An epidemic has taken hold in our world. Despite its enormity, most people don’t notice it. The concerned voices of the few who do are drowned by the louder and more numerous voices of those who don’t. This is unfortunate, because the epidemic I’m talking about is very destructive: it inhibits our species’ ability to progress, it has caused untold harm to people’s health, and it lies like a huge Dementor over our collective minds, sucking out our creative and cognitive abilities.
I call this epidemic condition scienitis. The suffix –itis is typically used in pathological terms to denote inflammation. Basically, scienitis is the condition that results when science becomes infected and inflamed.
Signs of scienitis
A person who suffers from scienitis (i.e., an inflamed scientific mind)…
- … is unable to correctly interpret the findings of scientific studies.
- … doesn’t possess the tools or knowledge that are needed to make sense of science, but loudly voices his/her opinions about “what the science shows” nonetheless.
- … operates without the guidance of an evolutionary guide.
- … seeks out and cherry picks studies that support his/her beliefs and behaviors, while neglecting or bashing good research that isn’t to his/her liking.
- … bases his/her understanding of health, fitness, medicine, and other fields subjected to scientific scrutiny largely on fragmented information derived from observational studies, Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs), and meta analyses.
Note: Even the best of scientists can occasionally exhibit mild signs of scienitis. This is normal and is not problematic as long as the scienitic behavior is quickly eliminated.
Scienitis in action
I realise that scienitis may seem like an abstract and foreign concept to the average reader. For that reason, I thought I’d provide an example that shows how this condition can display itself.
As any dedicated nutrition student knows, several RCTs, observational studies, and meta-analyses have found that the consumption of whole grains seems to positively affect a range of health markers (e.g., LDL levels). A lot of people read these types of studies and jump to the conclusion that it’s healthy to eat a lot of whole grains, which isn’t surprising, given that this is a very natural conclusion to draw from this research.
It’s not necessarily a correct conclusion though.
It’s important to remember that scientific studies only tell us so much. They are limited by their inability to assess how several different factors interact and affect multiple health outcomes. In a typical scientific study, the goal is to assess how one factor (the exposure) impacts one or more other factors (the outcome(s)). There are both pros and cons to this type of set-up.
The hope with doing a study this way is that all of the potential observed effects are caused by the exposure. In other words, you want to keep all other variables besides the exposure out of the picture. This is easier said than done though. Even if you go to great lengths to control for covariates, chances are residual confounding will remain. This is particularly true if the study in question is of the observational kind. Moreover, chances are there are other factors besides confounders that need to be taken into account when the results are to be interpreted.
A common mistake when reading scientific studies is to only focus on the exposure(s) and outcome(s) under investigation, paying little attention to everything else. This is problematic, because this approach tends to yield incorrect conclusions. It’s always important to remember to look at the design and method section of a study before interpreting its findings.
For example, if we just scan over the results and conclusions of the aforementioned studies on whole grains, before considering how the studies were conducted, we may quickly jump to the conclusion that it’s healthy to eat several servings of whole-grain bread and pasta every day. However, if we dig a little deeper, we’ll likely see that there are several caveats that have to be kept in mind when interpreting the results of the studies.
Perhaps most importantly, the majority of the scientific experiments that have examined the health effects of whole grain consumption has compared whole grains with refined grains. Typically, one group is instructed to eat a set amount of whole grain products every day, whereas the other group is instructed to eat the same amount of refined grain products. All other variables are kept as similar as possible.
I think the observant reader will quickly understand what the limitations of this design are.
Typically, these types of studies show better health outcomes in the group eating whole grains, which isn’t really surprising, as whole grains have a lower glycemic index than refined grains and contain more fiber, vitamins, and minerals. They also contain more antinutrients, but the potential harm that these compounds may cause is typically outweighed by the beneficial effects of the aforementioned substances.
What is important to note is that the results of these studies merely indicate that it’s better to eat whole grains than refined grains. Unlike what some people seem to believe, they don’t prove that it’s better to eat whole grains than no grains. To examine that hypothesis, you would have to carry out studies comparing grain-free diets with grain-containing diets.
As the regular readers of this blog probably know, this has been done. For example, several clinical trials have compared Paleo-style diets with diets rich in whole grains. These studies indicate that it may actually be better to not eat whole grains. However, it should be noted that even these studies have their weaknesses, one of which is that they don’t fully account for all of the different nutritional variables that affect human health.
This example about whole grains is not an anomaly. I have a whole host of other, similar examples lined up. However, to keep this article from getting very long, I won’t share them here. If you want to read more stories about scenitis I suggest you check out my article entitled The Pitfall of Evidence-Based Nutrition & Medicine.
The message I’m trying to get across here is not that all grains are evil or that we shouldn’t pay attention to the results of RCTs, meta-analyses, and other scientific studies. Rather, the message I’m trying to get across is that it’s important to be cautious and smart when interpreting the findings of scientific experiments. Moreover, perhaps more importantly, it’s important to possess a conceptual framework that allows you to make sense of what you’re reading. Unless you possess such a framework, you may quickly jump to the wrong conclusions when reading scientific papers.
A serious condition
To the average Joe, scienitis may not seem like a very serious condition. However, to someone who regularly reads and enjoys scientific papers (such as myself), it undoubtedly does.
The fact is that scienitis is a very destructive phenomenon that causes a lot of harm. The scienitis epidemic is probably the number one reason why there is currently so much conflict within nutrition, fitness, and medicine, and why the public is so confused about diet and health.
If all journalists, health practitioners, medical scientists, and other people who convey science to the public possessed basic knowledge about evolution, statistics, and biology and knew how to go about interpreting scientific findings, there would be much less chaos within health, nutrition, and medicine.
These aren’t the only disciplines that suffer at the hand of scienitis – far from it. However, they are particularly susceptible to become infected with this condition, due to the fact that they lack a solid conceptual foundation. They don’t stand as firm as disciplines such as evolutionary biology or cosmology, which are built on a solid foundation of conceptual theories and concepts.
Caution! It’s not safe to venture into the depths of PubMed unless you’re accompanied by an evolutionary guide
When an evolutionary biologist reads a study or scientific paper, he interprets what he reads in the light of evolution. Basically, he lets his knowledge about biology and evolution guide him through the reading and interpretation process.
The same cannot be said for the average dietitian, fitness enthusiast, or medical doctor. Unlike the evolutionary biologist, these people aren’t accompanied by an evolutionary guide. They have to try to find the correct path on their own. Unfortunately, history has shown us that this is very difficult.
People who venture into the realm of science without the company of an evolutionary guide typically get lost and confused and end up in places where they shouldn’t be.
Having an evolutionary guide doesn’t guarantee that you find your way; however, it does significantly increase the likelihood that you do, because the evolutionary guide helps you make sense of what you see as you travel through the realm of science. It helps you understand why the findings of the studies you come across are what they are; why some clinical trials show conflicting results; which research papers that are worth looking into, and which ones that are not; and how you should go about finding the things you’re looking for.
It’s important to look at the totality of the evidence
The earlier example about whole grains should have made it clear that it’s important to look at the totality of the evidence. It’s a recipe for disaster to base your understanding of a specific issue on just a couple of studies. This is true even if the studies in question are meta-analyses. Meta-analyses can be very useful; however, it’s important to remember that they are only as good as the studies they are based on. Moreover, they have some inherent weaknesses, one of which is that they often fail to pick up the nuances that present themselves in individual trials.
I would argue that in order to get where we need to go, we have to consider the evidence as a whole and look at the issue at hand from several different angles. We have to look into the biological mechanisms at play, examine the evolutionary evidence, and go through the scientific literature. When that’s all done, we shouldn’t just jump straight to a conclusion, but rather take a step back and mentally organize and think about the information we’ve absorbed. Only then can we truly get somewhere.
This process probably seems foreign and unfamiliar to most people; which is exactly why most people would be wise to temper their voice when they express their opinions about “what the science shows”. To someone who is well-versed in the scientific process, however, the behaviors above are second nature: they occur naturally. Hence, these individuals are obviously more qualified to speak about scientific findings than the aforementioned average Joes. With that said, even the experienced brain can make mistakes. Having a well-trained eye doesn’t guarantee success.
It takes a lot of time and practice to get “good at science”. Often, the road to getting good is filled with mistakes. I know I’ve certainly made quite a bit of “mistakes” over the years. What I’ve learned, though, is that making mistakes is an inevitable part of the learning process. All you can do is try to be cautious and smart and limit the severity and fallout of the mistakes you make. These are principles I continue to adhere to. Sometimes, I fall short; however, when I do, I try to quickly rein myself in.