How to Read a Scientific Study

You are intelligent.

You are a scientist.

You, yeah you, the one reading this.

You, the one who failed the chemistry test everyone else easily got an "A" on. Or you, the one who got in way over your head taking Physics AP in high school for some god-forsaken reason. Or maybe you, who tried to major in Biology but couldn't pass Chem 102, coming to the conclusion that you are just shitty at all things science.

...Oh wait, those were all me. 

The fact that I would randomly and uncontrollably fall asleep in all of my classes probably didn't help.

The fact that I would randomly and uncontrollably fall asleep in all of my classes probably didn't help.

So maybe I'm not innately talented in passing Chemistry tests I never studied for. Maybe I needed to take a regular-level physics class before trying an AP level. And maybe it's not best to try and learn Chemistry beside 150+ other kids in a giant lecture hall, especially when it's not your strong suit.

In fact, I think that NOT being a natural scientific genius may be why I look for so many different ways to try and explain its principles. Because whatever way they tried in school didn't work for me.

And if you're like a lot of other people I know, it didn't work for you either.

Our brains tend to grasp things easier if we put a human spin on them - if we add a social element to it. My goal today is to explain how many scientific studies are formatted in an interesting and understandable way. I think it will help to shed some light onto some of their more subtle points:

  1. Why the context the study was conducted in is very important
  2. Why, a good deal of the time, if you're not already in the field the study is looking at, you won't understand it 100%
  3. How to work around #1 and #2

So, here's our fake scenario:

You have a fussy 4 year-old who hates going to bed at bedtime. If you want to retain your sanity, you need to figure out a way to get him to go to sleep consistently and reliably.

Never thought I'd find a reason to post this video on my blog...

Efficacy of Bed-Time Stories on Sleep-Induction in 4-year-old Male

Abstract

Objective: To determine the efficacy of reading stories at bed-time on the time it takes to fall asleep (TTS) in our 4-year-old male subject.

Methods: The subject was exposed to 3 different treatments:

  1. Bed-Time Story: Goodnight Moon 
  2. Bed-Time Story: Where the Wild Things Are 
  3. Control (No story)

Each treatment was done for 2 weeks, followed by a 2-week wash-out period between each treatment where no books were read.

TTS was recorded each night and averaged using the mode.

Results: TTS results varied from 4 to 97 minutes.  The treatment with the lowest average TTS was treatment #2 with an average of 13 minutes.  

Conclusion: Treatment #2 was significantly more effective than treatments 1 and 3 on TTS. However, one of the TTS values for treatment #2 was 97 minutes - the highest value of any treatments.  This suggests that factors outside of the story read and the bedtime may be affecting TTS values.

It is clear that further study must be done on this subject to arrive at the optimal treatment outcome.  

So that all seems pretty succinct, right?  Well let's move onto the FULL study and see if we're missing any crucial context...

Full Study

Background: Having children fall asleep in a timely fashion is of paramount importance for the child's development.  Well-rested caregivers have been shown in previous studies to have higher levels of patience, are better able to work to provide for their children, and are more apt to be involved with their children when they are at home.

Better sleep benefits the child by making them more attentive; performing better at tasks required intellect or motor coordination.  As well, they are better able to express their wants and emotions to their caregivers.  

Some previous treatments have been tried on the subject with negligible improvement. Such treatments included a warm bath before bedtime, use of a nightlight, and turning off the television at 8:00 PM. 

However, other treatment options were promising.  Pushing bed-time back from 8:30 PM to 9:00 decreased time till sleep (TTS) by an average of 19 minutes.  However, benefits reversed after 10:00 PM.  

The treatment with the highest success rate was allowing the subject to sleep with his caregivers.  However, this treatment has dangerous side-effects for the caregivers and thus is not a suitable long-term treatment.  More options must be made available. 

In this study, we hope to combine the proven-successful treatment of a 9:00 PM bed-time with 2 other options in search for the best treatment option for the subject. 

So we've learned two important things from the background of this study:

  1. This study is being done to improve the overall well-being of the child.
  2. Previous treatments have been attempted, some less and some more successful.  The successful treatments affected what was done in this study.

Why is this important?  Well, it's not hard to imagine someone reading the abstract and completely dismissing the study by saying 9:00 is a horrible time to put a child to sleep, 8:30 is a much better time.  Except by reading the background, you discover that's already been attempted and found not to work.  Whoops!

Can't you imagine this study being posted on Facebook, and someone commenting "Everyone knows a warm bath works best to relax you and put you to sleep. What a stupid study. I can't believe we're wasting taxpayer money on this. Thanks Obama!!" ...except that was also attempted, and found not to work, if you had read the background.

Let me be clear...this research it's...it's about our children. It's about...the future of our great country. Which is America, just to be clear.

As well, the background gave the "big picture" idea of why this study is being done. If the purpose of the study was to find out what would benefit the caregivers most, you could arguably propose the best treatment would be putting the child up for adoption! But now that you have the context of the study, you know that's not a viable option.

Methods: The subject was exposed to 2 different treatments and 1 control over the course of 16 weeks.  

Potential variables that were controlled for included:

  • Time when reading began (9:00 PM)
  • Pre-bedtime ritual for up to an hour before bedtime
  • Sugar and caffeine intake after 2:00 PM 
  • Bedroom temperature
  • Bed-sheet color
  • Level of lighting in bedroom during readings 
  • Caregiver doing the reading 

Each treatment was attempted for 2 weeks, with 2 weeks in between each treatment method so that the subject would not become accustomed to the routine. 

During the control periods, the same caregiver would be present in the room, but without reading a story.

The treatments involved rotating 2 different books: Where the Wild Things Are - a more action-packed thriller compared to Goodnight Moon. We wanted to test if the level of excitement in the books affected TTS values.  We hope that this data will help the caregivers select appropriate bed-time books in the future. 

TTS values were collected every day, for a total of 14 data points for each treatment.  The mode was selected as the average for each treatment, as there were typically one or two extreme outliers for each one. 

The methods section is very important! This shows you how the researchers conducted the study in the first place, which tells you if the study is a good one or not.

If the methods were, "our intuition and common sense told us Goodnight Moon was a superior book choice, then we flipped a coin to decide whether it was better than the control," you'd say it was a poorly-done study, wouldn't you?! I hope so!

We're also shown how the researchers tried to make sure nothing else could possibly be affecting the outcome of the study besides the book being read. Maybe they missed some possible other variables, or were unable to control for some, (such as the time of year, it's hard to get kids to sleep around Christmas!) affecting the validity of the results?

Results: It was found that reading Where the Wild Things Are resulted in the lowest average TTS compared to Goodnight Moon and no book. (Figure 1)  The average TTS values for each treatment were:

  1. Goodnight Moon - 21 minutes
  2. Where the Wild Things Are - 13 minutes
  3. Control (no book) - 27 minutes

These findings show a significant difference between TTS in each group.  

ToddlerStudy

Figure 1: Average TTS scores across various 2-week treatments

The findings appear to suggest that a bed-time story is a better treatment than nothing, however further research involving a wider variety of stories is necessary to draw any conclusions. 

Results sections can be pretty cut-and-dry. They tell you what happened, which is pretty important though!

Discussion: Reading of Where the Wild Things Are showed a dramatic decrease in the time it took for the subject to fall asleep as compared to Goodnight Moon and Control treatments. As well, aside from boredom on the part of the caregivers from reading the same book over and over, side-effects were non-existent.  

It is believed that the excitement of the story-line, followed by a slow, soothing ending is what made Where the Wild Things Are the best choice. The subject has a history of enjoying action-packed media, so it is possible this history influenced the outcome of the research.

It is possible that pushing back reading time to 9:30 PM would have influenced the efficacy of the Goodnight Moon treatment, when the subject would be more apt to being sleepy, and more receptive to a low-action story. Further research will be necessary. 

There are many limitations in this study. First, only two books were chosen as treatments - one as a more "action-based" story, and one as a "low-stress" story. However, the subject owns many other books and it is possible their outcomes will be unpredictable. 

As well, we were unable to control for the time of year this study was conducted.  The beginning of December occurred around the same time as the Goodnight Moon treatment. The subject loves Christmas, so his excitement may have adversely affected this treatment's outcomes. 

This study only included one subject, which is another large limitation for general use of this research. Further research with more subjects and a wider variety of treatments will be necessary for public relevance. 

Man, we got a load of information from the discussion section! (That one is always my favorite) The researchers owned up to the fact that this study has little relevance outside of the one subject they studied. Even then, there were many possible alternative explanations.

The researchers are basically straight-up telling us that a headline like, say...

"Scientists show storybook, Where the Wild Things Are, a better sedative than a bottle of Benadryl!"

...just may be a tad inaccurate.

We also learned some limitations we would have had NO IDEA about unless we knew the subject well beforehand, such as Christmas-time is a large confounding variable for him. Realize that important contextual data like this is not always included in the study itself.

This means unless you had been following and studying the subject for a long time prior, you wouldn't be able to grasp the importance of everything going on in the study.

This of course doesn't mean that it's pointless for you to read a study.  Hell, if you read any part of the actual study being discussed in the internet article du jour, you're doing better than 99.9% of the people commenting, and potentially even the person who wrote the damn thing.

If I imagine ignorant commenters like this instead, my soul is much happier.

Being able to point out limitations isn't being critical about what another person believes, it's pointing out how the study they're basing said beliefs on has the potential to be wrong.

At the same time, you need to be able to apply that same idea to yourself and your beliefs.

It's always possible that one study had too many confounding variables and limitations to be useful. So what if we did 99 more studies, and 98 of them showed that Where the Wild Things Are, read at 9:00 PM was the most effective treatment, with just 1 of them showing Goodnight Moon was a slightly better choice?

99% of studies came to one conclusion, 1% came to another. Using this data, which of these statements is more evidence based?

  • "Based on the current evidence, Where the Wild Things Are is the best choice for getting this subject to fall asleep the quickest. Should more studies come out showing otherwise, we will reconsider this stance."
  • "Where the Wild Things Are shows all manner of unnatural things that are not good for a child's developing brain. Here is a study that shows Goodnight Moon is the best choice. The other studies are funded by lobbyists pushing a pro-monster agenda."

And if you read an article that cited the ONE study out of 99 on the subject showing Goodnight Moon was the best choice, not knowing the other studies existed, you might believe it.

This is why if the scientific community comes to a general consensus on a subject matter, you really ought to lend it some credence. They likely know more than you do because they know:

  • The context the studies are done in
  • The entire giant SCOPE of research being done on the subject
  • What limitations and variables really matter
  • The specific scientific jargon used in said studies

If you were the parent of the child in our fake study, you'd roll your eyes at someone telling you that a warm bath is the one true answer. (and maybe start yelling at your television when an ignorant, uninformed pundit started calling you an idiot for believing otherwise)

Now imagine the same thing happening, except you're a scientist who has devoted the past 12 years of your life to studying one specific subject matter for meager pay of about $20,000/yr, and some random person from the internet calls you a Big Industry shill for your findings. I'd probably need to be restrained.

Moral

You use a crude version of the scientific method everyday. Anytime you use logic and information to figure out why your child won't go to bed at night, that's an un-refined version of the scientific method.

When you actually set up an experiment and record the results, that's getting a bit more refined. Trying to control for variables that affect the outcome, considering the context in which you're doing the experiment - that's refining it more and more.

There is A LOT that goes into a full scientific study. You cannot rely only on the abstract of one single study to tell you everything you need to know about a subject.

If anything, read the entire, full study before trying to form any kind of conclusion. If you don't understand the study, don't worry - just don't come to any hard conclusions and be open to the idea that your interpretation is wrong!

Oh, and when the scientific community forms a near-unanimous consensus, you should probably listen to them.

Just as good as homeopathy, psychic surgery and faith healing.

While reading through one of the books I recommend at the end of the BS-Detection guide, (Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, seriously amazing read.  If you enjoy my work at all you'll love this book) I came across an interesting study on placebos.

(He even made a note saying that if you had a possible explanation for the results of this study, that you should write a blog post.  So...here we are!)

This is a good study to try and read into a little bit, even if you're not a statistician.  We may not be able to decide if their statistical analysis is any good (considering my 'C' grade in high school statistics, I'm gonna go ahead and put myself in the 'not expert' category on that one), but most of the study is in language any lay-person can understand.

Can the placebo effect improve the benefits of exercise?

Let's go over the structure of this study real quick:

What is the study trying to show?

In the first few paragraphs of this study, below the bolded abstract, the authors give us some interesting background on the surprising effects of placebos.  Their definition of 'the placebo effect' is:

The placebo effect is any effect that is not attributed to an actual pharmaceutical drug or remedy, but rather is attributed to the individual’s mind-set.

And that's a very accurate definition.  Let's expand on that a bit with an entertaining example from the wonderfully crude TV show It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

In the episode "Manhunters," two of the main characters (Dee and Charlie) are persuaded by Dee's father, Frank, that they've accidentally eaten human flesh.  Over the course of the episode, Dee and Charlie experience increasing cravings for human flesh, culminating in them kidnapping a homeless man to bring back to their apartment and eat.

Thankfully, Frank informs them in time that it was actually raccoon meat, and he was just fucking with them the whole time.

This example was just an excuse to post this youtube clip.

But Dee and Charlie feel the cravings for human flesh so intensely, they are convinced Frank is lying, and go on to attempt to eat him instead.

So, placebo effect is thinking you've eaten human flesh, causing the effect of craving human flesh, even though you only ate raccoon meat.

Where were we?  Ah, right, so the researchers were trying to determine:

...the role of the placebo effect (the moderating role of mind-set) in the relationship between exercise and health. We hypothesized that the placebo effect plays a role in the health benefits of exercise: that one’s mind-set mediates the connection between exercise and one’s health.

In other words, does simply telling people about the benefits of their current exercise increase the benefits of said exercise without changing anything else about their lives?

How did they conduct the study?

Researchers took 84 maids from 7 different hotels.  About half went into a 'control' group, and the other half were referred to as the 'informed' group.

The paper details exactly how they picked the maids and how they controlled for confounding factors like age, ethnicity, socioeconomic standing, etc.  As well, they made sure that the maids from different groups didn't talk to eachother, to ensure the placebo effect didn't spread to the 'control' group.

A control group is standard in most all experiments.  A control group basically exists as a reference for the changes made in the experiment group.

For instance, in this study, if we had no control group, we would have no way of knowing whether any changes that occurred in the experiment group had anything to do with the actual experiment changes, or changes in say, the weather, or any other natural fluctuations.

What were they measuring?

Researchers measured:

  • How much exercise the women believed they got
  • How much of their job they thought counted as 'exercise'
  • Weight, body fat percentage (via one of these), and waist-to-hip ratio
  • Blood Pressure

They measured the first two bullet points by just surveying the workers.  This would give insight into how their mind-set changed over the course of the experiment.  The second two bullet points showed actual objective data to see if those changes in mind-set actually affected their measurable health levels.

What were the differences between the 'informed' group and the 'experiment' group?

Both groups were educated on their daily recommended amount of exercise, based on the Surgeon General's recommendations; about 200 calories worth per day.  They were given handouts and posters were put up in their work lounges to remind them.

However, the 'informed' group was told that their jobs more than fulfilled said recommendations.  The 'control' group was not told this.

So basically, the only difference was that the informed group had the peace of mind and satisfaction of knowing that they were surpassing the amount of exercise recommended for them to obtain and maintain good health, while the control group did not.

What were the results?

Four weeks later, the informed group had:

  • Much higher perceived amount of regular exercise
  • Regarded their job as contributing much more towards their exercise
  • Lower systolic (the first number in blood pressure readings) blood pressure by 10 points
  • Lost an average of 2 pounds
  • Lowered waist-to-hip ratio and body fat

These changes were not seen in the control group.  In fact, they felt that their jobs counted less as exercise than before the experiment!

Ever watch Hoarders? Cleaning up that mess definitely counts as exercise.

So can the placebo effect help me to lose weight?

Possibly.  But don't get too excited about the results yet.  First of all, the body fat and weight loss results could be erroneous.  The scale they used to measure body fat is highly inaccurate and very susceptible to changes from water content in the body.  As well, many people experience weight fluctuations of 2+ pounds on a day to day basis regularly.

However, it's harder to mess up a blood pressure reading.  With an average decrease of 10 points, something was definitely going on to improve the health of the ladies in the informed group.

The researchers stated that it doesn't appear that the ladies in the study changed their dietary habits.  Nor did they report exercising more.  So, did being informed that they were doing exercise magically cause these improvements in health?

I think what's probably going on here is some combination and waterfall effect of:

  • Realizing that they're not lazy people, and healthier than they thought
  • Figuring that maybe they've got a little bit more of their shit together than they realized
  • Perhaps having a little more fun with the job, potentially increasing their physical exertion without consciously registering it
  • Decrease in stress
  • Increase in duration and quality of sleep
  • Decrease in caloric intake due to stress reduction and increase in sleep, as well as because they think of themselves as healthier, fitter people than before.

These changes wouldn't have been a conscious decision by the ladies, so they wouldn't have reported any changes in their habits.

It's a bit of a stretch, I admit.  But it seems more likely than a simple change in mindset decreasing one's waist-to-hip ratio.  Those kinds of direct physical changes don't seem to be in the realm of placebo, kind of like how placebo can't re-grow limbs or alleviate paralysis.

What's the take-home?

Realize that exercise is ANY KIND of physical exertion.  If you work a physical job like walking dogs, construction, teaching, cleaning, whatever, then you are getting exercise.  If you enjoy playing frisbee with your dog, you are getting exercise. Exercise does not have to happen in a gym or even as a conscious effort.

As well, recognize the awesome power of a positive mind-set.  Trust me, I know that this is easier said than done.  I have not in any way accomplished this yet in my own life.  But just feeling like you're just a little more in control of your life, eliminating just one source of stress, or maybe thinking of yourself as a bit of a healthier person can have huge effects on your actions and motivations.

Interested in learning more about how awesome and interesting the placebo effect is?  Pick up Bad Science by Ben Goldacre.  Seriously.  This book is amazing.

4 Comments

Chapter / Rule 8 - Cut the Salt

When I read this title I was all ready to jump on the contradiction of telling you to reduce your salt (because it will cause you to retain more water) but to also take an electrolyte supplement (of which salt is a key ingredient)

But, to my pleasant surprise, Harper already addresses this:

"Yes you body needs some salt...(which is why you'll be drinking electrolyte replacements during this program), but too much leads to water retention, which leads nowhere good."

As we previously noted in the electrolytes section, there is little point in reducing simple water weight when you're going for an aesthetic change.  It just isn't going to make a big difference for the most part.  So while a lot of salt leads nowhere good, it doesn't lead anywhere particularly bad either.

This is all contingent on you not having an existing blood pressure issue.  People who have had their blood pressure checked by a medical professional and found it to be higher than it should could consider reducing their sodium intake.  Of course, you should listen to your doctor first before some random chick on the internet.

"...when you're looking to lose weight over the long haul and then stay thin, you should shoot for less than 2,000 milligrams [of salt] a day."

Here Harper just used "thin" and "lose weight" interchangeably.  Many weight-loss products will do this, since most of us associate weight loss with fat loss.  However when talking about water weight, it's important to make sure you're using the correct term.  If you lose scale weight, say 5 pounds, by dropping 5 pounds of water weight (a very feasible thing to do), then to keep that weight off for the long haul, you would likely need to continue eating less salt.  But why bother?  It's meaningless weight that will keep you from enjoying things like bread, french fries or popcorn.

As far as needing to keep sodium below 2,000 to "stay thin," that is completely baseless.  Sodium doesn't lead people to being un-thin.  So don't worry so much about it.

The end of this chapter is a little bit scary:

A box of how to become a big jerk with an eating disorder.

A box of how to become a big jerk with an eating disorder.

Goodness just look at some of this advice.  When your friend is kind enough to offer to make you dinner, you really need to be sure to let them know you've already had 778 milligrams of sodium today - could they make sure to only offer you a portion with 1,222 mg?  Oh, your mother-in-law wants to make you and your husband a delicious home-cooked meal?  Haha nope, you've got a DIET to uphold!  What's more important than that?  Instead of eating at the office party, follow around your hot intern.  She'll dig it.

Moral: Unless you have an existing blood pressure issue, don't worry about your sodium intake.  It won't help you lose fat, and the scale weight you lose is meaningless.

Chapter / Rule 9 - Take advantage of the restorative power of daily fish oil

Want to know a secret?

I'm not particularly knowledgeable about supplements.  It's not a subject that gets me very excited.

There, I admitted it.

So, here's what I'm going to do with this section: We'll use this as a little tutorial on how to traverse through a subject you're unfamiliar with.  This is also a great chapter to do so - Harper throws out a bunch of intimidating science-y terms.  What fun!

Let's start with the opening paragraph:

"You may have heard that taking a fish oil supplement every day is good for your heart...[scientists have] come across the benefits of fish oil for people who diet and exercise as well.  Fish oil can help with post-exercise soreness and also boost immunity."

So here we have 3 claims about fish oil:

  1. Good for your heart
  2. Help with post-exercise soreness
  3. Boost immunity

After this, there is a sensationalist paragraph about how soreness means you're probably going to find an excuse to not work out the next day, so take your fish oil.  This is fluff - entertaining fluff that is relevant to your life, to be sure - but it will not give you a better understanding of if you should take fish oil.

Next is a passage that is a bit tough to digest:

"Bear with me: in the human inflammatory cycle, a molecule dubbed E2, or PGE2 (for prostaglandin), signals other cells to become inflamed and, thus, painful.  So the research question was: Can we inhibit this process in a healthful way?

To find out, the investigators tested the effects of 8 different dietary oils containing high amounts of the anti-inflammatory molecule called docosahexaenoic acid.  Result: "It was identified that fish oil best inhibited the PGE2 signaling...[and] docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), found in abundance in fish oil, was identified as a key factor of inhibition of PGE2 signaling."

Whew, that was a mouthful.  Confused yet?  Don't worry, Harper will sum it all up for you:

"In essence: yay fish oil!"

Well, I personally would like a bit of a deeper understanding - something between that difficult-to-comprehend first passage and a simple "yay!"  You deserve that too.

First, let's establish what we're trying to figure out here:

  • Harper is using a study to confirm his assertion that fish oil helps with soreness and inflammation.
  • We need to determine if this study actually does confirm that fish oil helps with soreness and inflammation.

So, let's look up this study.  I use PubMed to find almost all of the studies I've looked at in these series.  You could also just Google the title of the study.  (Harper has a works cited section in the back of the book, thankfully.)  We lucked out with this study - the full text is available for free.  Many journals require you to pay to access more than just the abstract (A brief summary of the study).  Sometimes you can miss crucial context without the full text - so it's best to reserve complete judgement on a piece until you can read and understand the whole thing.

After a cursory glance over this paper I have reached one conclusion:

This is WAY over my head.

I'd say it's over the head of most non-biologists.  I have very little hope of understanding what is going on in this paper - so I will stick with the parts that are generally in English: the "Discussion" and "Conclusion" sections:

"Finally, we conclude that fish oil is a promising dietary oil used to prevent and reduce inflammation-mediated diseases, such as heart diseases, cancers, arthritis, and pain."

"... taking 500 –1000 mg fish oil daily is recommended based on the findings in this study."

So we have determined that this study concludes what Harper says it does, and even gives us a recommendation for how much fish oil to take.  Sadly, the methods used to gather and analyze this data are way over my head.  It could be complete crap - I wouldn't know the difference.

What do you do when you don't understand a study?

The further you step away from the root of the study, the more caution you should take.  I do have a few trusted sources I turn to for nutrition information.  I went to 3 different sources who look at research and give layman's descriptions of them:

Alan Aragon

Examine

Precision Nutrition

So, in comparing these 3 different sources, there are some common conclusions:

  • Fish oil can help with inflammation.
  • Enough fish oil can help with muscle soreness.
  • Too much fish oil can have a negative effect on your immune system.

This last point makes a sort of sense to me (I could be wrong), since inflammation is a response of your immune system.  Reduce inflammation too much, you're compromising your immune system.  Maybe.

Based on this, I would conclude that taking fish oil to help with decreasing inflammation and muscle soreness may be a good idea and perhaps something worth pursuing.   1-6 grams is a wide range of recommendations, and is also a crap ton of pills.  The upper doses seem to be the ones that help best with soreness.

That doesn't sound very conclusive, Kat.  This didn't help at all.

Well, that's because I haven't devoted more than about 3 hours to look at all this stuff, compared to a lifetime of some of these researchers.  Yeah, 3 hours is how long I've spent reading everything above.  It probably sounds like a lot.  But even if it doesn't, imagine the fact that you may find yourself needing to do similar research for your multi-vitamin, calcium supplement, creatine, or even if you should eat eggs.

That's a lot of time.

That's especially a lot of time for not coming up with a very definitive answer.

If you don't have the time to devote towards researching a topic thoroughly, that's fine!  Most of us won't bother to do everything I just did above.  The answer then is to just not take yourself super seriously.  Don't take a hard moral stand on something you're not willing to look at the studies for.  

Moral: Fish oil has a ton of positive research around it.  It would appear that fish oil is helpful in reducing inflammation and even preventing muscle soreness if you take enough.  Too much, however, and you may suppress your immune system.  1-6 grams seems to be the range of recommendations.