Quality vs. Junk Science: Read the Study, Not Just the Headline

The United States is in an epidemic; there are too many people rejecting real science while embracing junk. This is not an isolated phenomenon, it applies to global warming, disease prevention and policy toward substance use and abuse. Just because a study has been done doesn’t mean it is a well-designed, valid study. One needs to look beyond the alleged results and look at the design.

We need to look at the results with a critical eye toward such matters as study design and raw data, and how the data has been integrated. When you read a new headlines about a study ask questions. Is it a lone, unsupported study? Is it well-designed? Were all variables accounted for?

All studies are not created equal. Some are junk, some are well-designed. They need to be looked at not at the headline, but at the study design. My advice is to look at all studies with a critical eye, don’t just read the headline. Here are a few example:

• Example: Brain Scans

Ciara Torres, Ph.D., a professor at Columbia University, was asked if addiction is really a brain disease. She responded, “This is a difficult question to answer. You can’t reach any conclusion. If one only has brain scans of people that are addicted to anything you also need scans before the person even started using drugs.”

Why is she saying that? She points out, "You don’t know if what you’re seeing occurred after the patient was already addicted or was actually present before their use of drugs.”

“You don’t know which came first, the drug use, or whatever changes that the brain scars are showing... Brain scan data is NOT valid unless you have controlled brain scans before people even started using drugs to then be able to compare to.”

• Example: Brain damage

A great example of junk science is a study done by Dr. Robert G Heath in the 1970's on monkeys that had the goal of proving cannabis caused brain damage. What it proved was that oxygen deprivation causes brain damage. The monkeys were exposed to cannabis smoke and there were no adverse findings, so the over-zealous researcher thought that cannabis in higher concentrations would provide the result that he wanted. In order to administer that dose he put gas masks on the monkeys and filled them full of cannabis smoke and very little oxygen. When these monkeys were sacrificed, of course they had brain damage.

• Example: Effect on IQ

Recent studies at the University of California and University of Minnesota conclude that cannabis has an adverse affect on IQ. The studies, however, were not controlled or adjusted for a wide variety of variables including home environments; incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder, use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, poverty, education, traumatic brain injury or other variables. Studies are not controlled for other variables. The vast majority of these studies do not control for external factors such as these.

• Example: Prenatal Effects

Dr. Melanie Dreher, Dean of the School of Nursing at Rush Medical School, conducted the most thorough longitudinal study of cannabis use in pregnant and breastfeeding mothers anywhere. This study documented that children of women who smoked cannabis during pregnancy did better in school and reached their developmental landmarks sooner than children of women who did not smoke cannabis during pregnancy.

• Example: Effect on Developing Brain.

The question has been raised. So far neither epidemiology nor retrospective studies have shown any consistent well-documented adverse effects.

• Example: Medical Value of Cannabis.

The California Center for Medical Cannabis Research (CMCR) was founded in 2000. The CMCR was funded by the State of California and located at UC San Diego School of Medicine and has since conducted 18 FDA-approved smoked cannabis studies.

The center’s report to the legislature came out in 2011:

“Evidence is accumulating that cannabinoids may be useful medicine for certain indications... The classification of marijuana as a Schedule I Controlled Substance as well as the continuing controversy as to whether or not cannabis is of medical value are obstacles to medical progress in this areas. Based on evidence currently available, the Schedule I designation is not tenable; it is not accurate that cannabis has no medical value, or that information on safety is lacking.”