Science moves in mysteries ways. Despite its goal to be an objective tool describing the world as it is, science, when used by us humans, is not objective. Once a result, mathematical formula or any data acquired is interpreted the objectivity seizes to exist. And this is exactly how it should be. Data are worthless if not interpreted by someone.
So the trouble with science, when there is trouble that is, is not in science per se, but in the interpretation. Unfortunately, peoples interpretations of science can make you pull your hair out in frustration. This is what I imagine Dr. B.G. is doing here.
An article on low carb dieting appeared yesterday in one of the biggest Norwegian newspapers. A doctor using the diet explained how it worked and the reporter had asked the opinion of two people with relations to the national dietary committee. They of course were very skeptic towards low carb. Their main arguments were that low carb increased the risk of heart disease due to larger saturated fat intake and that the diets did not provide sufficient micronutrients. Frustrated as always, when reading crap like this, I thought to myself that there can only be two reasons these so called experts can argument like this. 1, they are ignorant. That is, they don’t actually know what they’re talking about, but won’t admit it or aren’t aware of their own ignorance (this is what I think is most common) or 2, that they are in fact lying. The two options are easy to deduce, because science (the wonderful objective tool we use to explore the truth) has shown the arguments mentioned to be wrong. Not completely, never to be anything other than wrong wrong, but wrong with a very very high probability, so much that we can safely say that they are wrong.
The trouble with saying saturated fat intake has been found to correlate with heart disease as one of the Norwegian “experts” claimed, is that the statement doesn’t even resemble the truth. What is more frustrating is that the people reading the article are given only this seemingly authoritative statement. The truth, on the other hand is given no attention. The truth is that, yes saturated fat has been found to correlate with heart disease, but such a correlation is less frequently found than no correlation at all and if all data are seen as one no correlation exists. So the truth is that there is no correlation. But even if a correlation was frequently found it would still be a horrible argument. We need more than correlations. We need likely physiological explanations for how saturated fat may cause heart disease. These either do not exist, or I have done a horrible job trying to find them.
The trouble with correlation
One of the largest misuses or misinterpretations in health science lies in the interpretations of correlations. A correlation is when to events or factors occur in relation to one another. Shoe size for example, might be found to correlate with intelligence. That is, if we do a study of a large number of people of different ages measuring their intelligence with a standard test and measuring their shoe size, we are likely to find that those with larger feet generally score higher on an intelligence test. The reason is not that brainpower is increased by larger foot size, but that younger people with smaller feet get lower scores on a standardized test than those more adult with larger feet. Thus, shoe size and intelligence correlate. They are related somehow. The important part to remember from this story is to not surgically enhance your foot size in order to increase your intelligence.
Some studies have found that overweightness and obesity correlates with reduced physical activity. There are again, at first glance, two likely explanations for this. 1, that physical inactivity causes overweight or 2, that overweight cause physical inactivity. There is also a third option depending on our definitions – it is that both overweight and physical inactivity may be causes of a common underlying factor. Such a factor could be a hormonal pattern that causes a great fat storage at the same time making energy reserves needed for physical activity unavailable. Thus overweight and physical inactivity may be brought on by the same underlying cause. Still, the correlation does not tell us that increasing physical activity will make us lose weight.
|Now why cant I find this at the gym?|
Lately overweight and obesity is blamed on lack of physical activity. Claiming lack of physical activity directly causes overweight makes just as much sense as saying dieting causes overweight (although if people diet using low fat low calorie diets the latter part actually is quite probable). Strange as it may seem dieting also correlate with overweight. Luckily for us when we encounter correlations like these we (most of us anyway) have the wonderful gift of common sense. Although science as a tool strives to be as objective as possible all data must be interpreted by humans, thus making it subjective. Common sense however can reduce the risk of making grave errors in this interpretation process.
Quite recently a group of scientist found a correlation between meat intake and overweight. They quickly concluded that reducing meat intake might be an important step in fighting overweight. In this finding as in all other correlations there are many options for causality. One possibility of course is that meat actually does have a powerful effect on triglyceride storage in fat cells – a mechanism the scientists should have elaborated on. Another possibility is that meat is often consumed with other foods that are in fact causing overweight whether consumed with meat or not. This might make overweight and meat intake correlate without meat playing a causal role at all.
The trouble with us
The sum of our knowledge is far greater than any single human can have. A person can, no matter how supersmart he or she is, only know a small fraction of all existing knowledge. I don’t have time to learn why, according to string theory, the world must have 9 dimensions or 10 if we include time, and I definitely don’t have time to learn how to build a house. I have to take the professors, carpenters or text books word for it. What other choice do I have?
The national nutritional guidelines are faulty. In fact, all official nutritional guidelines I have seen are very poor and hardly ever qualify as strictly scientific. But the regular Joe out there has no other choice than to trust the guidelines and the purveyors of it. There are many people who share my view on nutritional guidelines, and many of us experience the disbelief regular Joe show when we tell him that the guidelines are wrong, and that “you should do as I say instead”. Of course there’s disbelief. If someone told me that smoking was super healthy, that the government was wrong and that I should smoke 20 a day, disbelief would be the primary emotion occupying my mind as well.
It’s all very, very frustrating and I find myself spending more and more time trying to think of ways to make all this go away. To make people see the errors of nutritional guidelines or any other pseudoscience for that matter. I also wish people in general would know that homeopathy is bollocks.
I sometimes think that if skepticism and argumentation theory was a larger part of what was being taught at schools, things might be better. But fantasizing of ancient Greek idealism, I find myself thinking that the Greeks were probably just as frustrated as I am. It seems an inborn human trait to not change views easily whether faced with better arguments or not. How else can we explain the current situation in nutritional science? Although good arguments aren’t enough, I still think all the scientists, bloggers, twitterers and other information spreaders out there fighting for the cause of proper use of science are doing a very important job. Perhaps the most important thing we can do at this time. Ah, well. As for me, I have found that nothing cures my frustrations like a cold beer, carb-filled or not.
Good to see you put out a post. I enjoy your thoughtful writing. I was trying to address something similar on my blog about African American and Minority health.
My niece and her newly minted husband were over the house and they were talking about some health issues they were having.
I thought to myself, «Well here we go again.» They are both young slightly obese Black people but they wouldn't stand out in a crowd because so many young Black people are overweight. I have tried and tried to talk to friends and relatives about their diets but to no avail.
I guess I can't blame them. I was pretty much like them before I was diagnosed as a diabetic. I do, however, have a science background and my diagnosis was so bizarre, I immediately hit Pubmed. There should be no way for me to be diabetic. I am thin, muscular, live on a bike and have no sign of antibody activity. It was very hard to find anything that matched my tests. Finally, I fell across the information about «Ketosis Prone Type 2 Diabetes.» There all my tests fit perfectly. At first it seemed like a rare type of diabetes, then I found that, far from being rare, that it was quite common amongst people of color especially African, Native and Mexican Americans. Using some numbers in a paper, I estimated conservatively that there had to be at least 1,000,000 diabetics of this kind in the US alone. Yet, you could find no mention of it even on sites that purported to deal with minority diabetes issues.
I was like my niece and her husband before the diagnosis, doing what should have been healthy, doing what the «experts» said I should do. I, however, was given a meter and could check what was happening to me and the experts and my meter were at odds. Obviously, I became skeptical but passing this skepticism to others I found nearly impossible.
I've no cache. I work in wastewater treatment, a field which gives you no credence when it comes to speaking on health issues. People look at me and say that they haven't heard anything about this from their doctors or in the news, so how can it be?
I think I've found a way, though. Diet recommendations change in the face of allergies. If you have a food allergy that food is strictly forbidden. I have begun to couch my information to friends and family in terms of that.
Now I don't try to tell them that the experts are wrong in terms of diet recommendations but that they are mildly allergic to certain foods and that the only way this allergy shows up is in the elevation of blood sugar. I tell them to eat whatever they want and after an hour, if they find their blood sugar is 140 or higher they should avoid that food.
Yeah, I know it's sneaky but it might have more effect than a cold beer.
Well you can guess the result of this. The nice part is that the onus is not on me. I am simply exploiting a crack the experts have left that allows people to make their own decisions on diet.
Hi Michael. Always strange but flattering to find that there are real people out there reading my ramblings.
Smart move with the allergy angle. It doesn't help much to have a health education in terms of convincing people their doctor might be wrong. It's remarkable how much trust we put in our doctors, but then again, what choice do we have. I'm going to have to find my own strategy to get my message across. Wish there could be a wonder argument I could pull to change opinions in one go. But none of the arguments I think are great work.
Thank you for reminding me that I need to read up on Ketosis Prone Type 2 Diabetes. I'm looking forward to reading your blog about it and doing some pubmeding.
Keep up the good work!
Nice essay Pal. Completely agree with your sentiments here and most definitely share your frustrations (though beer wouldn't be my choice of elixar!). I am bouyed by the amount of time and effort that bloggers such as yourself put into ensuring that the flow if information isn't from a singular and often poor source. I fantasise about the day when this grassroots movement hits a tipping point.
Keep fighting the fight – and enjoy that beer!
Thanks Jamie! Thought i noticed some frustrations in your recent insanity post. If ever there is a day things change due to a grassroots movement you are definitely an important part of it.
Besides, blogging is a great excuse to not do other more important stuff.
Good luck in NZ!