Gluten-Free … And Who Knows Why? On our relationship with scientific studies

06.08.2016 By

She looked at me like I had kicked her puppy. The woman who had just engaged me in small talk at the coffee bar had the juice-cleansing, yoga-every-morning kind of vibe. She was not smiling.

“Yes, but HOW do you know that gluten is bad for you?” I asked.

Only a moment ago, she had proclaimed that she was a very clean eater and never cheated unless you counted her favourite gluten-free cookies, which she insisted were both delicious and healthy. I was intrigued. Why was gluten-free so good for her if she did not suffer from celiac disease? What made her believe that gluten was more important to avoid in her healthy diet than, say, the sugar which infused her cookies?

What followed was a rather loose explanation into the mechanics of gluten and an attempt to describe irritable bowel syndrome–although she never specified that term. She had adopted a strong opinion and a restrictive lifestyle after just reading a handful of magazine and blog articles. She didn’t cite any studies and yet claimed that science agreed with her.

I am not a pro-gluten advocate.* However, I do find it curious when individuals make lifestyle choices or adopt hardline opinions on ideas based on science that they neither understand nor attempt to.

How we interpret the studies and statistics we encounter in the world matters. Science is our best method to arrive at a common understanding of reality in a logically consistent manner. Unfortunately, the media often poorly interprets scientific studies and chooses to focus, instead, on the headline that will grab an audience’s attention. Eye-catchers such as “one glass of red wine is as good for you as one hour in the gym” and “science says smelling farts cures cancer” exist because they pique our interest and (sometimes) tell us what we want to hear. And we, in turn, don’t do any due diligence in checking the facts. This means that, a lot of the time, people walk around with a flawed understanding of reality on a variety of subjects that are important to them in their lives.

John Oliver recently explored this topic in a segment on scientific studies on Last Week Tonight. He noted the media’s habit of distorting findings in order to create more seductive headlines:

“After a certain point all of (this) ridiculous information can make you wonder: is science [BS]? To which the answer is clearly no … but there is a lot of [BS] masquerading as science.”

Oliver went on to admonish the media for disseminating information without providing the necessary context behind it – for example, when a TV show highlights a study linking coffee to cancer without revealing the study was conducted on mice and not humans.

Unfortunately, when it comes to scientific studies, the onus is seemingly on us to question what we read/see/hear. While we agree with Oliver that the media and scientific community should take greater care with how they disseminate their findings, the likelihood that the media dramatically changes its method of communication any time soon is low. It is our responsibility to be skeptical of the studies we see, and to look into the referenced material before accepting their conclusions.

Of course, this kind of checking takes effort. It requires an ability to spot weaknesses in arguments, illogical conclusions, and an understanding of statistics and how studies are conducted. Not everyone has this kind of skill – and, frankly, few have this kind of time. To expect every individual to check up on every study they read is ridiculous.

However, perhaps it is fair to say that checking up on studies is a good idea when the science is being used as a core argument to support a major decision, such as adopting a fairly staunch opinion or lifestyle choice. In these cases, it seems reasonable to say that the minimum standard should be a direct review of the facts themselves – and not someone’s else interpretation of them.

For investors, this principle of verification is important. Because investors need to properly understand reality in order to make decisions, they need to be able to skillfully evaluate information. Information presented by the management teams of companies is not unlike a lot of the health and nutritional information out there… it is often superfluous, biased and/or misleading. The ability to discern what constitutes good “evidence” and the skepticism that is needed to initiate inquiries, is critical for any investor.

As Carl Sagan once wrote, science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge. The first step in adopting mindset is having the intellectual curiosity to question the proclaimed conclusions, get your hands a bit messy and examine the results for yourself. My gluten-free friend didn’t think this was necessary, but we do.

 

Further Reading

Science isn’t broken: it’s just a hell of a lot harder than you imagine

What is a good study

Bad Science (the blog, the TED talk and the book)

How to read and understand a scientific paper

 

*Author’s Note on Gluten

Gluten is in no way my area of expertise. Please do not infer that this post is, in any way, either supportive or against eating gluten in one’s diet. It was intended to be a critical look at the process, or lack thereof, by which many individuals go about accepting relatively hardline positions on a number of topics. No gluten was harmed in the creation of this post.

 

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5 Comments

  • Reply
    Baily Seshagiri
    06.08.2016 at 10:12 am

    Excllent article. Couldn’t agree with you more. However, for lots of people who are not either technically oriented, or, used to checking and verifying information, it is very hard to (a) access the sources of some data and (b) even more difficult to understand the analysis. Unfortunately, they fall back on media reported articles etc., which, as you have noted, are not known for providing the nuances and details of scientific or technical data (including business data). Tough problem out there, particularly when social media amplifies these misunderstanding and false assumptions.

  • Reply
    George Wright
    06.08.2016 at 10:18 am

    fantastic article… but the best part was the disclaimer. never thought I’d say that.

  • Reply
    Norm Hayward
    06.08.2016 at 11:21 am

    Your articles are always interesting and I look forward to reading them.

  • Reply
    Mark Hawkins
    06.12.2016 at 8:39 am

    This is especially troubling since Canadians have access to Registered dietitians for , counselling. I have gone to them in the past and found it quite beneficial, more knowledgeable than doctors.

  • Reply
    Mike Waterman
    06.15.2016 at 6:22 am

    It seems unfair to blame “The Media” for propagating bad science. After all Scientific American and the BMJ are part of the media too!
    I think we simply outsource our information harvesting to voices we trust, the same way we choose a film critic or wine critic; we usually look for someone who shares our pedjudices.
    We cannot be well informed about everything and yet having an opinion on everything is something we all aspire to. Maybe we should just shut-up more often.
    I enjoyed the piece.

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