That a journal article has proven drug success for treatment of dementia?
That medical research papers prove omega-3s are beneficial for heart health?
That a study proves this, proves that, and proves something more to an even greater extent?
Medical research isn’t proving these links. It’s suggesting that these links may exist.
Medical research papers can’t prove. They can only suggest.
Merriam-Webster defines proof as:
something which shows that something else is true or correct
an act or process of showing that something is true
A single medical research paper can only show that something was true in a particular group of people during a defined amount of time. With plenty of confounding variables thrown in for good measure.
Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to write generically about a medical research result being “proven” or being “true” without explaining that there are (many) caveats.
And “A study has proven that a small amount of 70% dark chocolate every day prevented heart attacks in women aged between 35 and 43, who are non-smokers, reside in the US, from 1996-2004” doesn’t exactly make for the catchiest of headings.
The problem? We need captivating health headlines.
The problem with writing about medical research papers for the online space is that there always needs to be a captivating headline.
Writers aren’t just content creators – they’re hunters.
They must intensely chase clicks, page views, pages per view and time-on-site statistics as if their lives depended on it (their wallets certainly do).
Writers need to lure in readers with cleverly-crafted words, and entice those readers to lend their glorious eyeballs for a few minutes.
“Research proves chocolate cures* heart disease!”
Headlines can make or break a piece.
Over the years, the digital landscape has changed significantly.
A reader’s attention has become more in-demand by content creators. And headlines have evolved into a make-or-break feature of an online piece.
New tactics are being deployed – forcing reader interest with their deliberately brazen attacks.
There’s been a clear shift in the way writers compose online headlines. “You need to read this now!” they scream.
“Here’s what happened when…”
“The number one way to…”
“This is what you have to know about…”
All common formulas writers use to bait those clicks.
You only need to take a gander at publications like The Huffington Post and all the new websites created for the sole purpose of sharing content on social media, like Upworthy, to get a sense of this.
Health writers have a big challenge: Accurate health headlines.
The challenge for health writers is this: Finding the delicate line between producing an exhilarating, really-must-drop-everything-and-read-it-now headline, and a yawn-inducing, boringly accurate clinical headline that doesn’t suit the target audience.
And I’m not sure where that line sits.
What I do know is this: Writers need to do everything in their power to ensure their pieces contain titles that reflect the true meaning of medical research papers with 100% accuracy.
As I alluded to earlier, proof is a term that is more convincingly employed when a writer is referring to a strong body of evidence. As opposed to a single study (which usually always concludes with the inevitable “more research is necessary” catchphrase).
So, when is it appropriate to use “prove”?
Usually, when many journal articles suggest the same result, consistently, for a long period of time, there’s a greater likelihood that the link does actually exist.
So the decision of whether to use prove can become an exercise in evidence gathering.
But when you’re under pressure to meet a deadline, you may not have hours to spend wading through PubMed for the complete history of medical research papers on dark chocolate and heart attack risk.
Here’s the advice I usually follow:
- It’s okay to use prove if you’re talking about a fact (the sun rises in the morning).
- Ask yourself if someone can logically argue against your statement. If they can, it’s not ideal to use “prove”.
- Be aware that correlation does not prove causation
- Be wary of using prove when discussing research about drugs – actually, be wary of EVERYTHING when discussing research about drugs – and read my earlier post about the dangers of copying information from press releases distributed by drug companies.
Words to use instead of prove.
Here are my trusty favourites when I want to avoid using prove in the context of medical research papers:
- May indicate
- Possibly will
- Likely to
What do you think? Have I proven anything, or have I confused you even more?