A note on science

In my forthcoming book In Defense of Processed Food: It’s Not Nearly as Bad as You Think, I wrote the following about how science is frequently perceived in society today:

Contrary to popular belief, science is not about certainty. It is more concerned about reducing uncertainty. It is not as much about providing answers as it is about asking questions to get us closer and closer to the truth. In our polarized society, scientific results have become pawns in the ideological battle that pervades modern America. Too frequently, results that are compatible with an ideology represent proof of strongly held beliefs, while those concepts that are not compatible are rejected out of hand. Physicists and chemists design experiments that provide yes-or-no answers, either something happens or it doesn’t, such as an explosion or some other clearly measurable event. Nutritionists and food scientists conduct experiments and draw inferences based on probabilities. The world is more complex than the yes/no world we envision and crave.

Too often society is disappointed in the uncertainty surrounding health outcomes, particularly when it comes to food and diet. We seem to want to be sure that the foods we eat and those we serve to our families are going to be “good for us” and not lead to health consequences either now or sometime in the future. Unfortunately, the science of nutrition and related sciences are not as certain as canned, school science experiments suggested. There we followed the scientific method, wrote out a hypothesis, followed a series of steps and usually ended up with a clear result that was anticipated to “prove” what we knew before we started. Those of us that did not get the expected result obviously did not follow the procedure properly. In real laboratories, science doesn’t work that way. Frequently, the hypothesis is replaced by an objective. In a well-designed experiment, the results are not as clear-cut, and scientists use statistics to see if the results strongly suggest an answer. Other labs in other states or countries may do similar experiments and draw contradictory conclusions.

For those of us who are uncomfortable with ambiguous information on diet and health, we turn to authors of books and blogs that simplify the science for us. We do not need to look far to find certainty about health and well-being as it comes to food. Qualifications and scientific background are not as important as the ability to state an opinion clearly and forcefully. I call these commentators the “food pundits,” and anyone who bans all uncertainty from their writings as “hedgehogs.” As described by Nate Silver in The Signal and the Noise: Why so Many Predictions Fail—but Some Don’t, hedgehogs rule in our news media. Scientists, are more nuanced in their pronouncements and take on the role of foxes using Silver’s term.

One of the tricks used by food-pundit hedgehogs is the selection of the conclusion of a single study which supports a prevailing view to “prove” that they were right all along. In the description, any qualifications made by the researcher, are stripped away and any contradictions from other studies are ignored. When reading the scientific literature, science foxes look to reviews that help place the subject into a more realistic, but less satisfying perspective. In my book, whenever possible, I relied on review articles and studies that compared results from many studies before I drew conclusions. In this blog I will try to approach the topic more like a fox and less like a hedgehog.

For a website that highlights current understanding on nutrition science, I go to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Two sites that I have also found to be particularly helpful are http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/moore and http://psufoodscience.typepad.com/.

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