13 August 2012

Food and trust of science

Back in grad school, we had a speaker who was given a general public lecture. He was talking about the prospects for personalized medicine. The idea is attractive. Not all medicines work on all people. Sequence a patient’s DNA, and you can find out what medicines are likely to be ineffective.

This is not a post about personalized medicine, though. It’s a post about a question that got asked at this public lecture.

He basically asked, “Scientists used to say that butter was bad for us, and we should eat margarine. Not they’re saying that margarine is bad and we should east butter.” (I do remember that there had been a story about health risks associated with margarine in the news around that time.)

“Why should we trust any of you?”

My recollection of the answer isn’t as clear as the question. But I seem to recall that that question was brushed off lightly, with a sort of “There’s nothing to worry about.”

I sympathized with that man in the audience, and have gained ever more sympathy as time has gone on. I was reminded of it by a couple of things this weekend reminded me of this man’s question. On Ockham’s Razor, this speaker claims research does not show that cholesterol causes heart disease:

I stopped cutting all the fat off my grass-fed steaks, started frying my eggs deep in butter and began to avoid any product with the word ‘lite’ on it. I’m not on a diet but I’m about 3 kgs lighter and last time I had my cholesterol checked it was 12% lower.

Now, the scientifically minded may say, “That’s just anecdote,” but the point is that you have people making these sorts of claims all the time.

The second was a post from Biochem Belle on popcorn flavouring and Alzheimer’s disease, which has apparently been in the news of late.

Oooh, and on his 1 August podcast from his weekly call-in show on Triple J, Doctor Karl said 32,000 cases of lung cancer are tied to sitting down, 12,000 cases of endometrial cancer, 1,800 of ovarian cancer, and 49,000 each of breast cancer and colon cancer are caused by sitting. That’s a lot of cancer.

While Dr. Karl did explains some of the logic of how sitting could be related to health, those numbers sound incredibly definite. And Karl said sitting “caused” the cancer, not “increased the risk.” For more on how people might get those numbers, try Ed Yong’s article, “What does it mean to say that something causes 16% of cancers?”.

And then watch for research appearing slightly before Valentine’s Day about chocolate. There will be some. And it will probably say there are some mild health benefits if it is eaten in moderation.

As a professional scientist, I have an insider’s view on many scientific stories. It’s hard for me to pull out and try to imagine how a lot of stories sound to someone who is barely aware of science.

Another example of this: One of my students yesterday was talking about how she was talking to someone who thought fruit fly research was obscure, and her reaction was, “Um. No. Drosophila is not obscure. It is studied intensively by thousands of people around the world.”

When I listen to the reporting about research on food, I am back to square one. I never know what to make of it. Research on food and health seems to be never ending, often contradictory, and difficult to interpret.

I get the same vibe whenever I try to read about the use of nuclear energy. I am just lost.

David Dobbs recently wrote that science writers need to do a better job of portraying uncertainty in science, and not promote those with pat answers.

But when I look at how research about food is presented, I can see why people are impatient and distrustful. I can totally understand why people gravitate to those apparent pat answers when faced with what seems to be a never ending march of contradictory information.

No comments: