Monday, January 9, 2017

The issue with pseudo-science and a rant about miscommunication

Let's get right to business. This blog post, with the blog itself (logically), is a spontaneous expression of my withheld anger desperately in search for an area to be placed. So shouting to the public (and right now this public consists of me and that one friend I might end up linking this to) might be the simplest way to get these aggravating thoughts out of my aching head. Consequently, if this is not my last blog post, I'd like to point out that I am not a hot-head, quite on the contrary I often pride myself on having a super chill personality, yet at this current moment I am in the middle of writing a lab report and studying for five exams, commencing everything much later than recommended.
I will just start by saying that I am currently studying Food and Human Nutrition, a very interesting degree programme, which covers a wide range of subjects starting with biochemistry and ending at the very polar end of the spectrum with marketing and food technology. However, often enough people take a look at the title of my course and wonder, if I spend my days learning about diets and weight loss. Even worse, I have some middle-aged ladies constantly asking me how to lose weight and which new diet fads to try out. Yet nothing ever manages to fuel my need to yell out of a window in the middle of the night for twenty minutes straight more than this specific type of people who have the audacity to start "teaching" me about their ridiculous pseudo-science theories aka some garbage article they managed to misunderstand written by some garbage author in a garbage website. More than usually, its translated from another language as well, so this just adds to the Chinese whispers game that is the public's general understanding of nutrition. Of course, I don't usually get this irritated about some ridiculous new theories about food and weight loss, I love politely discussing the effectiveness of gluten-free, dairy-free, paleo, plant-based etc etc diets, yet sometimes people tend to get ideas that are outright stupid and even DANGEROUS. Let me give you a very recent example that will probably paint my frustrations in a clearer light.
It starts to seem as if we are currently living in a society where facts are ignored when forming opinions. This is a trend can be clearly seen in politics these days, but please, let's not go here today, because this will end up turning into a novel. I would like to talk about the public's perception of science or perhaps their lack of understanding of what science actually is. John Oliver did a great segment on this topic, how people are baited with these ridiculous headlines and articles (such as Farts can cure cancer???) that are just such perfect examples of miscommunication between the media and the scientific community. Science is about research and research consists of constant repetition and constant improvement of the accuracy and reliability of the results. Believe me, I should know this, I've been writing "The reliability and accuracy of the results can be improved by repeating the experiment" on every single lab report since I was 16. Yet these articles that actually end up generating pseudo-science theories are usually based on experiments in their very preliminary stages, some that have only been repeated a few times and had very few participants. However, the editors of the websites do not necessarily care about things likes "accuracy", they want intrigue and they want readers. And that is how this miscommunication works - you have scientists test whether cacao increases the levels of serotonin in our bodies, then you have numerous articles claiming chocolate is some magical health food, next thing you know - clueless mothers will be packing their kids bars of chocolate to keep them "healthy". However, my frustrations are not about this theory. Just today, I had someone come up to me and share something that they have read in this Lithuanian website (probably the most popular news outlet in the country, which is even more concerning). This person told me, that according to this random-ass dietitian we only get 20 percent of our energy from food and the rest comes from breathing. This immediately made me very concerned that this type of misinformation is spread to the Lithuanian public. From what the person had understood, is that you do not actually need to eat as your body will function properly with just air. Then they went on about how important it is to breathe correctly and how that can help with weight loss and fighting disease. So I decided to investigate. I asked the person to show me this revolutionary article, and then immediately the miscommunication became clearer. The dietitian was jumbling up random facts about how energy in our bodies is being produced be cellular respiration. It was quite inconvenient that the terms breathing and cellular respiration are both expressed using the same word in Lithuanian, so its only natural that the average reader will associate the word with the act of breathing instead of the process of producing energy in the form of ATP using our mitochondria. This is where these type of articles become dangerous. Not every person has a friend like me to explain to them that hun, I'm sorry, but you actually do need food and you cannot get energy from breathing and debunk their silly theory. We live in a society where we sadly believe in what we read and even though god has blessed us with more than enough ways to fact check, we prefer not to. This is where I, the super chill person that I claim myself to be, will put my foot down and actually rant (because, let's admit, I am in no position to do anything else right now). When someone starts believing that air is the equivalent to food, that's when pseudo-science actually becomes dangerous. 
So what's my solution? Honestly, I am a very clueless individual, so clueless that it seems I have forgotten my point. So don't even bother expecting a solution from me, I am here to complain about the disappointing aspects of society, not actually solve problems. However, I do hope that one day in the future I will be influential enough to teach the public more about nutrition and how nutritional research actually works. Coming into my course I was surprised about how little can actually be considered as "proof" in nutrition - just like in any other science its all about correlations between results and constant speculations. That is why in this day and age a healthy dose of scepticism can go a long way.