Making Sense of Conflicting Science

science and dietI read an article in the New York Post Times last week about kids and vegetarianism (Kids say veg of allegiance via vegan.com). While most of the article talks about the merits of vegetarianism, there is also a warning that a vegetarian diet is risky and can cause anemia, poor brain development and stunted growth in children. Setting the validity of these claims aside for a moment, this got me thinking about conflicting science.

Soya is safe. Soya is not safe. Antiperspirants are safe. They are not safe. Use anti-bacterial soap. Don’t use anti-bacterial soap. You need meat. You shouldn’t eat meat. For every study that shows something is good or safe I can find countless other studies that show they are not (I recently came across a report calling vitamin supplements snake oil).

With so much contradictory advice, how do you make the right decisions related to your health, diet and lifestyle? With all the information pushed at us via the media and at the our fingertips the Internet, how do we know what to believe?

I have a way to deal with this that works well. To continue reading this post, click here >>

The first thing you have to realize about science is that most research is agenda driven. Often corporations or special interest groups fund research to prove a point and it is not difficult to design a study that supports a certain viewpoint. In fact it is really easy. For instance, I could conduct a study that shows no adverse effects from smoking, as long as I make the duration of the study short enough. And if I omit the duration of the study altogether, I could easily imply that there are no risks associated with smoking (btw – I was actually able to find a British Medical Journal study as recent as 2003 that showed no ill effects of second hand smoke!).

Secondly, the Internet has served to promote bad science. People express an opinion which is quoted by another site and another and before long becomes accepted fact.

It is easy to check references on the Internet to see if a reference is made up or based on a study, but since I am not a scientist, it is more difficult to interpret research results, or analyze the validity of the test itself. Ideally I would recreate the tests in my own lab, but that is practically impossible.

So here is is how I decide:

1. Who is the Source – when I see a position stated on the Internet or in an article, I look to see if there is a reference to a study or an expert. For instance, a quick background check of author Nina Planck who is positioned as an expert in the New York Post article above, shows that she has no scientific credentials and is in fact a business person.

2. What is the Agenda – studies are usually commissioned by someone, usually with an agenda. When the dairy board tells me that milk is critical part of a healthy diet, I take it with a grain of salt and am skeptical. I am usually looking at good marketing not good science. I tend to have to more faith in research from a organization with no ties to any business or a University (although even schools get funding from business and could conceivably be influenced by an agenda).

3. What I Know – I don’t need a study to show me that seat-belts protect you in an accident. I have seen them work first hand. Similarly I don’t need science to tell me that processed food is toxic, because I know how I have felt after eating some.

3. I Apply Good Judgment – We are blessed with the ability to think. If I can read about a study and feel there is integrity in the research process and findings, then I decide if it makes sense to me. If I can’t validate research, I take all the conflicting data into consideration and apply my own conclusions carefully or in moderation. For instance, I can’t get comfortable with all the conflicting data on soya, so I have reduced consumption, but not eliminated it entirely. Sometimes, I will just take the safest path altogether and just avoid exposure to something that may or may not be harmful avoiding Aluminum in antiperspirants for example).

Applying these rules to separate good and bad science and decipher conflicting research has helped me stay healthy and live with peace of mind for many years.

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