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posted by janrinok on Wednesday February 04 2015, @03:51PM   Printer-friendly
from the I'll-never-close-my-eyes-again dept.

Scott Adams of Dilbert fame writes on his blog that science's biggest fail of all time is 'everything about diet and fitness':

I used to think fatty food made you fat. Now it seems the opposite is true. Eating lots of peanuts, avocados, and cheese, for example, probably decreases your appetite and keeps you thin. I used to think vitamins had been thoroughly studied for their health trade-offs. They haven’t. The reason you take one multivitamin pill a day is marketing, not science. I used to think the U.S. food pyramid was good science. In the past it was not, and I assume it is not now. I used to think drinking one glass of alcohol a day is good for health, but now I think that idea is probably just a correlation found in studies.

According to Adams, the direct problem of science is that it has been collectively steering an entire generation toward obesity, diabetes, and coronary problems. But the indirect problem might be worse: It is hard to trust science because it has a credibility issue that it earned. "I think science has earned its lack of credibility with the public. If you kick me in the balls for 20-years, how do you expect me to close my eyes and trust you?"

 
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  • (Score: 2) by kebes on Thursday February 05 2015, @06:10PM

    by kebes (1505) on Thursday February 05 2015, @06:10PM (#141581)
    I essentially agree with you, but...

    And (as he points out) the history of the scientific consensus (at least when related to diet) has been not just wrong, but BADLY wrong for decades. Virtually every established physician, dietician, or nutritionist 25 years ago would have told you fats were bad and should be avoided. ...

    I would like to point out that medical doctors, physicians, dieticians, and nutritionists are not scientists. (I'm trying not to commit a no true Scotsman [wikipedia.org] fallacy...) I think if you compared the consensus among those health-professionals to the consensus among scientists studying health, you would have found them to be quite different. In particular, even if they agreed on certain (ultimately erroneous) conclusion, scientists will tend to have a much better understanding of uncertainties, error-bars, shortcomings of studies, etc. In other words, scientists are almost always pointing out how one should not over-interpret a given result... only to have the media over-interpret the result and turn it into a simplified (and now incorrect) sound-bite. (For many of the examples cited in the rant, if you go back to an article from that time-period, you would find it painting a very different story from the media headlines.)

    To me, Scott Adams' rant highlights the age-old problem of science communication. The problem is that we have different groups operating:
    1. Scientists who do research
    2. Professionals who use/apply the results of science (medical doctors, etc.)
    3. The media, who report on science
    4. The public, who want a simple answer

    There is a filtration process, with the information getting progressively warped down the chain. The information is both becoming simplified (and thus becoming slightly wrong), while the inherent uncertainties and limitations are being dropped (and thus making the information highly misleading). The end result is that the public thinks there is a certain scientific consensus, when in fact there is not.

    So, I agree with Scott Adams' rant in the sense that I find the majority of science is mis-reported in the media, and even misunderstood by professionals. Doctors, for instance, are mostly not scientific in the way they do their work (so-much-so that we need to have a label--evidence-based medicine [wikipedia.org]--for the case where doctors actually try to apply science to their work); and I would not count their advice as representing scientific consensus. I'm not saying doctors are bad at their jobs. Their advice is, on average, better than doing nothing. However, their heuristics about health are not usually representative of the consensus among research-scientists.

    I'm not saying scientists are perfect. They make plenty of mistakes. The scientific consensus has been wrong on many occasions, and certainly issues of biology and medicine are extremely complex. So, by all means apply scepticism to the scientific consensus. However, we should also be aware that the apparent scientific consensus is very different from the 'real' scientific consensus (i.e. the opinions of research-scientists). We can't fix the problem until we understand its origin.

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  • (Score: 2) by MrGuy on Thursday February 05 2015, @06:19PM

    by MrGuy (1007) on Thursday February 05 2015, @06:19PM (#141587)

    I think if you compared the consensus among those health-professionals to the consensus among scientists studying health, you would have found them to be quite different. (snip)(For many of the examples cited in the rant, if you go back to an article from that time-period, you would find it painting a very different story from the media headlines.)

    Citation needed.

    • (Score: 2) by kebes on Thursday February 05 2015, @07:16PM

      by kebes (1505) on Thursday February 05 2015, @07:16PM (#141611)

      Citation needed.

      Fair enough; but where are Scott Adams' citations?

      For many of the things the rant quotes, the "proof" that he's wrong is actually the fact that no one can point to a scientific study making the claim. E.g.: - The whole "8 glasses of water a day" didn't come [snopes.com] from a scientific study.
      - The various incarnations of the US food guides were not based purely on input from scientists, but rather have a long history of being co-opted by special interest groups [harvard.edu].
      - The rant even notes "The reason you take one multivitamin pill a day is marketing, not science." I.e.: it was not the scientific consensus arguing for their relevance (see, e.g., this [nih.gov] for the scientific consensus: they usually won't do much good).

      As for supporting my contention that scientific studies are cautious and tend to acknowledge limitations (especially compared to the media)... well, you can pick up just about any scientific medical journal. Here's an example, related to the rant's discussion of fatty acids making people fat: In Dietary Approaches to Obesity [soylentnews.org], the authors note: "...the optimal diet composition quality for weight loss is far from known. The major controversy seems to be between choosing low-fat or low-carbohydrate diets, with additional debates on the importance of the glycemic index and the amounts of dairy products and calcium. It is evident from many large, randomized trials that the "best diet" that can suit everyone has yet to be identified. The different options for low-calorie diets should be prescribed on an individual basis..."

      Here's another example [bmj.com], related to alcohol consumption, from 14 years ago (presumably within the time-period decried by the rant?), noting: "...the effect of “moderate” alcohol consumption on overall health remains controversial" and "Genetic factors modify the effect of alcohol consumption on risk of CHD, resulting in population variability in the amount of benefit achieved from alcohol consumption" and then detailing the details about drinking patterns, gender, etc. This is quite different from the simplistic "alcohol good for health" Adams states.

      More examples could be found, but actually Adams' rant is so vague and un-sourced that it's difficult to provide specific counter-evidence. He does not provide evidence that the scientific community was confidently supporting the take-home-messages he lists.

      • (Score: 2) by FatPhil on Saturday February 07 2015, @01:02PM

        by FatPhil (863) <{pc-soylent} {at} {asdf.fi}> on Saturday February 07 2015, @01:02PM (#142204) Homepage
        > E.g.: - The whole "8 glasses of water a day" didn't come from a scientific study.

        With a link to http://www.snopes.com/medical/myths/8glasses.asp

        Which contains the quote "Back in 1945 the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council stated that adults should take in about 2.5 liters of water per day (which is roughly the equivalent of eight glasses of water)"

        And the NRC are "To meet the government's urgent need for an independent adviser on scientific matters, President Lincoln signed a congressional charter forming the National Academy of Sciences in 1863 to "investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science." As science began to play an ever-increasing role in national priorities and public life, the National Academy of Sciences eventually expanded to include the National Research Council in 1916, the National Academy of Engineering in 1964, and the Institute of Medicine in 1970."

        I'm sorry, but that confirms that scientists did say you need an intake equivalent to 8 glasses of water rather than denying it. (However, the rest of the sentence that I partially quoted does contain the most important part of their payload.)
        --
        I know I'm God, because every time I pray to him, I find I'm talking to myself.