Health Myths vs. Fact

April 24, 2013

You need to drink 8 glasses of water a day to be healthy.  Just don’t swim after eating, as you may mysteriously drown… even in the shallow water.  While you are at it, cover your head, because 3/4 of the heat escapes that way, and if you get too cold, you may catch a cold.  Better yet, just forget everything I wrote.  They’re all a bunch of myths.

A health myth is a false idea, generally accepted as true, with nebulous origins.  Strangely, in this day of instant access to the internet, health myths seem as powerful as ever.  One of the reasons is probably that, despite the amount of information we have, it is often hard to determine the quality.  And saying something often enough seems to create an air of truthfulness — like on the internet where a single post can result in millions of reposts.

That raises the question, how do we know what is true?  How can you determine for yourself what is a myth, and what is not?  Well, the answer is as old as philosophy itself.  On the medical side, there is an ongoing movement to hold medicine to the highest standard of scientific data.  It is called “evidence based medicine.”  Although certainly not perfect, it is a reasonable approach to viewing the best quality data available to us on any given medical topic.  It is an effort to find reliable knowledge amidst the vast quantities of frequently conflicting information.  This partially contrasts with the traditional view that medical knowledge comes from experience, and tries to separate anecdote from the larger reality.  After all, individual observation (personal experience) is probably the very origin of many of our myths.

I thought of a few points which should alert you to identify these myths.  Next time you hear a particular nugget of wisdom, see if it passes the following criteria:

1.  How do we know that?  How do we know that gum stays in your stomach for years?  What would we have to do to test this?  First, have a willing participant swallow gum.  Be sure they don’t chew any more, as they may accidentally swallow it again.  Wait a few years.  Stick a scope down their throat to look into their stomach, and see if the gum is still there.  Even if you found the gum, you would want to repeat the experiment with a few hundred more participants to be sure the first time wasn’t just a really strange fluke.  When you think of it that way, what is the probability of such a study happening?  Not high.  Yeah, that’s a myth.

2.  Does it make sense?  We use only 20% of our brain.  Really?  That means if I have a stroke, I can knock out 80% of my brain and do just fine.  Hmmm.  Somehow, I don’t feel that lucky.

3.  Where did you hear it?  If it was “some guy on the internet,” or “some guy who knew this other guy, who dated a girl who shared a dog with another girl’s neighbor,” automatic myth-alert.  Certainly plenty of prominent people claim completely unsupported facts too, but that is a topic for another time.  I recommend more mainstream web sites for medical information needs, although they are not always immune to myth either.   I am partial to, but is also very good.

If you think none of these points are particularly insightful, I would agree.  It is just
that oftentimes in daily life, we forget to question the statements we are told, and the beliefs we already have.  Once you question something, you are already on the way to understanding something more.  Always feel free to discuss these issues with your physician, as it is their life’s work to sort through the evidence, and present the conclusions.

And unfortunately, I cracked my knuckles before typing this, so I have to finish before the arthritis sets in.  I hope this was helpful.  If not, please don’t roll your eyes or make any other funny expressions.  Your face can freeze.

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