When should we be suspicious of a study?

As a writer, I’m always conscious of the power of words to influence thoughts. As a marketing professional I know how careful any company is about the words its people use in a press release or marketing materials. That’s why the opening paragraph of this story on WebMD.com sent my antennae up:“Getting tough on cholesterol with high doses of the cholesterol medication Lipitor may help prevent heart attacks.”

“Getting tough” is not an expression you use in a press release. It’s an expression our politicians love to use–I said “politicians” because we can be pretty sure that anything they say is profoundly aimed at influencing our thoughts, often with only a casual nod towards truth. An unbiased source of news would never use an opening sentence like this one. And not surprisingly, we find at the bottom of paragraph 3 these statements: “The study was funded by Parke-Davis and Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. Pfizer is a WebMD sponsor.”

Now pharmaceutical companies often pay for research studies. And it’s natural and okay that this one wants to use its own website to promote its products. But it’s not okay that they want to act as if this is an objective news story. Their choice of words was the first clue. Having previously written about the questionable results of a number of studies (including Vioxx) for some legal websites, I know some of the ways in which study results can be skewed.

When you read a supposedly unbiased news story starting with “Getting tough” keep your eyes and your mind open. What you won’t hear is probably the most important part of the “study.”