When Food Facts Devolve into Science Fiction

Science is about focused, objective analysis, independent questions, and nuanced answers. So when science steps out of the lab and into the public dialogue, it can be heartbreaking when it morphs into the opposite: a disorderly swarm of bias, groupthink, and black-and-white assumptions.

In science fiction, the idea of “hive minds” refers to a group of individuals who lose their ability to think for themselves, and submit to the collective consciousness, Star Trek Borg-style. Too often, food conversations online devolve into hive thinking. In a sense, this is why the FACTS network exists: to arm consumers with the knowledge you need to make food decisions for yourselves – to head-off the hive.

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So let’s break it down: Let’s follow the life of a food myth, from the research room to the pressroom to the Twittersphere, and find out how you can distinguish food facts from science fiction, every step of the way.

 

Seven Deadly Sins of Junk Science – How Science Is Performed and Published

Not all scientific research is created equal. Learn more about how junk science injects bias, covers up conflicts of interest, skews data, embellishes and simplifies statements, refuses to use reproducible methods and peer-review and fails to consider new research. Here is a helpful toolkit that also provides info on how you can spot junk science.     

 

Evaluating Scientific Evidence: Looking at the Full Body of Research

Sometimes even experts can disagree. Many times, studies draw conclusions that contradict each other. Check out this brochure to get more comfortable with what can often seem like a mysterious process for evaluating scientific literature.

 

Press Offices Gone Wild – How Science Gets Promoted

Sometimes science gets lost in translation. Even before studies get to the media, some university press offices will send sensationalist news releases that lead to dozens, sometimes hundreds, of inaccurate stories. Find out how some press offices spread these inaccuracies.

 

50 Shades of Science: How Science Gets Reported

We all strive to have simple answers to complex questions. Reporters are no different. But the reality is, many things don’t have simple answers. And so we find ourselves lost among shades of gray provided by science in flashy headlines.  Here are some common errors in how scientific information is presented by the media. Learn more here.  

  • Beware of the Quick Fix: Reports often give what seems to be a simple answer to a complex question. For example: the term ‘superfood.’ Although many foods are nutrient-rich, a single food can’t make over a whole diet. Diet quality comes down to balance, variety and moderation.
  • Learn the Language: When reading about scientific studies in the media, listen carefully to the terms they use. Correlations and associations are often mislabeled as causes. For example, congestive heart failure rates are higher in counties that voted for a Republican presidential candidate in 2012. But living in one of these counties or voting for any particular candidate does not cause you to have you congestive heart failure. Media will often incorrectly claim or imply that one factor directly caused the other.  
  • Check the Quality: Use IFIC’s Evaluating Evidence Toolkit to review studies for yourself. The toolkit has a glossary to help you navigate research vocabulary and study design.  To see the checklist in action, click here for an example.
  • Remember, Bias is Everywhere: It is important to remember that everyone has a bias – you, me, scientists and journalists. We all have certain thoughts and beliefs that could hamper our ability to be objective.

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Seeds of Mistruth: How Food Myths Go Viral

Wherever scientific inaccuracies arise – in the research, promotion or reporting – it is when they go digital that these food myths take on a life of their own.  

For example, in 2012 Dr. Oz publicized a study claiming that green coffee extract pills were ‘proven’ to be a miracle weight loss secret. With this celebrity endorsement and catchy headline, many people fell for the claim and the Twitterverse exploded with chatter. Check out the infographic timeline above to see just how quickly things got out of hand, and how difficult it was to rein the myth in.

Many mainstream media outlets published stories about the study, spreading the falsity further. It wasn’t until 2015 that the Federal Trade Commission investigated the study and found that the researchers failed to follow standard scientific protocol, even deliberately altering some results to ‘prove’ their hypothesis. The study was retracted, but not before the producer of these green coffee extract pills had sold $50 million worth of products to the public.

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Key Takeaway

Don’t be fooled by the sexy suit and tie that people place on science, either in the lab, press room, media, or online. Science is usually gray and messy. Use all the tools in your toolbox to break away from the flurry of fads and misunderstandings that too often influence people’s diets these days.

Educating yourself on the characteristics and requirements of quality science, and asking the right questions along the way, are the only ways to attain true food freedom. Take comfort that the decisions you make can be safe, science-based, and – above all – your own. 

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  • Join more than 50,000 mythbusters out there fighting against bad information on food
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