I can still remember playing chinese whispers as a kid and being amazed at how different the message ended up being from the original.
Did someone just misunderstand the message? Was it changed on purpose? How many times was it passed down until it no longer reflected the original source?
Well as I start to find more and more "science based articles" across my social media feed and various blogs and news websites, I'm starting to ask these exact same questions.
Yes, it's great to see science being found, used and discussed across multiple media channels, but the quality, motives and respect these channels have for science and the way it which it's messages are being conveyed is something we need to be very wary of.
First of all, What Is Science?
Science is the interplay of 3 basic steps conducted in a never ending cycle...
The more times this cycle is able to repeat itself, the clearer our understanding becomes and the better predictive theories we can create.
An example of this is creatine which is arguably the worlds most widely researched sport supplement which is now being found to help out in other areas like drug addiction and treating certain forms of psychiatric disorders.
so science proves things?
No, Science doesn't prove anything.
Science merely produces data which we use to build an incremental understanding on the world around us. Science never seeks truth or proof - just evidence and understanding.
We can never afford science to prove anything because the experiments and observations we conduct can sometimes be unintentionally flawed, which leads to flawed results.
An example of this is the 2011 study which suggested "non-celiac gluten intolerance may exist". This study helped spark the large demand/market for gluten free products in Australia but has since been brought into question by the same researchers who in 2013, suggested their previous conclusions might not be as simple as once predicted.
This doesn't mean non-celiac gluten intolerance doesn't exist - it simply means there are other factors that need(ed) to be addressed before the theories and predictions on non-celiac gluten intolerance can be accurate. This is exactly why science and its findings should always be met with a healthy dose of scepticism and why it can never take a dogmatic approach in proving anything.
So why do we hear so much about science proving things?
The media only cares about one thing - gaining your attention.
The priority for entertainment over education is exactly why we need to be wary of the media's involvement in science and the way it which it conveys its findings.
Just like Chinese Whispers, scientific literature can have its messages altered and those who are finding them can be unknowingly consuming and further spreading flawed messages that are incorrect and sometimes, dangerous.
This is why you're able to find articles with 10 Scientific Studies Proving GMOs Can Be Harmful To Human Health, only to have another article refute every single one of those studies. Additionally, articles like the ones below look to use misleading headlines in an effort to gain the attention of a larger audience...
"More Buck For Your Bang: People Who Have More Sex Make The Most Money"
"A German study has found that people who have the most sex also make the most money, further depressing the world's low-paid plebes who don't get any"
Now this exciting article has completely over simplified a study designed to observe the complicated relationships between various behaviours and characteristics including...
- amount of sexual activity
- personality traits
- type of job
- work experience
Yes, the research did find a small correlation between sexual activity and income, but on reviewing the article, the original source described this as "complicated and filled with loops". Additionally, this scientific reviewer discussed these loops and the many variables we need to consider long before before we suggest there's any real relationship between sexual activity and income - something the entertaining article didn't bother explaining did it?!
Correlation doesn't equal causation
Articles like the one above are great at gaining your attention through correlations that either can't be explained or are just blatant flukes. If we were to take all of the correlations science uncovers and treat them as gospel then I guess we should be a bit worried about some of these ones..
Cutting Edge Science is conflicting
Now it's not just the media fault.
Science has found that most research findings are false, but this is actually a good thing!
When research produces findings that conflict with previous research, scientists are always left with the same question..."why?"
Perhaps one of these studies had...
- Rare patient populations that produced a freak one-time outcome?
- Statistical errors that were missed?
- Uncontrollable influences that occurred outside of supervision?
Maybe they suffered from all of these, maybe other unknown factors were influential or maybe we have absolutely no idea what caused these different results? Either way, conflicting results are what drives science and finding out why they occur is what builds understanding and helps us develop more complete theories.
The problem is, while researchers are busy trying to figure the "why", the media are busy posting articles that reference the inconclusive science as fact! This is why last week you read coffee causes cancer and this week you read it prevents it!
Then as time goes by and the science eventually catches to help us understand and overturn previous research, the media has moved on and you don't get to hear!
As this journalist explains, it's way more profiting for media outlets to write a splashy headline about a provocative new discovery than it is to write a glum dismissal of science or to highlight the fact they might of been wrong with some of their past hyperbole articles!
Problems with exercise science
Now when it comes to exercise science, there are even more issues we need to address other than the media's manipulation!
Exercise science needs to be un-realistically controlled as many variables like nutrition, age, gender, stress, sleep and genetics for example can have huge influences on the results we base our theories on.
This is why the study design of a lot of health and fitness research is performed in a way that wouldn't generally occur in the real world. This study, where bodybuilding and powerlifting methods were compared to see which was best for building muscle is a perfect example...
The study split people up into a bodybuilding and a powerlifting group with an equated training volume which had the groups lift the same amount of weight each week. By the end of the study, the author's concluded that both training types promoted similar increases in muscular size, but....
- What if the bodybuilding group did more work? Their session only took 17 minutes. Who trains for 17 mins?!
- What if the study went on for longer? Almost all of the powerlifters complained of soreness and fatigue with two of participants getting injured. Surely this particular style of training used in the study wouldn't be sustainable over time?
- What if the bodybuilding group did more exercises? They had the time to incorporate different types of movements into their training - Surely this would of positively effected muscle gain?
- What if there was another group that incorporated both forms of training into their program? Surely this would make the session shorter, tick all the boxes needed to increase muscle size and also be less taxing/dangerous for the athlete?
As you can see, there are many limitations in performing health and fitness studies and this article does a beautiful job of explaining them even further.
So what or who do i believe?
When you're not too sure whether to believe an article you've come across, ask yourself...
- What are the motives of the channel I'm reading this on?
- How qualified is the author of the article your reading?
- What studies are they referencing?
- Are the studies findings conflicting those of other research in this area?
- Do the participants or the way in which the studies are conducted reflect of you and the way you want to live?
- Does it just sound a bit too f:)cking crazy?
Take your time to formulate your own opinions based on all available research and don't rush into following extreme lifestyle choices based on incomplete science or the articles that are promoting it for their own agendas.