The Skeptic's Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media

Course No. 9404
Professor Roy Benaroch, M.D.
Emory University
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Course No. 9404
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers How to recognize articles based on solid scientific evidence.
  • numbers How to avoid falling for "clickbait."
  • numbers How to distinguish between a press release and real science.

Course Overview

If you’ve ever sneezed while driving your car, did you immediately think, “Cars Cause the Common Cold!”? No, of course not. A headline like that wouldn’t make any sense. And yet, some of the sources we rely on for health and medical news are not much better. Many media outlets are perfectly happy to grab us with a wacky headline or an article that reflects none of the nuance of the study on which it’s based—as long as we buy the magazine or click through to the article. And we do. We take the bait. With 50,000 scientific studies published each week in English, many media outlets don’t put in the time and effort to adequately decipher and report on even a tiny fraction of those studies. But they publish news about them, anyway.

As consumers of medical news, how can we know whether the article we just read is based on solid science or trash?

We know we can’t believe every article we read. If we did, we’d conclude that everything causes cancer; any non-organic food will cause our death; we should never eat fats or carbohydrates; and high-dose supplements of every vitamin will save our lives or, depending on the specific article, kill us.

Professor Roy Benaroch of Emory University School of Medicine provides just the direction we need to answer important questions, look beyond media hype, and more in The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media. In 24 fascinating lectures that address the most important health issues of our day, Dr. Benaroch shows us how to recognize the good reporting that provides balanced, accurate, and well-sourced information and the bad reporting that is incomplete at best and purposely misleading at worst. You’ll learn how to ask the questions that take you past the headlines and beyond the way health news is typically reported.

Would You Believe?

Dr. Benaroch provides numerous examples of headlines you wouldn’t fall for—or would you? While some headlines are published on obscure internet sites, others are published in some of the largest, most-trusted papers in the country. Every day, people take the bait to read about:

  • “Breatharian Couple Survives on the Universe’s Energy Instead of Food.” Just a little bit of digging reveals that the couple actually does eat food. Of course, they do.
  • “Traces of Controversial Herbicide Are Found in Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream.” The article itself states that a typical child would need to consume 145,000 eight-ounce servings a day to reach the federal safety limit of the chemical in question. But the headline made for great “clickbait” since it used the successful technique of pairing a random fact with a recognizable brand name.
  • “The Soothing Benefit of Acupuncture for Babies.” The article states the goal of the study was to use acupuncture to soothe babies and shorten their crying spells—and then makes it clear that the acupuncture didn’t actually work. Yet, you would never know this from the headline.

Addressing the Top Medical Controversies of the Day

In providing samples of both good and bad medical journalism, The Skeptic’s Guide addresses both significant medical topics and smaller, everyday questions like, “Should I floss?” Some of the major issues and subjects you will look at include:

  • Cardiovascular health and the new blood pressure guidelines,
  • Cancer screenings and treatment,
  • The opioid crisis,
  • The obesity epidemic,
  • The price of prescription medication,
  • The stigma of mental health, and more.

To better understand these issues in all their complexity, you’ll go behind the headlines to learn more about the subjects themselves, as well as the media’s role in addressing them.

Building Your Skeptic’s Toolkit

With so many false or misleading sources out there, it can be natural for readers to become cynical about medical reporting and headline news. However, as Dr. Benaroch points out, there’s a difference between being a cynic and being a skeptic. Becoming a cynic and believing nothing of what you read would be just as ineffective as being gullible and believing everything. There is good health-related information out there, and The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and Media will teach you how to access it. You’ll learn six specific questions to ask yourself as you read, all of which begin with the letter “s” for ease of remembering. These questions form the basis of your “Skeptic’s Toolkit,” the lens through which you can determine the value of any article. They are:

  • Source. What’s the source of the article and is it credible for medical information? Is the article based on a study from a reputable university or research institute? Or is it based on anecdotal information from a non-scientist? You might be interested in reading a first-person account about someone whose blood pressure improved when she started drinking tea—but you wouldn’t want to base your own medical decisions on it.
  • Strength. Is the evidence presented strong enough to be valuable? Stories that review large clinical trials are much stronger than stories about small pilot studies. Dr. Benaroch explains why the strongest studies are the gold standard double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled experiments with a large number of participants.
  • Salesmanship. Is the article trying to sell me something or promote a particular brand? Many media accounts are repackaged press releases whose purpose is to sell a product. That doesn’t mean the story is false, but it does mean you’re probably not getting a balanced viewpoint. And salesmanship works—as evidenced by, among other examples, the $1.2-billion fish oil supplement industry in the United States that is going strong despite 15 years of research that reveals no actual health benefits.
  • Salience. Is this study about people like me, and are the factors they’re measuring in the study important to me? If the article refers to a study about children, you can’t assume the results hold true for adults. As one example, Dr. Benaroch highlights an article claiming to show that cell phone exposure increases the risk of cancer. But actually, the experiment was conducted on rats.
  • Sides of the Scale. Does the news report try to present a viewpoint from scientists not directly involved in the study, or from people with appropriate expertise who can offer a balanced viewpoint? The article should quote additional experts in the field, not just the study authors. And, if there are legitimate disagreements about the study, those should be mentioned, too. But don’t fall for a false equivalence in which invalid or untrue assertions are given equal weight to established scientific consensus.
  • Sensible. Is the story itself sensible, making sense and fitting in with what we already know? It doesn’t matter how many times you sneeze while driving, we know that cars do not cause the common cold—no matter how nice the alliteration sounds. Exaggerations in headlines should also send up a red flag. “Miracle cures” and “magic bullet” might get our attention, but those descriptions almost always point to inflated or false claims.

With Dr. Benaroch’s guidance, you’ll know how to find information you can truly rely on. And you’ll know which articles to put straight in the trash.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Hormone Replacement Therapy
    For decades, the pharmaceutical industry and the press praised hormone replacement therapy as a panacea for menopausal symptoms and women's long-term health. But that all came to a screeching halt in 2002. Discover what the scientific studies that caused this sudden turnaround really said. And are men falling prey today to the same marketing tactics regarding testosterone? x
  • 2
    Concussions and the Future of Football
    What happens to billions of neurons when the gelatinous brain slams into the side of the hard skull? While the media has focused some attention on high-profile cases of concussion and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, learn how selective reporting can lull us into believing an issue has been adequately addressed when that is far from the truth—and lives are at stake. x
  • 3
    New Drugs on the Block
    Is prescription drug “X” a wonder drug or a disastrous failure? It can be almost impossible to answer that question based on what’s presented in the press. Using two drugs as case studies, you’ll learn how to better understand and evaluate the media description of prescription drugs, and why institutional changes regarding data availability can make all the difference. x
  • 4
    Is It Time for Medical Marijuana?
    By examining the story of marijuana and our changing perceptions of its safety and usefulness, you'll learn how different stakeholders can affect media coverage, drive social change, and influence legislation. Given that the medical use of cannabis in the United States has not been driven by well-designed scientific studies, how can we best interpret the news reports addressing its efficacy and safety? x
  • 5
    The Media and Weight Loss
    The media focus on weight loss comes as no surprise. With two of every three Americans being overweight, we certainly need sound nutrition and weight-loss advice based on solid science. But is that what we’re getting? Learn how to read beneath the hyperbole-filled headlines—“Fats are Bad!”; “Fats are Good!”—to determine if an article’s content is really salient to your own health. x
  • 6
    Alternative Medicine in the News
    Millions of Americans every year turn to alternative-medicine approaches that have never been rigorously studied or have even been disproven. Learn why fish oil supplements are a $1.2-billion industry, despite research that shows no health benefit from their use, and why individuals continue to turn to stem cell infusions" despite sometimes dire consequences." x
  • 7
    The Media's Take on Mental Health
    While mentally ill individuals are more likely to become victims of crime than to be violent perpetrators, their depiction in TV and film has skewed our perceptions of the risk they pose to society. The Associated Press has recently encouraged journalists to cover these issues more fairly and accurately. But as you'll discover by looking at related news articles, we still have a long way to go. x
  • 8
    The Media and the Internet
    You’d never believe people who told you they lived off air only, never eating. Yet one “Breatharian” couple received widespread media coverage on the internet, broadcast sites, and in print. Why are we so gullible? Learn how to think like a skeptic when reading news in any medium, remembering that while internet “clickbait” races continue to be faster and faster, real science is slow and steady. x
  • 9
    We Share Our World with Toxins
    While toxins are around us all the time and require a nuanced, sophisticated approach to understand, short and memorable headlines sell. Follow the fascinating media coverage of baby-food toxins and the new water system in Flint, MI, to discover the reasons for conflicting headlines and stories. Who got it right? And who got it so very wrong? x
  • 10
    Are Coffee and Wine Good for Your Heart?
    Learn why accurate reporting on the relationships between coffee, wine, and cardiovascular health—the number one cause of death in the United States—requires an understanding of real clinical endpoints as well as a desire to clearly explain the complicated answer to a seemingly simple question: Is this good for me or bad for me? With its ups and downs and missteps, the history of reporting on these topics is fascinating. x
  • 11
    Life Expectancy and Infant Mortality
    Why is life expectancy in the United States decreasing and infant mortality so high compared to other industrialized nations? Take a captivating look behind the scenes at the debate between scientists fighting for their individual points of view. Does the media explain the statistics behind their competing theories? If not, who suffers from the oversimplification of a “clickbait” headline? x
  • 12
    Is It Really OK to Stop Flossing?
    You might have seen a headline recently stating that flossing your teeth is a complete waste of time, or might have read that new guidelines mean your blood pressure might be high. But did you also read that many doctors do not agree with those changes? Probably not. Learn why health recommendations can suddenly change and how to determine if those changes apply to you. x
  • 13
    Does Cancer Screening Work
    We’ve all seen the stories about a cancer survivor whose life was saved by early screening—heart-warming stories that can make us want to run out and take every early-warning test in sight. But cancer screening is full of complexities that rarely make the news. Learn about the very real dangers of overdiagnosing, and how to determine which screenings are important for you. x
  • 14
    Drug Prices in the News
    In an ideal world, all medications would be available and affordable to those who need them. But the minutiae of prescription drug pricing can create a significant barrier. Learn about the unique role of the pharmacy benefit manager, how pharmaceutical companies work to keep generics out of the marketplace, and the ways in which gifts given by drug reps still influence doctors' prescribing habits. x
  • 15
    Selling Disease
    Discover how drug companies sometimes develop a drug first, and only then identify a disease the drug can address—think restless legs syndrome or chronic dry eye. Is the media helping us focus on our biggest health challenges, or pulling our attention over to the newest problems, problems potentially driven by pharmaceutical marketing? x
  • 16
    The Opioid Crisis
    Opioids had been around for a century before exploding into the crisis we have today. But the cause of the current crisis is not as simple as the story we often hear—greedy drug companies pushing greedy doctors to overprescribe. Learn what the most common cause of opioid death is today, and the role the news media can play with respect to educating families and creating pressure for policy change. x
  • 17
    Infections in the Headlines
    While the media has played an important role in educating the public about hygiene and the avoidance of disease, it has also been known to spread false rumors resulting in very real health consequences. Learn what the media got right and wrong in covering the recent outbreaks of Ebola and influenza. And our own take away? If we don't have time to read the full article, we shouldn't be skimming the headlines. x
  • 18
    Heath Risks in Our Environment
    Does your cell phone increase your risk for cancer? Does it really matter whether or not you use your seatbelt? Using your “Skeptic’s Toolkit,” learn how to examine the research that supports or (or doesn’t) the “risk” headlines to then make appropriate choices for you and your family. Exaggerating a risk might make for good “clickbait,” but it can lead to unnecessary fears and poor decision-making. x
  • 19
    Bad Science
    When doctors tragically rely on fraudulent or shoddy science published in reputable medical journals, patients can suffer. Even worse, explore the dark side of medical publishing, in which for-profit “journals” with worthy sounding titles publish trash articles reviewed by no one. When researchers’ work can be published for a fee, who really pays the price? x
  • 20
    Diet, Health, and the Power of Words
    From “superfood” to “pink slime” to acai, the media exerts a powerful effect on our concepts of food, diet, and health. Learn how to differentiate between nutrition-related scientific statements and marketing statements. When does the desire to eat whole, healthy foods become an unhealthy obsession? What role does the media play in influencing those choices? x
  • 21
    Genetics and the Media
    New information about the influence of our genes is released every day—but how does the press respond? With the example of genetic effects on obesity, you’ll discover how two antithetical headlines can result from the same scientific report. These overblown and overly simplistic headlines might attract readers, but they can muddy the waters of these complicated issues and even make readers skeptical of science itself. x
  • 22
    How to Stay Young
    Professor Benaroch will lead you through the exercise of finding solid, credible answers to a question on all of our minds: What's the best way to stay young and healthy? He'll illustrate how the skeptic's tools you've learned to use when reading or viewing media reports will help you answer this or any other health question. You'll be surprised where the research takes you! x
  • 23
    Cures for the Common Cold
    Use your “Skeptic’s Toolkit” to discover how to best address the common cold. What’s your best choice: Echinacea, good old chicken soup, vitamin C, vitamin D, or zinc? Will any of these options cure the cold or get rid of it faster than a placebo? You’ll find your answer by remembering that good journalism provides an honest headline followed immediately by solid facts and an accurate summary of the appropriate studies. x
  • 24
    The Media's Role in Improving Health
    Discover the positive role the popular media played in encouraging us to put our cigarettes down, our seatbelts on, and not mix drinking and driving. This is media at its best, working creatively and effectively in the interest of public health. What issues could the media address today to positively impact our public health? x

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  • 224-page printed course guidebook
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Your professor

Roy Benaroch

About Your Professor

Roy Benaroch, M.D.
Emory University
Dr. Roy Benaroch is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine. He earned his B.S. in Engineering at Tulane University, followed by his M.D. at Emory University. He completed his residency through Emory University’s affiliated hospitals in 1997, serving as chief resident and instructor of pediatrics in 1998. Board certified in general pediatrics in 1997, Dr. Benaroch practices...
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The Skeptic's Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 20.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful lecturer, important subject We have taken a number of these courses. This is among the best, if not the best, very largely because of Dr. Benaroch.
Date published: 2020-07-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Informative I have listened to about 90% of the lectures in this course. It really helps me to be a more informed skeptic about news media articles, the different types of studies and some insights into how the pharmaceutical companies advertise certain prescription medicines. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2020-06-13
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Deceiving "straight talk" While Benaroch is well organized and a good speaker, and while he communicates well his message that the media is not to be trusted when it comes to health information, his alternative view of the "real deal" delivered in the guise of straight talk from one who knows, amounts to little more than a series of rants that supports his highly conventional mainstream medical opinions. One can fault him little for his criticisms of the media's reporting of health care news, as there is a widespread failure of the media to communicate the nuances of medical research, which has highly variable levels of reliability, aside from its portrayal in the media. However his personal description of the alternative or presumably "correct" way of understanding the data is slanted in a way that he never confronts. His presentation seems to be authoritative as it accurately points out inaccurate and deceptive reporting, but what is hidden is his won inaccuracies. The mainstream medical perspective that he represents is hotly debated, as the weakness of the medical-pharamaceutical complex have been slowly revealed over the years through a series of disasters that the medical industry has been party to through its unholy alliance with the pharamaceutical companies. More and more people recognize that the conventional understanding of health and healing is tainted by this alliance, and are appropriately skeptical about the standard medical perspective, as represented by Dr. Benaroch. Benaroch seems to be holding himself forth as a skeptic, but he actually represents a more orthodox viewpoint. I had been hoping he would show more skepticism of not just the media, but the entire field of health care, conventional and unconventional. He would have done better if he would have taken a more epistemology view of the science of medicine, and showed more clearly the weaknesses of the statistics-based method of trying to ascertain truth through research, and then applied this critique to a number of health issues. These might include the use of psychotropics for mental health problems, statins, high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease, antibiotics, SIBO, and resistant organisms, vaccinations, short and long term statistical studies, nutrition and chronic illness, diabetes and the pros and cons of pharmaceuticals. These topics were not the ones Benaroch was interested in. He was more interested in exposing the fallacies of the media, than in the fallacies of information in general about health care. The latter would have been a more interesting topic, and one I hope he will take on in the future, as he is a good speaker.
Date published: 2020-05-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent guide to evaluating media reports. Uses hot issues for examples to show how to evaluate reports related to medical issues. Does an excellent job of explaining scientific method and relevant statistics ploys.
Date published: 2019-10-21
Rated 3 out of 5 by from TAKE CARE HOW YOU TAKE THIS DOCTOR'S OPINIONS At the outset, let me say I've enjoyed a couple of other Great Courses videos presented by Dr. Benaroch. In fact, I was looking forward to SKEPTIC'S GUIDE, but was disappointed and decided to return it. For example, in the lecture HORMONE REPLACEMENT THERAPY he fails to distinguish between bio-similar and bio-identical hormones. The former bio-similar pharma were big pharma's highly profitable synthetic estrogens, and which had to be discontinued from the market. The latter bio-identical ones non-prescription ones, which are not patentable, are extremely effective but unable to be patented, and of no use to big pharma. In IS IT TIME FOR MEDICAL MARIJUANA? he fails to make the point that CBD and only CBD has medical applications, especially for chronic pain mitigation. Moreover, he fails to make the point that legalization of "medical marijuana" is simply cover for legalizing THC of very high potency--recreational marijuana. He barely touches on the long-term health effects (and car fatalities) of this new THC "on steroids" which barely resembles its low-potency predecessor of the 1970s. The MEDIA'S TAKE ON MENTAL HEALTH discredits any connection or culpability for high-profile mass shootings and the drugs in the bodies of the shooters--drugs known as SSRIs. As well, he entirely ignores the success pharma has had in the huge number of prescriptions for Ritalin, especially for boys in public schools misdiagnosed with ADD. In THE MEDIA AND THE INTERNET he poo-poos concerns about vaccines as bogus "man bites dog" sensational stories. We hear nothing about the huge rise in autism and the increase in vaccination, especially with the mumps-measles-rubella 3-in-one administered to infants. A key theme in ALERNATIVE MEDICINE IN THE NEWS is that we may be wasting money on multivitamins and other supplements. He takes particular aim at the efficacy of fish oil and vitamin D supplements. It is beyond the scope of this review, but very briefly the large-scale VITAL study, as well as the REDCE-IT studies of these two supplements showed otherwise. For example, with a larger THERAPEUTIC dose of fish oil (4g/day), there were significant cardiac outcome improvements. Bottom line, as much as I like Dr. Benaroche's bedside manner, listening to his conventional wisdom would be hazardous to my health.
Date published: 2019-10-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from very informative This course is very informative and interesting .What a difference a headline can make.
Date published: 2019-09-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from We have enjoyed and learned so much from this presenter, Dr. Roy Benaroch's other courses.. The present title, Skeptic's Guide to Health, Medicine and the Media should be required viewing in high schools and colleges. His explanations are spot on. I am a retired medical technologist and can really appreciate this course.
Date published: 2019-08-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Obvious and Preachy I bought this course as a corollary to the course regarding medical myths. Dr. Benaroch presents many examples of how erroneous (or rather my choice - sensational) reporting appears in our daily lives. Each lecture takes a well-known medical issue with dubious reporting that was done as well as good reporting. While Dr. Benaroch does touch base with why such sensational reporting is done, he usually only points out where the reporting went off the rails. The primary reason there is dubious reporting is due to companies wanting to make money, including the journalists that Dr. Benaroch holds mostly accountable. I liked his definition of what it is to be a skeptic. Unfortunately, as the lectures progressed, he came across as too preachy for some of the topics. For example, he goes in depth discussing concussions from sports, especially football and how the NFL spun its own views. And he explains how concussions can occur regardless of the sport being played. But, his sermon does not offer what activity should be done, only that football is the worse and a few sound bites from famous athletes. When the last lecture is reached, he touts how good reporting helped bring about changes in smoking and drunk driving. He uses this as a springboard regarding the use of recreational marijuana, as in whether it should allowed. Last time I checked, smoking while way down is still quite prevalent, as well as drinking (plus it's advertising). There is also the sermon on distracted driving. One point on his skeptic tool kit. One of the items on his list is does the report seem 'sensible'. This check is not objective in my view. There will be outlandish reports, but some of his own examples required some level of knowledge to tack on whether the report was sensible or not.
Date published: 2019-05-27
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