Saturday, January 18, 2014

Being gray, in a black or white world...

Strange bedfellows in the "anti-science" crowd.  Most often associated with the Tea Party and other conservative groups, there is an interesting intersection with some liberals.  The conservative folks don't trust smarty pants scientist who talks about crazy stuff like global warming or "crazy" claims that they can carbon date materials and determine that a dinosaur lived pre-Bible.  Most of the lefties think their brethren on the right are illogical on these issues.  But the intersection comes if you get either group talking about the medical profession, or, perhaps, more specifically the scientific method.

Note the push back to Lynn Parramore in the left-leaning Alternet when she wrote this piece questioning the effectiveness of Vitamin's. There have been 500+ comments, most of which vehemently, and angrily. suggest she's been bought and paid for by "THE BIG CORRUPT PHARMACEUTICALS":
Billion-Dollar Scam In a Bottle: Why Vitamins Could Be Useless—or Even Shorten Your Lifespan 
(Similar reaction to a Salzberg piece on the same lines HERE)

Those few supporters of Ms. Parramore  argue that there aren't many differences, in fact many overlaps, between the "big corrupt pharmaceuticals" and the big corrupt vitamin companies, and their distinction that at least with the pharmaceuticals they are federally approved, tested, or labeled for effectiveness or content, compared to the vitamin industry is roundly scorned.  According to some then we can't "really" trust our government with something like testing and regulating drugs, as apparently, government is bought and sold by the big corporations. Sounds similar to tea party arguments on why we can't trust the government to do everything/anything doesn't it? Arguments that many of the most effective drugs developed from the scientific process starting with natural products, then modified and improved upon to create some approved, cheaper, and reproducible standards, or that they've done a fine job on inspecting our food for generations fall on deaf ears.   Doctors, and government, we are to believe, are in the pockets of the pharmaceuticals and are giving people drugs they don't need.  Doctors aren't interested in health, it's in their own best interest that you're sick and needing more expensive treatments and more prescriptions. Sounds like other conspiracies - big corporations not wanting a 100 mpg engine, Obama's secret socialist plot, or broader one's, like the mysterious Bilderderg group.

Look in the comments to the articles linked above on vitamins and you'll find that the scientific method too is questioned.  "Double-blind" studies and "peer reviewed" research are expensive myths, purportedly established  to keep out the "little guy" and cheap alternatives out of the mainstream.

One of the most effective related pieces of health related propaganda I've seen this last year was the movie Forks Over Knives.  Even Bill Clinton purportedly now subscribes to their diet.  It troubled me from the start. They began with a man, who mentioned he regularly drank large amounts of caffeine each morning, guzzling large amounts of caffeine and soda on his way to the doctor's office to take his baseline health test that he would then compare to the results after he stopped guzzling caffeine and eating healthier.  That defies any logic.  They never once compared healthy, active people before and after their diet.   The basic research they used to develop their theory, The China Study, struck me just as illogical, unreasonable,and pseudoscientific. But, it has been remarkably effective. Not just making converts, but evangelicals proselytizing all over the internet. No room for doubt it seems when you have a point to make, a legacy to build, and/or books to sell.

I saw this quote recently:
The true currency of science, after all, is not faith or even truth, but doubt. It’s hard to imagine a similar effort coming out of the College of Cardinals or the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party. In science, as in democracy, everything has to be up for grabs. When the scientists and other intellectuals stop squabbling, then we will know we are in trouble.
The true currency of science... (is) doubt... yes.  But, we live in a world where apparently doubt is not tolerated.  We're in a world of black and white, no gray.  We're in a world where it "us versus them", where if you believe in certain things you shop and eat and a, b, and c, if you believe in the opposite you shop and eat at d, e, and f.  We become more polarized.  You must believe in a vegan diet, must believe in no oil... one would assume there's never been a healthy person alive who consumed such dastardly materials according to Forks Over Knives.

This year's EDGE question is - What scientific idea is ready for retirement? - Some of the answers are great.  Here in summary of a few of the answers from the NYT:
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who invented the notion of flow, (book link HERE) or being completely lost in what you are doing, and who says scientists need to let go of the idea that the truths they find are good for all time and place.
“Some are indeed true,” Dr. Csikszentmihalyi says, “but others depend on so many initial conditions that they straddle the boundary between reality and fiction.”
That thought was echoed by Alan Alda, the actor and science popularizer who criticizes the idea that things are either true or false, a staple of logic and math. Sometimes context matters.
Take death, which seems a pretty definitive state. “The body is just a lump,” Mr. Alda says. “Life is gone. But if you step back a bit, the body is actually in a transitional phase while it slowly turns into compost — capable of living in another way.”
More from Alan Alda's answer from the Guardian:

Facts, it seems to me, are workable units, useful in a given frame or context. They should be as exact and irrefutable as possible, tested by experiment to the fullest extent. When the frame changes, they don't need to be discarded as untrue, but respected as still useful within their domain. I think most people who work with facts accept this, but I don't think the public fully gets it.
That's why I hope for more wariness about implying we know something to be true or false for all time and for everywhere in the cosmos.
I don't think the doctors of the China Study would agree... they know exactly how everyone should eat and it's vegan.  The fact that it wasn't true of all the groups they studied, or of all  the longest living populations, or that the reason some people studied developed cancer at lower rates was because they were dead, offered nothing to their reasoning.  No, they know the universal truth for all... Although compared to some, I suppose we should be glad they haven't shirked the label of science to "prove" their claims, they just manipulated it.  Which brings me to my final point.

Many don't trust science... and one of the reason's they don't is because there's no consensus... one tells you drink red wine, another says not a drop.  People want black or white, not gray... and science offers almost exclusively gray.  You can either take this to mean you need to pick a side and jump in with both feet, or you can take it to mean folks are still trying to figure it out.  I believe in the later and in fact recommend it.  Try a vegan diet and see how it works for you.  Try Paleo.  Low Carb.  Slow Carb.  Grapefruit diets.  Try vitamins.  Try exercise.  And try them based on what they scientifically do for you.  Then do it again and test some more, because your body will change and facts are useful only "in a given frame or context."... Don't give up and believe what someone told you, or you read it a book, or online.  It's in part how we got in the political and economic mess were in right now.

To be clear, this isn't a rant against vitamins (I spend money I don't have each month buying LOTS of them) and it's not anti-vegan (some very healthy friends and family I know are very happy vegans)... it's a rant against self-righteousness, a rant against conspiracies, and a continuation of my rant on letting others pull your strings.  And it's a call for phrases like - we don't know, I don't know, perhaps I'm wrong, perhaps I should consider, I wonder what would happen if? - Letting others pull your strings, then jumping in to their conspiracy theories with both feet has created, again, a world where everything is black or white, and gray is not tolerated.