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Not everything is bad for you

Not everything is bad for you

In last week’s edition, our OC Life columnist Paul Tierney voiced his frustration at the seemingly flip-flopping nature of scientific opinion, especially when it comes to topics like health and diet.

Like Paul — and I imagine most of you — I too regularly see stories about some new study that warns us against consuming one thing or another only to see it proclaimed as a ‘superfood’ the very next week.

It is no wonder that this leads people to throw their hands in the air and exclaim, “They say everything is bad for you!”

But it is unfortunate as I feel it leads to a casual dismissal of science and a mistrust of experts.

This may seem like nit-picking given that Paul’s column was written as a bit of entertainment, but I felt it only perpetuates this mistrust and science denialism, so I couldn’t let it pass without making a few points.

First of all, people often come to this conclusion because they mistake the reporting of science for the science itself. Good science reporting is, sadly, hard to come by and most journalists don’t have the science background to really dissect a scientific paper. Instead, they rely on the press release, which too could have been written by a University’s communication’s officer who is also no expert.

Too often you see some eye-catching headline but then read further to discover that it is blatantly untrue or simply a throwaway quote or off-hand speculation not supported by that particular study.

Another thing often overlooked by journalists and the general public is that not all scientific studies are created equal:  There is definitely bad science out there as well as studies done with financial or ideological motivations.

And sadly, there are no shortage of poor-quality journals willing (or paid) to publish bad science. These journals may have legitimate sounding names and get their press releases picked up by news outlets that love a snappy headline even though the science is bad or downright fraudulent.

And even among good peer reviewed studies, the quality of the study will vary. Diet and health are notoriously difficult areas to explore because you are dealing with people and it is almost impossible to control all the variables involved. A lot of dietary studies are forced to rely on self-reporting by subjects which is famously unreliable.

Good science studies must also be repeatable. The results of one study can be interesting but are essentially meaningless unless the same result can be shown again and again.

From hypothesis to early results to sound scientific consensus takes time, and there are people who exploit the fuzzy edges of scientific knowledge for profit, which further confuses things. Companies will jump on the results of one early study simply to sell their product, even though there is no real consensus. So when it is later shown to not be that Next Big Thing people exclaim, ‘Make up your mind!’ But the truth is the science was never settled.

I believe this attitude of “They say everything is bad for you!” is simply a lack of understanding on how science works and it unfortunately leads people to doubt good science. Look around you and see the widespread denial of the scientific consensus on climate change, not to mention anti-vaxxers and — even more unbelievably! — the growing number of Flat Earthers!

There is no easy answer to this, but better science reporting would be a good start. In fact, a little more science literacy and critical thinking would be good for everyone.

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