At HealthClues, one of our endeavors is to find and curate the latest medical research information available. Generally, we are able to find scientifically sound information, but sometimes we come across bogus studies that are nothing more than eye-grabbing headlines.
Here’s an example of one such article.
“Fish, omega-3 supplements may lower rheumatoid arthritis risk for some people”
“Omega-3 helps ward off rheumatoid arthritis”
We contacted the team at University of Florida to obtain more information about the published article. The response was prompt but failed to provide the clarifications on how a team of ten researchers arrived at the conclusions from the collected data. We were provided with this link that refers to the study published in the journal Rheumatology. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26370400
Why this research study seems BOGUS?
Because it contains most of the tell-tale signs found in such studies; namely, an eye-grabbing headline, a grossly inadequate research methodology full of errors, conclusions not backed by evidence, and questionable assumptions.
The tabloid-like headline begins with an introduction of what Rheumatoid Arthritis is about. It’s only after 3-4 paragraphs one starts to question its veracity and the dubious nature of what researchers found.
Below we present few excerpts from these articles.
“They analyzed self-reported data about omega-3 consumption from 30 people who had autoantibodies for RA and 47 control patients who did not.”
What’s wrong with above?
- Sample size – just have a look at the sample size of 30 people. A sample size like the one doesn’t represent the average population that has the identified autoantibodies for RA. Read more on sample size selection here https://explorable.com/statistical-significance-sample-size
- Self-reported data – this methodology is prone to errors, such as intentional or un-intentional over- / under-reporting, availability bias that causes undue impact of recent events and confirmation bias that would make healthier people assume they have a better nutritional diet or Omega-3 intake as in this case.
“Just 6.7% of the patients who had the autoantibodies for RA reported taking an omega-3 supplement, compared with 34.4% in the control group. Blood tests also showed that those with the autoantibodies for RA were “significantly more likely” to have lower levels of three essential omega-3 fatty acids than the control patients.”
What’s wrong with above?
- This only corroborates and confirms that a small sample size can cause errors. Why only 6.7% of population with RA factor took Omega-3 supplements as opposed to 34.4% in the control group. Is there any reason for such a large deviation?
- Study found that only 6.7% of RA plus people took Omega-3 supplement, and that their blood tests also showed that they had lower levels of three essential omega-3 fatty acids than the control group. So, what is the mystery here? 34.4% of control group took Omega-3 supplements, so does it not explain why they had relatively higher level of Omega-3 fatty acids in their blood.
Then, a grandiose conclusion is made from no-where, requiring a big leap of faith!
“It seems that two of the crucial omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, may be effective in suppressing a particular protein that regulates the intensity and duration of the immune response.”
How on earth can the researcher jump to this conclusion from this study? Next, the article inserts a statement by a PhD to make this article look credible.
Principal investigator Jill Norris, PhD, a professor in the department of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health, comments: “There was a very substantial difference in the blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids between the people who took omega-3 supplements and those who did not.”
OKAY – we get it. People who took Omega-3 supplements had higher Omega-3 fatty acids in their blood. Why is this such a mystery?
“Norris adds that genetics may also play a role in the ultimate effectiveness of omega-3 in individual patients at risk of developing RA.”
While the above comment is generic and un-related to this study, the final conclusion below is mind-boggling!
“This is the first study to find an association between omega-3 and the autoantibodies that lead to RA among patients who are at risk but have yet to develop the disease. Despite the small number of participants, the results indicate that omega-3 may help protect against RA by preventing its development during the period before symptoms emerge.”
Essentially, the article concludes that Omega-3 helps protect RA by preventing its development even before the symptoms emerge. How can a respectable researcher come to such a conclusion? Despite the fact this article is published in a reputed online medical website, it is a good example of what a questionable research study resembles.
Several questions emerge but none have been answered.
- Was the RA onset delayed in the 6.7% of RA pre-disposed population compared to the RA pre-disposed who did not take any Omega-3 supplements?
- Was the study period sufficiently long to analyze and confirm the statement that Omega-3 intake can reduce the risk of RA onset?
Actually, these are some of the questions that a future study could answer as opposed to presenting conclusions with a twisted logic or none at all.
Basic rules below that can help identify such mis-leading articles.
Rule Number 1 – Does the article have a startling eye-grabbing headline?
Whenever a significant new revelation has been made in the past, it is often a result of laborious research carried out over several decades or at least years. In addition, if a study claims such a startling discovery, fellow researchers start falling head over heels to either disprove it or verify its accuracy. If the whole world is not talking about it, and it’s not covered other reputable publications, one can assume it’s just another tabloid-like headline with no credibility.
Here’s a recent example of a news that made headlines recently. See how the entire world is talking about it.
Rule Number 2 – Is the study based on sound statistics principles?
Does the sample size control for the randomness in various characteristics of the patient population? Does it represent the typical population? Do the sample population and the control group differ from each other only with respect to the parameter in question? For instance, if the study really wished to analyze the protective effect of Omega-3 acids for RA, they could have analyzed two cohorts that were both pre-disposed to having RA, but differed only in their Omega-3 intake. These cohorts would then need to be watched over a sufficient long period of time to identify if there are any clear differences with respect to onset of RA.
Rule Number 3 – Is the data captured in a potentially biased manner?
Is the method to capture data statistically sound? Capturing self-reported data can lead to many errors. The effect of an error-prone data capture can be magnified exponentially when dealing with a small sample size such as in this study.
Rule Number 4 – Are conclusions clearly backed by the evidence collected?
This study should be ignored due to several inherent flaws in every step. The study clearly does not back the claim with credible evidence. Did it differentiate between causative effects vis-à-vis correlations? No.
In conclusion, such medical research does a great disservice to patients by feeding them with misleading information. We would be more than happy to retract or remove our findings if the authors of the original research can provide the required clarifications. In absence of this the study can be classified as another misleading article and a waste of precious R&D funds.
We welcome any or all clarifications from the University of Florida team of researchers to provide clarifications on their research methodology, their findings and the subsequent analysis. If we are satisfied with their findings, we would duly retract this post. Till then, we hold the view that the study smacks of being a bogus study from many angles. The only thing this study has accomplished so far is to mis-guide unsuspecting RA patients into thinking that they could have possibly averted or delayed its onset by popping up Omega-3 fatty acids!
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