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To understand a headline – especially a year-end “Top N” list – you need to look under the hood and find their criteria.

Yesterday the New York Times Well blog posted The Most Popular Health Topics of 2011. I looked, eagerly, to find the rise of patients. Nothing of the sort there: instead high-protein diets and superhero workouts. Really, New York Times?? Really?

Ah, but the headline (and lead) were quickly followed by the source: “according to the number-crunchers at Google” – from their search reports. So I’d say the headline’s a miss: better to say the most popular health searches of 2011. Results from Bing and Yahoo were similar.

And then, aha, a splendid example of “selection bias” – the statistical trap you get into if you don’t consider who was studied. The above (diets and superheros) were the general public; among Times readers, though, “happy relationships, alternative therapies, the brain and mental health were among the most popular health topics.”

Here’s hoping that in 2012 more people searching for things that suggest an increase in patient engagement. What kinds of search phrases might suggest that? Any ideas?