Pseudoscience-Proof Your Brain- Part 2

Pseudoscience and the Internet Mom Force(5)

Catch-Up with Part 1 here!

The way I see it, there’s two ways to pseudoscience-proof yourself when it comes to nutrition. You can either study and learn a lot about science and your body and nutrition or you can know how to find the people who have and take their advice. The first way requires a lot of time and energy and maybe some cash too. If you really (really) love nutrition and want to do this, please find some School of Food Healing Science and Nutrition Lovecredible places to do your research and get any credentials you want. No, google does not count and neither does the “School of Food Healing Science and Nutrition Love” that your quirky neighbor holds in his basement. Even if he gives out certificates at the end.  I get the sentiment to stick it to the man, but big universities and organizations like the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics are the best we have right now. And while they’re far from perfect, they’re still a better way to get good knowledge and information than your cousin Sal’s blog. Just sayin’.

If you, like most people, just want to know what to believe and what to ignore then you need to know where to go to get your info. Just googling a question will inevitably get you bad info. Why? Because the most popular sites, blogs and videos will come up. And the truth of the matter is, common sense nutrition and science are not exciting (or popular). If you’re looking to nutrition for some excitement in your life, may I suggest you turn that search elsewhere? Maybe take a fun trip? Read a good novel? For good, up-to-date information, I generally rely on sites run by research hospitals. My favorite is the Mayo Clinic because they will also give you reliable information on alternative therapies as well.

You also need to understand how research and published studies work. Just because a fancy schmancy study says something doesn’t mean that you should necessarily believe it. But it’s science! Yes, but scientific research is conducted by people. And while these people would like to have you believe that they are completely unbiased, they are not. Large universities and their professors are under tremendous pressure to publish. And unfortunately, that can result in data being presented in certain ways to make it appear much more significant than it actually is. Or lead to research methods being set up in ways that produce more significant results.  Often research shows us that something didn’t work.  And we should be happy to know that, but that’s not exciting. A study that shows that mega-dosing vitamin supplements will do nothing to cure pink eye is not near as exciting as one that says it will- so it wont get much attention. And while there’s a lot of great scientific journals out there with very high standards, there’s also some that will publish anything that comes there way for a fee. Yikes!

Most of us depend on the news media to filter scientific news for us. After all, do you have a stack of scientific journals sitting on your night stand? But you still need to keep your pseudoscience radar up when it comes to the news. Let me tell you a fun little story to show why. Last year, a journalist named John Bohannan and some of his buddies played a fun little prank on the news media (click here for the full story). They recruited subjects for an actual nutrition study. The thing is, they purposely set up a bad study measuring the weight loss benefits of choUntitled designcolate.  Shameful, I know.  Nobody should mess with chocolate.

In the end, their data showed that a group who ate chocolate along with a low carb diet lost weight 10% faster (what does that even mean?!) than the group on the low-carb diet alone.  So, the chocolate did work, right?!  No, sorry.  Remember?  They purposefully set up a bad study.  The number of study participants was way too small to show anything of value. They also measured 18 different things for this study. And if you measure a whole bunch of things on a small group of people, chances are pretty good that you will find something that is statistically significant. Kinda like a false positive.

But that didn’t keep John Bohannan and his sneaky little buddies from taking his experiment one step further.  Tricky fellow that he is, he used the name, Johannes Bohannan, to submit the study to a number of “scientific” journals with lower standards. And guess what, his terrible study got published. Like right away. And then, John and his friends put out a press release about their ridiculous chocolate study. And news outlets worldwide published articles all about it. You probably even read one. These articles made no mention of the fact that the study size was so small that the results meant nothing. They didn’t mention all of the measurements that showed absolutely no difference. And they didn’t mention that both the chocolate and non-chocolate eating groups pretty much lost the same amount of weight or that John paid to get this study published in a fancy sounding scientific journal with no standards.  Oh yeah, and they definitely didn’t mention that Johannes Bohannan is a made up name. You know why? Because most of the journalists probably didn’t even read past their press release. And we eat up any news telling us to eat more chocolate, even if it’s the nasty tasting bitter kind. We just assume that they really meant to eat more Twix and happily dig into our kid’s Halloween stashes cause the news reporter said it’s ok.

So, the next time you hear a nutrition study being reported, put your pseudoscience detector glasses on. You know how coffee is good for you one month and bad for you the next? That’s because you can find a study to support almost anything you want. Review studies (ones that analyze a whole bunch of different studies on the same thing) are the best. These articles look at all of the studies on chocolate and weight loss and tell you what the majority are pointing to. Also, does the reporter tell you how the study was conducted? How many participants over how long? If there’s not a lot of this kind of info and details. Don’t trust it.

And if taking the time to figure these things out makes you feel a little sweaty and like you wanna take a nap, then I give you full permission to completely ignore all of it. You can just go back to good resources like the Mayo Clinic and good textbooks that filter all of this for you. Or talk to your doctor or a dietitian. Just be careful if you’re getting your nutrition information from Facebook or the nightly news.

Join me next week as we take on The Internet Mom Force (yes, I’m going there – and yes, I’m a little nervous.  They scare me too.)

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