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What should I eat? – The role of science in this and other everyday questions.

September 14, 2012

The recently published study about organic foods from Stanford University, has generated huge responses across all types of media. From national broadcasting organisations to personal blogs, the last 2 weeks have seen an explosion of media commentary on this article published in a scientific journal. I’ve found the responses probably more interesting than the article itself. It’s been a great time to assess how scientific publications interface with popular media and public opinion.

One thing that’s struck me is that there seems to be differences in expectation between what answers science can provide and what people expect. Maybe it’s a difference in understanding of what the scientific method is, I’m not sure, but from my point of view, as someone who regularly reads scientific articles, many comments have generated a “well, what did you expect?!” response from my inner scientist. With that in mind, I decided to write a short piece on how I use science to inform my decisions about things, particularly that most important of questions to any food blogger: “What should I eat?”.

Foodie folk are very passionate, that’s what makes them some of the most wonderful people to know, to share a glass of wine with and discuss the latest in food trends and products. It’s understandably common to see people defend their passions, we invest substantial amounts of our time and money in them, usually for very good reasons. But being a scientist, you become all too aware of getting too close to your work. No one really goes in to science for money (there are decent but not huge amounts of it!), it’s passion and love for the subject that gets you through the long hours it takes to get a PhD or finish an article for submission to a scientific journal. The most fundamental thing in science though, is change. You can expect that your work will be superceded at some point, it’s the nature of the scientific method. The main reason this happens, particularly in natural science, is that the world is incredibly complex. This means we cannot explain everything with one grand theory, we have to make simplifications and extract lots of questions that we can test experimentally. The question “what should I eat?” is a perfect example of such complexity that science could not possibly address with 1 study, or even 1000.

One major common criticism I saw within the media responses to the Stanford article was that it was oversimplified, that it failed to address most of the reasons why people buy organic produce. “Of course it hasn’t” was my instant response, but one that I thought needed explaining to a passionate group of people who generally sounded offended. If you’ve read the Stanford article (which definitely has room for methodological criticism – but I’ll get to that) you’ll see how much work has to go in to just addressing one question, a question that has a potentially testable and quantifiable answer (in this case, is one type of food more nutritional than the other?). “Hypothesis” testing like this is a major part of any scientific study and creating a testable hypothesis from broad questions is probably the key skill that researchers must learn. “Reductionism” – making a complex system or questions in to smaller, simpler, more manageable components to study, is very powerful in science and often the only way we can proceed. Imagine trying to understand how something is made and how it works – say your laptop for example. It’d be hard to tell just by looking at the laptop itself, but start looking at the components, how they are made, where they come from, and you can piece together a full understanding of how something as complex as a laptop is made and functions. The authors of the Stanford article discussed themselves how their finding went against “what they expected” and that ““If you look beyond health effects, there are plenty of other reasons to buy organic instead of conventional,”. Indeed cited within some of the more comprehensive defenses of organic food I’ve read in response to the Standford article, is a wealth of literature that addresses these very reasons.

So how do I take lots of answers to lots of little questions to form my views on such complex questions as “what should I eat?”. Unfortunately, it does require a fair bit of reading and thinking and often, being prepared to change my mind in the pursuit of what is most “true” regardless of how much passion I have for the subject. I can’t count the number of times I’ve changed my mind on various environmental issues, as I’ve added new information – nuclear energy, climate change, conservation methods, how I think about these things changes all the time. In fact I think some parts of the questions I have about food are beyond the ability of science to answers. Science can’t assign value as such, for example. How much does the suffering of a pig bother me? Sure, science can probably give me some insight in to the extent of disease suffered in various farming conditions, or maybe even an idea about the amount of pain or stress animals feel. But how much value I place on the happiness of a pig versus not eating bacon is still a personal decision and not something I can look to science to resolve entirely for me.

Of course we’re not all scientists, and even those who are aren’t expert enough to understand everything in detail. We can’t all read huge volumes of scientific articles in the peer reviewed journals. So where does that leave us, if we want to use the latest information to help inform our decisions about food? I’ve harped on about the importance of science communication before and scientists and journalists alike have a terribly hard job of taking a reduced concept and communicating it accurately to an information hungry public who want to know how it fits in to the big picture. A few thoughts from me:

Be critical…

Critical thinking and evaluation is key in science and anyone can assess scientific data and methods in a critical manner. An easy way to do this is with media delivered science is to compare sources. What do different media sources think of the same scientific results? Scientific articles will usually give a couple of specific conclusions. But as has been the case with this Stanford article, you’ll see different responses – if the article is really saying one thing, why do we then see so many different responses in the media?

…but check your bias and other peoples!

Naturally I want my science to be right, I’ve spent hours on it, but I know as a scientist that I mustn’t let this desire get in the way of finding the most accurate answers to questions. As bitter as that pill might be to swallow, I must constantly make sure I don’t let my desire to be right get in the way of determining the most accurate information – I must check I don’t get biased. The same goes for assessing media sources of information. Is there a reason that a specific media outlet might be inclined to spin the results of science a particular way? Going back to the paper itself and seeing if you agree with the way a media source has reported the findings is a great way to see if this bias exists. This was the first thing I did when reading the various responses to the Stanford article. Being sceptical does not mean automatically taking the opposite view to someone else or thinking something is automatically wrong, it does mean asking more questions.

There should usually be more questions than answers and that’s ok!

With the idea that science is inherently reductionist through necessity in mind, it’s totally expected that a study doesn’t address every aspect of a broad topic. In fact often the only thing a study may be able to say is that we need to study something more. I get lost on huge google expeditions as a result of this sort of approach, but I think it’s probably the only way to be sure you’ve got to the most current and best information at your disposal. Luckily we live in a world where information is at our fingertips and scientific findings are becoming more available in the public domain, in ever more digestible forms without compromising their accuracy. Even if you only read the abstract or conclusions from a paper, I can recommend getting as close to as many original sources of information as you can. Then you can question both the media you read and science itself. Why didn’t they use more samples? Perhaps they should have looked at a different area/type of plant? – These are examples of valid questions and criticisms of an approach.

Know the limitations.

Keeping the scientific method in mind, you’ll know that no study can answer everything and that’s ok. Keep an eye out for follow up papers, follow the references within one you’ve read, look for reviews on the topic and you can extend the simple questions from single studies to find answers to complex questions. And if you really have many questions, maybe it’s time to become the one doing the studies, that’s how I ended up here 🙂

Addressing the Stanford study in particular, I’ve seen a number of interesting criticisms of the methodology and some hints of bias. I’ll be treating these criticisms the same way I treat any science – with scepticism and a demand for evidence. I look forward to seeing how the responses develop over the next few months. For me, the debate over the value of organic farming practices is still open for inquiry. I try and buy local and organic produce where I can for a number of reasons, some supported by scientific studies, others a result of personal preferences. I’m not expecting a single study to answer whether I should or shouldn’t buy organic soon, but I look forward to reading all of those that seek to answer at least a small number of the myriad of questions that this topic raises.

How do you use scientific studies to inform your opinions on certain topics? Where do you hear about scientific studies? What makes you more inclined to accept one study as reasonable and another not? As someone striving the bridge the gaps between science and society, I’d really like to hear from you.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 14, 2012 2:22 pm

    Interesting, multifaceted as well…2 birds with one stone.

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