted approach is the randomized controlled trial, whereby individuals are randomly assigned to either the treatment group or the control group. If done with a large and varied number of people, the trial will cause the two groups to be statistically identical to each other, except for the experience of the treatment (or not). Whatever changes are observed can then be attributed to that treatment, or exposure, with a good degree of confidence. In other words, randomized trials provide the best grounds for arguing that there is a causal relationship between two variables. However, it is not always possible to conduct randomized trials. Alternatively, researchers can turn to “nonexperimental” or “observational” database studies. These database studies make use of large sets of data collected from past surveys. Because they don’t have to generate new data, nonexperimental studies are typically cheaper than randomized trials and produce results more quickly. They can be useful to scientists conducting research into fields such as healthy life extension, where the results of experimental studies can, quite literally, take a lifetime to compile. Furthermore, there are certain experiments for which it would be particularly difficult to recruit participants. For example, it’s little wonder that South Korean researchers investigating the link between castration and lifespan were unable to assemble enough willing volunteers for an experiment. Instead, the scientists consulted historical records of the lifespans of Naesi servants in Korea, all of whom were eunuchs. When their lifespan was averaged and compared to that of the similarly well off, non-castrated Korean aristocracy, the difference was 14 years. As a result, in an article published in Current Biology in September 2012, the scientists claimed to have sufficient evidence to support the hypothesis that male sex hormones decrease the lifespan of male humans. The plethora of online articles reporting on this study then chose to use bold headlines such as: ‘castration can increase a man’s lifespan’.It is important to point out, however, that the study examined just 81 of the thousands of Naesi who were employed by the royal courts in the course of some 600 years of Korean history. Such a sample is by no means large enough to be representative of all eunuchs in all countries from all time periods; let alone support a hypothesis that concerns the entire male human population.Furthermore, whilst non-experimental observational studies aim to examine the association between a single exposure and a single outcome, because of all the exposures that happen at the same time in the complex lives of humans, many things can never be fully accounted for. It is difficult to prove that a particular effect was solely caused by one particular factor. In this case, an absence of testicles may not have been the only way in which the Korean Naesi servants differed from their aristocratic counterparts. It is likely that they would have led a more virtuous lifestyle, abstaining from health-harming substances such as alcohol and tobacco. Ultimately, no single study is perfect - be it a randomized trial or a non-experimental one. This is why it is better to wait until enough evidence to support a particular hypothesis has accumulated from multiple studies, which make use of a range of methods and have been applied to different populations. Be wary of claims which rely on anecdotes rather than scientific studiesIn the absence of studies which test out a specific hypothesis, it can be tempting for journalists to make inferences from other studies, or worse still, attempt to conduct their own ‘scientific’ research. To take just one particularly amusing example, in November 2012, an article appeared on Transhumanity’s website bearing the title: Sex robots 'can extend lifespan through longevity orgasms'. The claim was that the so-called ‘longevity orgasms’ produced whilst having sex with a robot had the potential to increase lifespan. This was eagerly seized upon by major news outlets and circulated worldwide.Admittedly, numerous scientific studies have previously demonstrated the health benefits of regular orgasms. For example, in 1999 psychologists at Wilkes University, Pennsylvania surveyed the sexual activities and saliva samples of 111 undergraduates. Students who had sex once or twice a week were found to have slightly higher levels of immunoglobulin A (IgA) in their saliva - an antigen which provides an indication of the robustness of the immune system. Similarly, in 1997 a study of 918 men living in or near to the village of Caerphilly in Wales found that the risk of dying from coronary heart disease was 50% lower in men with a high frequency of orgasms (twice per week) than in men with a low frequency of orgasms (once per month).Just over a decade later, Truecompanion launched Roxxxy - the world’s first sex robot. Since then, there has been a great deal of speculation about - but far less scientific investigation into - the amount of sexual pleasure derived from frolicking with robots. However, this didn’t deter the author of the said article from expressing a firm belief in the superior quality of robot-induced orgasms in comparison to human-induced ones. They claimed that robots have an ‘inexhaustible stamina’ and that they are ‘more desirable, patient, eager, and altruistic’ than human partners. How exactly they assembled the evidence upon which to base such a conclusion is best left to the imagination. Nonetheless, this is an example of a conclusion which has been drawn from anecdotes, rather than the results of scientific experiments. So, in this case, scientific studies about the health benefits of regular orgasms were far too tenuously linked to hypothetical ideas that sex with robots will produce bigger orgasms. Tellingly, the article has since been removed from Transhumanity’s website. Know that meanings can be distorted through the use of languageSometimes, for the sake of artistic licence, non-experts reporting the outcomes of a scientific study choose to alter the wording of the phrases being used to describe the results. Whether it is intentional or not, such alterations can grossly distort the implied meaning. One of the best examples in this regard relates to urine therapy - essentially the act of recycling the water that flows through our body in a variety of often unsavoury ways.Martha Christy, a medical research writer and so-called ‘natural health’ consultant, is a firm advocate of the life-prolonging properties of urine. She even published a book about it in 1996: Your Own Perfect Medicine: The Incredible Proven Natural Miracle Cure that Medical Science Has Never Revealed! The following extract from her book makes for some very entertaining reading:“For almost the entire course of the 20th century, unknown to the public, doctors and medical researchers have been proving in both laboratory and clinical testing that our own urine is an enormous source of vital nutrients, vitamins, hormones, enzymes and critical antibodies that cannot be duplicated or derived from any other source. They use urine for healing cancer, heart disease, allergies, auto-immune diseases, diabetes, asthma, infertility, infections, wounds and on and on -- yet we're taught that urine is a toxic waste product. This discrepancy between the medical truth and the public information regarding urine is ludicrous”Based on a collection of more than 50 research studies on the use of urine in medicine and healing, Christy claims that the medical community has been conspiring to “pull off one of the biggest hoodwinks in history.” However, her paranoia has led Christy to take some serious liberties when interpreting these conclusions of these scientific studies. For example, she writes about a Scandinavian researcher “who, in 1951, conclusively proved that human urine can completely destroy tuberculosis.” By contrast, the tone of the language in a direct quote from the study is far less certain:"In a preliminary experiment performed in this laboratory employing (solutions of) saliva, serum and urine from different subjects...urine seemed to have a considerably stronger inhibitory effect and a concentration of 50 per cent urine in (a) medium completely inhibited the growth of the tubercule bacilli in most cases..."Thus, Christy’s use of language is misleading; it makes the results of the study seem more conclusive than they actually are. Some scientific studies receive more attention than others for a good reason; and it’s not due to some cunning conspiracy being concocted by the scientific community. Rather, studies which Christy picked up on are little publicised because most of them, as shown by the example above, are suggestive rather than conclusive. There is not enough good quality scientific evidence to prove that urine is indeed the golden elixir of life. This handful of examples thus proves clearly the need to be careful when deciding between what is fact or fiction, and the great deal of diligence required in terms of fact checking and data analysis. Ultimately, providing a platform for the most unlikely and strange pieces of advice can damage the reputation of any scientific field. In the case of research into increasing healthy lifespan, the spreading of misinformation serves only to slow the rate of progress and acceptance of this relatively new branch of science.