Posted on 18 Aug 2012 23:19
By Eric Troy
Not a week goes by when someone doesn't bring up his/her mistrust of science. No area of science has less trust these days than those associated with nutrition and health.
How can we trust science when science constantly contradicts itself? That is what people ask.
It's the wrong question. You see, science cannot contradict itself. It's a concept, a way of gathering knowledge. Scientists can, however, contradict each other. And that is a good thing! That is part of how science works. Scientists review and question other scientists findings. They may seek to replicate the results of a certain study or experiment. Ah…now we're on to something.
Surprising New Egg Yolk Finding
Replication of results is a cornerstone of the scientific process. Recently, a study was reported which found egg yolk eating to be as bad as cigarette smoking in terms of cholesterol raising. It made the rounds on Facebook and, as you can guess, most everybody was quite tired of this whole egg yolk fiasco.
This single study was reported, for instance on a site called "ScienceDaily" which constantly reports single new studies: Egg Yolk Consumption Almost as Bad as Smoking When It Comes to Atherosclerosis, Study Suggests.
Notice that the title says that the study "suggests" this thing. However, the small blurb underneath the title, uses language quite different:
Newly published research led by Western's Dr. David Spence shows that eating egg yolks accelerates atherosclerosis in a manner similar to smoking cigarettes.
Now, the study SHOWS that eating egg yolks is like smoking cigarettes in terms of atherosclerosis. Not suggests anymore. It shows.
A single study, even a very good one, cannot show anything. It can only suggest that maybe, just maybe. Replication of results.
Are you tired of hearing about egg yolks?
I know I am.
Image by Paul Goyette via wikimedia
The Problem With Media Reporting
The problem, however, is that the media, be it internet websites, news organizations, magazine, etc. have no understanding of the scientific process whatsoever. In fact, even if they hire a person with scientific credentials, it may not help.
Yet most people get the majority of their nutrition and health information from television news, magazine articles, internet news websites, etc. These organizations have deadlines and often rush to "print" without checking the facts.
An even bigger problem, at present, however, is the constant reporting of single studies as if a single study represents a new nutrition paradigm. They report these findings prematurely, without any interpretation, without peer replication, and without peer review. These "SURPRISING FINDINGS" from single studies, just released the day before, if not the same day, are the bane of accurate and reliable nutrition education and info.
The reporters and news organizations are not as concerned with the accuracy of the information as they are with reporting "exciting" new things, hopefully before another organization does. The conclusions and findings are twisted and even when the findings are not conclusive, they are reported as if they are meaningful.
Number One Criteria to Report on a New Study
To add to our problems and our frustration, the number one criteria that any news organization uses to choose which to report on of the thousands of studies published is this: Does the study run contrary to current health and nutrition recommendations? All the other studies that do not run contrary to current recommendations, but further support them, they are not reported on! If you only get one take home point from this article, this would be an excellent one. Even if you are going to report on a contrary study, it is your responsibility to say something about how it fits with the other evidence on the subject. This is the most important question we can ask!
How Can We Trust Science with Scientists Always Contradicting Each Other?
Well, perhaps you can see now that often, scientists (plural) are not contradicting each other. One scientist is contradicting most other scientists. A trick of psychology is to believe that one dissenting viewpoint outweighs the popular viewpoint, giving these lone voices more power than they sometimes deserve.
Of course, with so many new studies being published every day, and with so many of them being reported by the media, these surprising new headlines often contradict each other! When the scientists themselves, the university or other organization they work for, reports these findings to the media before any peer review the problem becomes worse. How can we trust science, given all this?
I'll answer that. The scientific big picture rarely changes dramatically. There are certain things that, once you are aware of them, you can count on them. The "science," in other words, is fairly static, with only small changes in our understanding happening. These small changes slowly contribute to a fundamental shift in understanding.
Nutrition is nothing like the laws of physics, but you can think of it like that. That is, you can't always count on scientists, but you can count on the laws of physics.
Back to the Egg Debacle
However, the article about the egg study makes no attempt whatsoever to consider any other findings which may shed light on this single study. There is no interpretation, and there is no attempt to provide any skeptical counterpoint from a qualified peer. Certainly, there is no thought given whatsoever to the validity of the methods used in the study, which would be covered by peer review, should it exist. What do we do with this information, as consumers?
Hardly anyone that I know took it seriously. But you can bet many many other people did. Why shouldn't they? That is what we are here to find out.
Similar to what I've already mentioned, many science types will say, well, how was the methodology? Was it a "quality" study? That is certainly important. Other scientists, reviewing the paper, will ask these questions, and answer them with their take on the soundness of the methodology and the appropriateness of the conclusions. However…
I'll let you in on a little secret. There are thousands of crappy studies published all the time. People have this vision that when some controversial new study, overturning everything that came before it, comes along, hundreds of distinguished scientists go on a crusade to check all the P's and Q's and a big battle ensues.
Well, most of the time, when they see some clearly flawed piece of crap study, you know what they do? They ignore it! Why? Everybody needs priorities, man! Not everything is worthy of our time. This is the same reason I don't examine every new workout program or fitness book that comes out. Even though people expect me to. Whether this particular study is being ignored I do not know. But it is not likely to be receiving a lot of attention.
The egg yolk study has been reported on hundreds of web sites by this time. Out of those hundreds, perhaps one or two have the knowledge and ability to analyze the paper. Yet, all you have to go by are the sensational reports of this surprising new finding.
Furthermore, to actually read this study in its entirety, you will have to pay 32 bucks. Who is going to do that? Do you think all the websites reporting this story payed the 32 dollars to buy the full text? I can assure you that they did not. They simply reported the very limited information that was available in the preview. This consists of a very brief summary report of the background, methods, results, and interpretation. That, and a quote from a study author is all you're usually getting from these online articles.
There are many very important details you do not know, and you may not be able to interpret them if you did. Also, you have no sources. For instance, what sources did the author(s) use to come to their hypothesis? Where do we read about the link between cigarette smoking and arteriosclerosis? How does this compare to another food? Why wasn't another food compared? What would be considered a "control" in this study? Where did the information come from for this study and can we consider it accurate and reliable? How was it determined that egg yolks build up plaque "2/3's" as much as smoking? What is P<0.0001? What is multiple regression? Do you know? Do the reporters know?
Do you trust that the reason to trust this study is because the person who performed it is an authority figure? Or do you think that because it was reported on news sites it must be accurate and important? I think I have probably shown you that neither of these assumptions are safe.
Yet, if you have seen one of these articles, you probably found yourself, once again, getting a little fed up with the constantly conflicting information. After all, you have been led to believe, as of late, that moderate consumption of egg yolks (and 3 egg yolks per week is certainly moderate) is not bad for you and may even be healthy. You may have read that certain people may be more sensitive to dietary cholesterol than others but that there is no particular need to be concerned. And, you probably have read that eggs are generally considered a healthy food, yolks and all. Then comes new "science" to confuse you, and piss you off. Before it was milk, now it's eggs.
Well, now you know. All that stuff you have read and been told, it hasn't changed! Because all the evidence that lead to these very moderate views on egg consumption is still the preponderance of evidence on the subject. This was ONE study. It does not overturn everything that came before it. That is not how it works. When and if our basic understanding of egg consumption changes in a "big picture" way, you will know.
Your mantra, when dealing with these large and sudden changes in the scientific status-quo must become: Science is a slow and deliberate process.
This page created 18 Aug 2012 23:19
Last updated 06 Aug 2016 19:19