Confusion in the media

There is an article from August 11 in the New York Times by Gina Kolata called “We’re So Confused: The Problems With Food and Exercise Studies” that I feel I have to address. The gist of the article is that Food Science is inexact and there is conflicting scientific literature on many foods. The cornerstone of the article is a January 2013 article from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition entitled “Is Everything We Eat Associated With Cancer? A Systematic Cookbook Review“. In this article, two physicians selected 50 common foods from random recipes in a cookbook and did a meta-analysis of the scientific literature on those foods and found conflicting results. Ms. Kolata uses this and a few quotes from other physicians and researchers to conclude that Food Science in inexact and conclusions should be, pardon the phrase, taken with a grain of salt.

The problem here is that this isn’t really the whole story. There are two fundamental flaws in this logic.

First, it’s not really true for all foods. I issue a challenge to anyone who can find me an article that says that beans cause cancer. Let me expand that and say I’m unable to find articles that link ANY commonly consumed plants that cause cancer. Yes, you may find the odd link that suggests that pesticides or other chemicals sprayed on the plants may be harmful, but none to suggest that the foods themselves are carcinogenic. Please, flood my inbox and show me the error of my ways and I promise I’ll post anything you can dig up.

Second, the bigger problem is the media and the disconnect between how science works and how we want it to work. Science is a process, a long and tedious search for clues as to how things work. But our brains are not wired for this sort of process. We want answers; we want a story. If you want insight into how our brains work, there is no better work than Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow“. I know, it’s a big, hard book, but I promise it’s worth it. One of the recurrent themes of Kahneman’s work is that we always try to make a coherent story out of available facts, even if one does not exist. It’s the reason why you so often see headlines screaming the latest findings as if the story is told and the conclusions are in. But that’s not how science really works. Yes, every scientist (like every person) has a bias. Yes, they conduct research based upon those biases. But then they publish those findings, not (hopefully) because they believe their findings are necessarily THE TRUTH, but because we slowly discover the truth by retesting, again and again, until we decide that the original conclusion was correct or not. The problem, then, is the media, which takes every Food Science article and study as the gospel truth because it sells. I’m pretty sure not many people paid a lot of attention to the February 2016 article in the New York Times “Gravitation Waves Detected, Confirming Einstein’s Theory” which described how scientists recorded a sound that they believe proves the existence of gravitation waves, first described theoretically by Albert Einstein in 1915. It took 101 years to find data to substantiate the theory and the scientists conclude that more data is needed to confirm the finding. But because they are not claiming that gravitational waves cause cancer, or improve your health, there is not much media attention paid to this finding. There is no great story except the tedious research needed to weed out the truth.

Until we have sufficient evidence to actually back up the assertions made, we have to rely on imperfect science to guide us. I remind you of the best eating advice ever dispensed, 7 simple words:

“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Food, of course, refers to vegetables, fruits, whole grains and even meats (if you choose), but not “edible food-like substances (i.e. high fructose corn syrup)”.

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