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

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

  • How to recognize articles based on solid scientific evidence.
  • How to avoid falling for "clickbait."
  • 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.

Hide Full Description
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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What Does Each Format Include?

Video DVD
Video Download Includes:
  • Ability to download 24 video lectures from your digital library
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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Video DVD
DVD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 224-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
  • Closed captioning available

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 224-page printed course guidebook
  • Quizzes and Answers
  • Questions to Consider
  • Suggested Readings

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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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Reviews

The Skeptic's Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media is rated 4.9 out of 5 by 10.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good introduction to applying skepticism to health The Dr does a great job in present the subject, as in other previous courses. He covers the various aspects relating to health, medicine, and therelated media one should consider. He develops a series of recommendations he labels as “The skeptics tool kit”. These are all great points and especially points out the role of the media on both sides of the issue. Of course, most of the media examples increase the need for skepticism relating to health and medicine. My own skeptics concern is that the lecturer is a licensed medical doctor and hence introduces its own bias. He does point out example where the medical community has contributed to false conclusions, but at times appears to be ‘parroting’ the communities spin. An example is the approach to alternative medicine, which is almost all negative and not balanced with successes. Overall an outstanding couse, all should view. Develop and maintain a skeptis view.
Date published: 2019-03-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Important course! I have watched most of this course I am a MD and have learned some stuff from this session get the video- it keeps you engaged graphs excellent
Date published: 2019-03-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exceptional Course for Skeptics The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media is a remarkable course. Highly recommended for every man, woman, and child living in the modern era, especially those of us exposed to media. This is a relevant lecture series that honestly and sincerely intends to make the world a better place and educate viewers. Kudos to TGC and Dr Benaroch for teaming up to produce this course. This isn’t just about presenting health news content; an equally weighted objective is how to read the news and weigh information for its integrity based on core strengths and weaknesses. I’ve seen a couple other courses from Dr. Benaroch but his is easily his finest course. Poised, articulate, and logical, he makes for a wonderful presenter who keeps your attention from start to finish. It’s also a very well written, logically sequenced narrative. Maybe you’ll think he’s a messenger of bad news. He does trumpet science, logic, and sensibility when calls out worldviews propped up by emotion, tradition, trends, and at times gullibility. Going through articles with a fine tooth comb, we get to rate these articles for their journalistic integrity. In every single lecture we’re tasked with finding holes in whatever topic is under review (using a skeptic’s toolkit). Very practical and eye opening way to evaluate what we read and hear on the news. Not to complain, but that rug looked like a wet newspaper. If you don’t mind, please recycle that. Other than this minor eye sore, two thumbs up! I’m ready for a sequel.
Date published: 2019-03-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from My Review for The Skeptic's Guide to Health, Medic I've only completed viewing 6 lectures, but what I've seen so far is excellent.
Date published: 2019-03-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Skeptics Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Me I’m half way through, totally enjoying the course, and learning to be skeptical.
Date published: 2019-03-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from well done easy to watch - relevant topic - kept my attention
Date published: 2019-02-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Informative Listening to this course reminded me of a college course that I took forty years ago by the title "how to lie with statistics". In this course the author makes the consumer aware to pay attention on the sources, and ways that data are manipulated to produce, prove or disprouve the results of different studies. Overall the course is informative but to a sophisticated consumer is very basic.
Date published: 2019-02-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic lecturer! I have enjoyed every one of Dr. Benaroch's courses, He explains things clearly for those who may have only limited medical knowledge, and still makes the topics interesting for people who know more about medicine. This particular course is very valuable for anyone wanting to know the truth about the latest hype on health-related subjects. Information like this can help a person decide what is really the best plan of action for dealing with a particular health issue.
Date published: 2019-02-18
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