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Resolve to go boldly, and wisely, into a healthy new year -- and don't waste good vodka

January 01, 2011|By Tami Dennis / Tribune Health

The studies and assorted claims and rumors about diet, nutrition, fitness, cancer risk, heart health, weight loss, genetics, breast-feeding, screenings, junk food, medications, potentially toxic chemicals, telomere length, season of conception, the appeal of pheromones released in armpit sweat at varying times of the month, and the impact of such things as immersing one's feet in vodka will come just as fast and furiously in 2011 as they did in 2010. So be better prepared this year. Buy acai berry products and pomegranate juice and vitamin D capsules and of course vodka if you want, but understand just a bit better the evidence on which you're basing those purchases.

First up, know the difference between causation and correlation. We each have our favorite overstatement of the year in this regard, but let's not start the new year by embarrassing anyone.

STATS at George Mason University offers a nice primer, and suffice to say that two behaviors may occur with suggestive, even alarming, frequency in one group of people without one behavior actually causing the other.

For example, even if it were proved (it hasn't been studied, to my knowledge) that 99 of 100 bloggers are essentially cranky, frustrated people, we could not conclude that blogging actually causes crankiness or frustration.

It does, of course, but that statement doesn't prove it.

RELATED: Let's check in with the skeptics! (They're way more fun than the credulous)

Next up, understand the different types of clinical trials. ClinicalTrials.gov offers this glossary of terms of which the take-home messages (as we took them home) are these:

-Raise an eyebrow at results from an interesting Phase I trial (small, designed to test safety and potential) -- then go on about your business while the professionals pursue further answers.

-Raise two eyebrows at results from an interesting Phase II trial (expanded, designed to test true efficacy, get a jump on problems) -- and be on a half-hearted lookout for further studies.

-Express outright interest at a Phase III trial (larger, designed to assess overall risks and benefits) that confirms those results -- but don't take them as gospel. Not even this type of study is beyond spin, as ultimate recalls suggest.

Finally, don't dismiss common sense. A Danish researcher held onto his -- and proved that immersing feet in vodka does not lead to intoxication. It simply wastes vodka.

Then read, regularly, the Science-Based Medicine and Respectful Insolence blogs. Give the Health News Review site a whirl too.

And, of course, monitor the Healthy Skeptic feature in the Los Angeles Times and Julie's Health Club in the Chicago Tribune.

Readers of such features are more likely to be skeptical and make smarter choices, one out of one editors polled unanimously agreed. Obviously, reading such features makes people smarter.

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