Sensational Science: Don’t Believe the Hype

tattered truthOne of my pet peeves is hearing people make radical health and nutritional claims because they heard it from one of their favorite actors or politicians.  I feel that as a scientist with the background in biochemistry and physiology, I am civically responsible for evaluating these claims and helping people understand the truth. Now, I’ll admit that it is difficult to refute claims in a way that sounds constructive and not self-righteous and to strike a balance between being helpful and nosing into someone else’s business.

Remember the oat bran craze of the 80s?  We had finally found the cure to heart disease! All people needed to do to lower cholesterol was eat more oat bran, and Quaker stock skyrocketed! Oat bran cookbooks were flying off the rack and companies even began to market potato chips enriched with oat bran! It wasn’t long before the media began to report that while oat bran was an important part of a balanced diet, eating truckloads of the stuff wouldn’t necessarily keep your arteries clean. The American Heart Association even cautioned against this fad because of the limited research available about oat bran.

How did this happen? Claims about oat bran were taken directly from the scientific literature, which triggered the media frenzy about the magic food.  Did science get it wrong?  The answer to this question is more complicated than a simple yes or no answer.  Scientific research is very dynamic and complex discipline. Research articles published in peer-reviewed journals such as New England Journal of Medicine, Nature, Science, and many more describe studies designed to answer a question the researcher is asking. Particularly when dealing with health and nutrition claims, it is extremely difficult to design a single study that will give a result that applies to everyone on the planet because we are all so different from one another.  A study done looking at 200 healthy white people may yield dramatically different results from a study looking at 200 healthy Latino people. Studies with 200 people may yield different results from studies containing 20 or 2000 people.  It is for this reason that the Food and Drug Administration requires multiple, extensive studies to be done before it will make any claims about food or allow new medication to be prescribed.

Bottom line is that it is irresponsible and can even be dangerous for media outlets to scan the scientific literature and develop sensational titles based on a single research study related to health or nutrition. For example, St. John’s Wort was touted as a natural alternative to medication to treat depression. When people hear “natural” or “herbal” they tend to think “safer” and “better than medication.”  The truth is that there is little regulation of the “natural” or “herbal” industry.  Many people ran into health problems when St. John’s Wort was found to interact with many common heart medications, pain relievers, and even birth control pills! We are in an age with the amazing ability to access seemingly unlimited amounts of technical information by conducting a simple Google search. However, when this amazing ability is combined with a societal value demanding immediate answers and simple solutions, technical information is often misconstrued.

Try to resist the temptation of a quick fix because if it sounds to good to be true, it probably is!

The important thing to remember is that it is great for the general public to take responsibility for their health and nutrition and try to understand the world around them. However, many scientists publishing research spend years in college and graduate school learning every intricate detail about their discipline. It does not make sense that anyone in the general public should be able to pick up a scientific journal and make sense of the information in the same way that a trained scientist can, just as it does not make sense that a trained scientist should be able to replace the brakes on their car without proper training.

We should be able to trust the media and news outlets to report to us a fair and balanced account of what is happening in our world.  In these days of high demand for information, rewards for breaking stories quickly, but not (necessarily) accurately, it has become quite difficult to trust what we hear or read. You would think we would have learned after the oat bran craze came to a screeching halt (also based on a single scientific study), but sensational claims are made in the media on a daily basis.

What is the truthI came across a wonderful website designed to help the general public out with just this issue called Sense About Science. Their webpage has the very appropriate tag line of “equipping people to make sense of science and evidence.”  This non-profit group, based in the United Kingdom, has a database of over 5,000 highly trained scientists that evaluate claims made in the media or by celebrities and provide an explanation of why those claims may or may not be true.  One of the more interesting features on the site is their Celebrities and Science Review.  Each year, they pull statements from celebrities that have gotten press coverage and ask scientists in related disciplines to discuss the merit of these statements. The reason why it is important to look at statements made by celebrities is because of the impact these statements have.  We look up to celebrities and if a beautiful Super Model is sharing her “secret to her perfect body,” many of us will be inclined to take her statement and run with it without any further thought.  The publication list on this site also contains a series of primers such as “Making Sense about Chemistry” or “Making Sense about GM” explaining the scientific truth about genetically-modified crops.

The take home message of this post is that if you are a scientist, be responsible in your reporting and use your knowledge to help friends and family members make sense of claims made in the news in a way that is helpful and kind. If you are not a scientist (or you are, but a claim is made about something outside of your area of expertise), make sure you do your homework. Try to resist the temptation of a quick fix, because if it sounds to good to be true, it probably is!

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Karen Reece

Senior Research Scientist at Promega Corporation
Karen is a Senior Research Scientist in Nucleic Acid Technologies at Promega. She has a BS in Biochemistry and MS and PhD in Physiology, all from University of Wisconsin-Madison. Karen was born and raised in Madison, WI and every time she would think of moving away something would come up, so she just decided to stay. When she’s not doing research and/or development, Karen enjoys the local music scene (particularly Hip-Hop), playing the cello and singing, and fighting for social justice.

One thoughtful comment

  1. Hi Karen,
    I enjoyed your post. One of the best sites I have seen for evaluating medical news (especially those “the latest study says….” articles) is Health News Reviews They have a host of well qualified panelists, a set of criteria that they have published for evaluating stories, and each story is evaluated by more than one topic expert. It’s a great site.

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