Have you ever asked two people their opinion about something, and get two completely different answers? Of course you have! What about when it comes to science? The same study can be published and different media outlets will have their own unique, and often conflicting spin the results of the study.
Why the differences?
Two very knowledgeable and experienced experts can easily give two completely different answers because we all see the world through our own filter. Our opinions, values, thoughts, feelings, and subsequent actions are the downstream effects of our life’s experience. It’s what makes you, you.
Although health science is supposed to be an unbiased examination of data, it is almost impossible to take the human element out of the equation. As a result, interpreting outcomes can result in multiple view points. We can therefore see how we may become confused over what the truth is.
If we name some of the characters in this ongoing performance called science, it will help you to understand why there are so many varying opinions when it comes to health. And perhaps this understanding will help bring you clarity when seeking the right answer for you.
The 5 Archetypes Of Science
1. The Researcher
A health researcher’s job is to study one very specific thing, while trying to account for all of the confounding variables (things she cannot control). They study a very specific variable attempting to come to a conclusion that will be strong enough to influence clinical practice. In order to get to this point, the researcher must have data to back up their claim. They must have objective data that shows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that their conclusions are sound.
The researcher is very slow to make any definite conclusions that might influence clinical practice. If they see something for the first time, they know that this is just a step in the right direction and not the whole journey. Results still need to be replicated by other researchers.
The downfall of this approach is that even if there is a well-researched result that can positively effect clinical practices with little risk, hesitation will be the norm. This often happens with natural therapies.
2. The Clinician
The clinician follows the motto “evidence-based”. They use scientific evidence as a starting point, as the “base”, and then build from there. What determines what they add to that base? It’s the patient’s story. The patient’s story adds an element that personalizes the treatment, or, at least it should. It accounts for biochemical individuality and the fact that not every person falls in the middle of the bell curve. And when it comes to health, many of the people that end up with health issues, are in fact the canaries in the coal mine. They are the ones that live on the edges of the bell curve and may experience health changes in the extremes.
Clinicians combine the evidence with the patient’s needs. They evaluate the risks versus the benefits and then go forth and make an educated decision on the treatment plan. This process is critical, as the average time it takes for interventions validated by research to make it into the standard of care is about 17 years. A staggering example is how thousands of babies were born with neural tube defects, way after we knew that folic acid deficiency was the culprit.
3. The Reporter
The reporter usually works for an organization that wants to sell copies of their publication and advertising space- or the publication itself and the content that is published is vetted by the advertisers. As a result, they need to bait the reader with sensationalistic headlines. Their thin slice of the research (usually one study, and usually the abstract or press release associated with that study), misses the scope of a particular subject and misleads the public en mass. It’s not their fault, that’s their job.
As an aside, there are some amazing reporters out there that actually do the research and put in tremendous resources to get a complete story. Michael Pollan, Michael Moss, and Nina Teicholz, are a few of my favourites.
4. The Outdated Expert
This is an “expert” making commentary on outdated information. They might have been current at some point in their career, but they have failed to keep up with the latest research and are delivering antiquated opinions. Their position as an “expert” with a slew of credentials after their name, may make them appear reputable but experts are only as valuable as the research they are reading and how they are practicing today. This is especially true in the field of health and nutrition, a very young and rapidly evolving science. This often results in them unknowingly misleading many.
5. The (Big) Food Manufacturers
They have one thing on their mind, and that’s money. They are concerned about the bottom line. Not about the health of their consumers. As such, nutrition is usually traded for shelf-life, and healthwashing claims are purchased for a price from regulating bodies.
Do you know how many steps it takes to make shelf-stable canola oil? Eighteen!
They’re operating with information that often comes from experts that are on their payroll- incentivized to tell them what they need and want to hear.
Where do you fit into this?
As a consumer of information, it’s helpful to understand the role each of these characters play.
They’re each doing the job they are paid to, but that job is not necessarily to look out for your health and wellbeing. It’s to conduct a study, sell copies, promote a product, or get media exposure. Your job is to figure out what will best line up with your interests.
Next time you see that headline, stop for a moment, assess where the message is coming from, listen to your instinct, read with an open, yet skeptical mind, check the references and go to the source of that information, and then draw to your own conclusions. You are more than equipped and capable of deciding for yourself what is best for you.