Science fiction: Research shows ‘research’ just grabbing headlines

By Lenore Skenazy

Oh to be a scientist 50 or 60 years ago, warning people about the stuff they really needed to know: Stop smoking! Don’t take thalidomide if you’re pregnant! For God’s sake, ditch the Corvair unless you want to get impaled on your gear shift!

Your findings would make headlines and the people reading about them would end up safer and healthier. Score.

But today, the safest time in human history, a time in which Americans are living a full six years longer than even in 1990, you can’t turn on your media device without hearing about another new thing you supposedly must stop doing, eating, touching, breathing immediately — or else. Coffee! Lack of coffee! Plastic bottles, cell phones, genetically modified organisms. Non-organic cantaloupe! My gosh, the Environmental Working Group can’t stop warning us about lipstick: “Millions of women get a little bit of toxic lead on their lips each day with every swipe of their lipstick,” a press release says.

OK, that sounds scary, but are they dropping dead? See earlier paragraph: We are living longer than ever today, and that doesn’t seem to be because women have stopped wearing lipstick.

It is precisely that disconnect that drove Dr. Geoffrey Kabat to write his new book, “Getting Risk Right: Understanding the Science of Elusive Health Risks.” Kabat is a cancer epidemiologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. He has published 140 scientific papers on the factors that play a role in causing cancer and other diseases. And he is sick of watching the rest of us wake up and get warned that if we do X (it’s always changing), we will regret it till the day we die.

Which will be next Thursday.

“You need to make distinctions,” the doctor told me in a phone interview. There’s a difference between large-scale, long term, replicated studies and the fly-by-night “breakthroughs” that the media loves to report on.

Kabat is quick to remind us of the big, proven health risks we can actually get a handle on: Don’t overdrink. Quit smoking. Lose weight and get some exercise. Go for effective screenings, have your kids vaccinated, and if somehow you can avoid poverty and depression, more power to you: Those are real risks, too.

And yet, that “boring” list takes a back seat to the danger du jour: Drinking hot tea or using nail polish. What gives?

“There is a crisis in the field of biomedicine,” he writes, the crisis of “hyper-competitiveness.”

We civilians tend to think of researchers sitting in their labs, conducting experiments with only humanity’s welfare in mind. But the truth is scientists also have to make a living. That means, “they may feel the need to overstate the importance of their work in order to attract attention and obtain funding,” Kabat writes. And increasingly, they are publishing results that cannot be replicated, either because the studies they did were too small to really measure a phenomenon or were simply shoddy.

What’s more, there is a herd mentality in science as in any field. So if some research area becomes a hot topic, many scientists will pile on, in part because that is where the money is, and in part because if your findings go against the grain, you will be on the outs. Remember all the research in the ’90s showing that a low-fat diet is good for you?

But it’s not if you substitute sugar for fat, as many food companies proceeded to do.

“The large-scale and dramatic change — sometimes referred to as the SnackWell phenomenon — has been credited with making a substantial contribution to increasing rates of obesity,” says Kabat.

Another problem plaguing modern science — or those of us trying to make sense of it — is the fact that with ever more sensitive instruments, scientists can measure ever smaller stuff. So when, for instance, we hear that there are trace elements of a toxin in our blood, we tend to think, ‘Yikes!” Not, “I wonder how important one drop in a trillion is?” (Answer: It isn’t. It’s like one drop of poison in 20 Olympic pools).

The result of a flood of studies, shoddy research, scientific groupthink and the media’s mania for scaring us means that “a high percentage of [Americans] worry about risks for which there is little persuasive support,” Kabat writes. “The latter include pesticide residues on produce, food additives, genetically modified foods, stress and hormones in beef.”

Holy modified mangoes! Those aren’t about to kill us?

See above again: Longest lifespans in history.

So how can we know what headlines to trust and which to ignore? Here is Kabat’s rule of thumb, one that I am going to adopt: “The more dramatic the result, the less likely it is to be true.”

Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker, author of the book and blog Free-Range Kids, and a contributor at Reason.com.

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