Scientific Illiteracy in the Diet Industry: Why It’s Dangerous and What You Can Do To Fight It

by Jake Johnson

“Scientific literacy, quite simply, is a mix of concepts, history, and philosophy that help you understand the scientific issues of our time. Scientific literacy is not the specialized, jargon-filled esoteric lingo of the experts. You don’t have to be able to synthesize new drugs to appreciate the importance of medical advances.” – Robert Hazen

There is an important war being waged.

This war is not being fought over matters of race, or land, or freedom, or bragging rights.

It is being fought over a matter of principle, a certain way of thinking. It is being fought against one of the most (if not the most) important variables in the progression of our society as a whole.

This method and way of thinking is responsible for the cars we drive, for the technology that powers the device on which you are reading this article, for the heat that powers our homes, for the rapid advances in medicine that have multiplied our life-expectancy and have greatly improved our quality of life, and much, much more.

A war is being waged against science. This war has persisted for ages, and unfortunately, there is no sign that it will end any time soon.

Anti-Science and the Encouragement of Scientific Illiteracy

There are a wide variety reasons, some more controversial than others, as to why this war against science is being fought.

Some reasons are ideological, some are emotional, and some are based in willful ignorance. Regardless of the logic behind this war, or lack thereof, the fact that it is even taking place is what is truly disturbing and frightening.

Why would we push back against the very force that has allowed us to so rapidly increase our understanding of the universe and move toward the betterment of mankind?

It is a very confusing and silly predicament. Science is more important and more prevalent than ever; and yet we, as a general public, are doing less to understand it than ever, and the forces resisting the progression of evidence-based science are becoming increasingly ruthless.

Those against science are discouraging the use of vaccines and other evidence-based practices in favor of “alternative solutions” such as homeopathy, faith healing, and other methods that are completely baseless. This results in people ignoring medicines and treatments which are proven to be effective. Some even go so far as asking their Facebook group for advice before seeing a doctor because they “don’t trust the medical establishment.” This is extremely dangerous and even life-threatening.

Those against science have also pushed to remove critical thinking from school curriculums. To quote the GOP of Texas’s section on education in their 2012 platform:

“We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

So, you shouldn’t strive to expand your knowledge because it just might go against what you’ve been taught. Huh?

And on a smaller, but still significant scale, those against science are resisting evidence-based nutritional practices in favor of pseudoscience and straight-up woo, which we will get to in a bit.

These battles directly impact our own lives and the lives of those around us, so it should be a priority to address them and to play a part in the solution.

Why is it important to resist this anti-science movement? Why is scientific illiteracy so inherently damaging? We’ve gone over some of the more specific examples, but let’s get into the general reasons why scientific illiteracy and a lack of rationality is so dangerous and how this can impact your health, nutrition, and fitness goals.

Scientific Illiteracy Leaves You Vulnerable to Manipulation

“Who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it? If we are not able to ask skeptical questions and interrogate those who tell us that something is true, then we’re up for grabs for the next charlatan…who comes ambling along.” – Carl Sagan

Knowledge truly is power.

And a lack of knowledge does not only imply a lack of “power,” it implies a serious vulnerability.

The general misconception is that the burden of understanding science lies only with those who are paid to bear this burden; those we consider “authorities.” This could not be further from the truth.

If those in a position of authority are the only ones who understand science, in any given area, they can manipulate and twist results and evidence without resistance.

If you’re scientifically illiterate in today’s diet sphere, you might believe that carbohydrates are fattening. Or that sugar is toxic and addictive. Or that gluten is killing you slowly. Or that “processed” foods are evil. Or that you need to detox. Or that dietary fat cannot make you fat.

These are just a small sample of the messages being pushed by today’s “experts.”

If you don’t understand the evidence, it is very easy to accept these claims as fact.

They sound good, they are easy to understand, they are coming from authority figures, and they are bold and definitive. These issues may seem insignificant, but they can have a huge impact on your attitude towards your own eating habits and overall lifestyle.

If you adhere to the idea that sugar is toxic and addictive, for example, you begin to consciously fear sugar, avoiding it at all costs. You then hear that carbohydrates are converted to sugar, so you begin avoiding carbohydrates as well. Soon you are feeling terrible and anxious, but you simply attribute this to symptoms of “sugar withdrawal,” so you continue on this downward spiral, constantly seeking alternative solutions.

Many, including myself, have been down this path. It is the result of manipulation and blind acceptance.

To quote Carl Sagan once again: “If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power.”

But if make it a point to stay up to date with the evidence and are able to form well-supported opinions, then we are no longer “up for grabs.” It all starts with questioning.

Without a Scientific Mindset, Ideas Are Not Held Under Intense Scrutiny

One of the most important qualities of the scientific method is its built-in “error-correcting mechanism.” Before an idea is even considered, it must go through a rigorous, thorough, and lengthy review process.

Fitness and diet gurus are often able to wiggle past this process, as they know their claims won’t stand under the weight of criticism. How do they do this?

They publish a book, or a blog post, or a Youtube video.

They bypass the peer-review that is standard for evidence-based practitioners and are only judged by a public that, in general, is not rational enough to question them.

How else would ridiculous books based on sugar detoxes and the blind, unnecessary avoidance of entire food groups top the bestseller lists?

If the ideas and evidence in these books were as revolutionary as the authors claim them to be, legitimate researchers would be tripping over themselves to publish the findings.

But they aren’t; they’re too busy with meaningful ideas (for the most part) such as the psychological causes of overeating, the effects of the environment on obesity, energy balance, useful diet and exercise interventions, etc.

Instead the mainstream is fed diet and exercise books written by marketers-turned-health-experts looking to cash in on easy prey. It’s disgusting.

The community as a whole needs to do a better job of questioning and criticizing.

It is not negative to ask questions, and it is not “hating,” it is simply a way to weed out the hucksters. Ask for evidence and don’t blindly follow anyone based solely on their credentials or their sensational claims.

If we don’t commit to this process, extreme diet books will continue to flow in and the misinformation will stockpile, making it increasingly difficult for “newbies,” and those lost in the confusion, to discern right information from wrong.

Scientific Illiteracy Breeds Arrogance

“The great irony of the popular conception of science as arrogant is that when you go to a scientific meeting, you’re about as likely to see real arrogance as you’re likely to see nudity. People are constantly offering caveats and hedges. Every statement is couched in: ‘I’m sure there’s someone in the room who knows more about this than me, but…’ because everyone is desperate to avoid public embarrassment.” – Sam Harris

With even a vague knowledge of the complexity and rapid advancements of evidence-based science, you will understand what it means to be humbled.

Every day scientists are forced to admit their mistakes, to alter their thought processes, and to, on a whim, toss out theories that they worked tirelessly to perfect. The reason: evidence evolves rapidly and without warning.

This is often seen as a negative, but actually, it is one of the key factors that make science and a scientific mindset so effective. By being able to “roll with the punches,” scientists are constantly refining their theories, testing hypotheses, and making new discoveries.

Put simply, true scientists and critical thinkers never become attached to a particular idea.

Sure, they may put up a bit of a fight in letting go as we are all partial to our own findings, but with convincing evidence, scientists will change their views at the drop of a hat.

They understand that to become attached is intellectual suicide. Those who lack critical thinking skills, on the other hand, are quick to latch onto passing fads.

Note the popular low carb craze. Despite the fact that carbohydrates are not inherently fattening and that low carbohydrate diets do not offer a metabolic advantage over other diets (when protein and calories are equated), militant low carb-ers cling tightly to their precious ideals. The reason: Many are not only emotionally invested in their views, but they are financially invested as well.

The same can be said about the radically different interpretations of “Paleo” diets, or detoxes, or anti-sugar extremism.

Those who support these ideas often cannot be bothered with contrary evidence, which in turn makes them arrogant and dismissive. Instead of seeking to falsify their own stance, they remain stuck in confirmation bias.

How do you avoid arrogance?

Embrace doubt and uncertainty. It is an exciting state of mind, one that encourages improvement and progression. Becoming attached to a particular “diet” or fad or exercise philosophy only limits your outlook and makes your lifestyle less enjoyable.

Being open to new ideas and new evidence allows you to continue moving forward, constantly adapting and combining evidence-based ideas and methods that can be molded to fit your own personal preferences.

Final Thoughts: The Simple Takeaways

“There is something even more vital to science than intelligent methods; namely, the sincere desire to discover the truth, whatever it may be.” – Charles Sanders Peirce

The best ways to resist the anti-science movement are to question, both your own beliefs and the claims of others, to examine the evidence, and to come to a conclusion based on careful reasoning rather than emotion or tradition.

Yes, science is difficult to understand at times, and yes, the research evolves at a rapid pace and it can be difficult to keep up. But it is well-worth the struggle.

You do not have to be a scientist to think scientifically and you do not have to get caught up in the complexities. Just be objective and ask for evidence, all the while remaining open to new ideas.

If you are confused, stand on the shoulders of giants. Alan Aragon, James Krieger, Anthony Colpo, Leigh Peele, Amber “Go Kaleo” Rogers, Armi Legge, Antonio Valladares, Scott Kustes, Mike Howard, Evelyn “CarbSane” Kocur, Lindsey Schnell (the list goes on…) are all staunch advocates of science-based and logical thinking, and they will certainly lead you in the right direction.

Is science perfect? Of course not, there is always much room for refinement. Scientists themselves are not flawless either. Biases, scandals, and injustices exist will always exist.

However, science is, as Steven Novella of Science Based Medicine puts it, “the best game in town.”

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Guest post by Jake Johnson – a former collegiate athlete turned fitness and nutrition writer and science junkie. He runs a blog at http://JJStrength.com where he dispels myths and promotes a rational, evidence-based approach to health.
https://twitter.com/JJStrength

Tags: best weight loss plan, carbs, detox, Gluten Free, Paleo – Primal, sugar, Weight Loss

Links:
http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/War_on_Science
http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/reference/vaccines-and-autism/
http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/reference/homeopathy/
http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=rBpiV72pLAo
http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/texas-gop-rejects-critical-thinking-skills-really/2012/07/08/gJQAHNpFXW_blog.html
http://anthonycolpo.com/carbohydrates-are-good-dogma-is-evil/
http://www.alanaragonblog.com/2010/01/29/the-bitter-truth-about-fructose-alarmism/
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-mark-hyman/gluten-what-you-dont-know_b_379089.html
http://www.burnthefatblog.com/4-bad-justifications-for-detoxing.php
http://jjstrength.com/dietary-fat-cant-make-you-fat-uh-yeah-it-can/
http://jjstrength.com/musings-on-my-two-year-transformation-video/
http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/65/4/908.long
http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/63/2/174.full.pdf
http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/

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