In the world of health news, I'm not sure who's worse: Dishonest researchers or illiterate science reporters. But in this case -- lucky us -- we get both. The issue surrounds the reporting of a recent study on calcium supplements in post-menopausal women conducted by the Women's Health Initiative (WHI), a U.S. government program. According to practically everybody in the mainstream press, the study shows little or no benefit of taking calcium supplements. Here's a sampling of the headlines you may have seen in the popular press:
No broad benefit from calcium found for women
- San Jose Mercury News
Back to milk: Few benefits found from calcium pills
- International Herald Tribune
Study Shows Limited Benefits From Calcium
- Houston Chronicle
Studies Question Benefits Of Calcium, Vitamin D
- CBS (affiliate, California)
Anyone who actually reads the study, however, learns that calcium was shown to produce a whopping 29% reduction in bone fractures for those actually taking the pills. That's a huge reduction in risk that would be called a "breakthrough" if it were attributed to a drug.
So how did the mainstream media miss the boat on this one? Simple: They just parroted the conclusions of conventional medicine, which conveniently average in all the results of people who did NOT take the calcium supplements during the study. Huh? Yes, they counted the results of all the people who didn't take the calcium supplements, and then declared that calcium itself is useless.
It's sort of like running a study to see whether crack is addictive, but then basing your results on all the people who never smoked crack and wouldn't even if you paid them to. "Gee," you might conclude, "I guess crack isn't addictive after all." Similarly in this calcium study, when you count all the people who didn't take the calcium, then of course the results indicate that calcium does nothing. It's just another clever way to lie with statistics (well, actually, not that clever, but certainly clever enough to fool the mainstream media).
Of course, if you only consider the people who actually took the calcium pills (the compliant test subjects), the results are inarguably impressive. Those who took the calcium supplements, for example, experienced significant improvements in their overall bone density. Over nine years, their BMD (Bone Mineral Density) increased by a substantial 1.06 per cent (that's a huge increase in the world of BMD). And remember, this is for elderly women, too, who have a very difficult time boosting bone density because, for some reason, they simply refuse to engage in gymnastics and rugby training.
Furthermore, as almost no reporters have yet pointed out, the so-called control group (the people with whom the pro-calcium group's results were to be compared) was allowed to freely take their own calcium supplements, too. In other words, there was really no control group at all! This makes the entire study scientifically useless. It's sort of like testing aspirin against placebo by giving one group aspirin, giving the other group a placebo, and telling both groups they can take all the aspirin they want on their own. It doesn't take a medical genius to figure out that the study design is seriously flawed (what idiot comes up with these studies, anyway?).
So the positive results of the calcium group were actually suppressed by the fact that the control group was taking calcium, too. In reality, the reduction in bone fractures might have been something closer to 50% -- a true "medical miracle" by any standard.
The science illiteracy of the mainstream media
Of course, the facts of this study certainly did not get in the way of the mainstream media, which published all sorts of denigrating stories about calcium, even questioning, "Should people stop taking calcium?" Apparently, science illiteracy is so widespread in the mainstream media that reporters can't even decipher the basics of a scientific study
. The very concept of a control group is completely foreign to many reporters in the U.S. press.
If they had bothered to read the results of the study, and if they had understood those results, they would have been asking the obvious question: How does this possibly support the conclusion that calcium is useless? It doesn't. In fact, I dare say, no honest researcher or scientist from any field could possibly agree with the absurd conclusions reached about calcium in the mainstream media.
All of which makes you wonder why. Why were the study results so inaccurately characterized in the press? And why was the study designed without a control group in the first place?
The real reason why this calcium study was fraudulently designed
Like many studies on nutritional supplements, this study was designed from the start to discredit calcium and function as a propaganda tool in support of osteoporosis drugs. The entire effort is more about promoting a political agenda (boosting drug sales) than genuine health. The study was dishonestly constructed, unscrupulously reported, and ignorantly parroted by health and science reporters (who apparently understand neither health nor science) across the globe. Almost nobody bothered to point out the remarkable reduction in bone fractures demonstrated by the test subjects who actually consumed their calcium.
It's no surprise, of course. There are days when I wonder whether there's a single iota of honesty or intelligence left in the popular press. Nearly all newspapers, magazines and TV news programs have sold their souls to Big Pharma, it seems, and so they report whatever they're told to report, even if it makes absolutely no sense. Many science writers can't even decipher the basics of critical thinking. They can only copy and paste. Basic math escapes them.
Here's an interesting thought on all this. Suppose this experiment was conducted on a prescription drug, not calcium. Let's call this drug "OsteoMax" (any resemblance to an actual product named "OsteoMax" is pure coincidence, I assure you). Given the exact same data, if this were a prescription drug, national headlines would have screamed, "Bone health breakthrough discovered!" The reports would have been touting the astonishing 29% reduction in bone fractures due to OsteoMax, and television ads would have started featuring happy elderly women power walking and yapping about how smart their doctors are for prescribing OsteoMax.
Non-profit osteoporosis organizations would issue national press releases, calling for the FDA to fast-track the drug so that women everywhere could have healthier bones. Doctors would urge their patients to start taking it by the millions. The FDA would approve the drug in a skipped heartbeat. Or, perhaps, a stroke of enthusiasm.
Let's face it: If calcium were a drug, these results would be heralded as the science breakthrough of the year. But since it's just a common mineral that no drug company can patent, everything gets distorted, twisted, and discredited.
And it's the same story with every vitamin, mineral and herb discredited in the popular press. Every single study that says "Vitamin E has no benefit" or "Saw palmetto is useless for your prostate" is a lie. It's all based on utterly dishonest science that's carefully constructed for the sole purpose of making nutrition look bad. And the press buys right into it, reporting information that's worse than merely useless; it's downright harmful.