Science Fatigue Keeps Us Clinging To Bad Health Habits

The World Health Organization( WHO) hurled the cat among the pigeons last week with a new report connecting eating red and processed meat to cancer.

It didnt claim our way of life is killing us, but it would seem this route from the reactions. Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, for instance, said the WHO would have humans living in caves were we to follow all its recommendations.

This response is all too familiar and highlights the publics fundamental misunderstanding of how science runs. Two issues stand in the way of, and often override, sensible interpretations of research findings science fatigue and verification bias.

Science Fatigue

The media constantly bombards us with the latest research on a plethora of topics without much subtlety on its quality or relevance.

Last year red wine was good, this year its bad. Last month lots of water was good, this month its bad. Today you need more protein, tomorrow you need more carbohydrates.

This apparent seesaw in health journalism makes science fatigue in the public mind. The underlying science for most of these reports is voice, but as a New England Journal of Medicine editorial suggests, the reporting is often irresponsible and out to click-bait an unsuspecting public 😛 TAGEND

A problem that is worsening in this era of the 24/7 news cycle is the frequent failure to set new developments into any kind of reasonable context for readers or spectators. In this environment, reporters become little more than headline readers or conduct interviews that amount to a reach and operate version of journalism.

The constant hype leads to distrust and erodes the integrity of scientific research. How can science be trusted if it cant make up its mind?

All too often the distinction between scientific opinion and fact is not clear. Effectively engaging the public in often specialised scientific findings is a work in progress and has been a challenge for the media, governments and science for some time.

A 2000 United Kingdom report into the countrys mad cow disease outbreak in the 1990 s concluded that a government department had provided inappropriate technological advice about the link between polluted beef and human health. It said the departments’ communication had provoked an irrational public scare.

A barrage of similar instances has created a weeping wolf scenario, especially when journalists and public relations operators report certain examines as the final word. When the real wolf seems( like last weeks WHO meat evaluation) we brush it away as insignificant and continue our existing behaviours.

Confirmation Bias

Recently a family friend pronounced that his grandmother smoked all her life and arrived at the ripe old age of 90, so he is not worried about his moderate smoking habit. His grandmother may have had the potential to reach 120 as a non-smoker, but numerous other variables could have influenced the end result for her.

All too often, we base important health decisions on personal anecdotal experience. The plural of anecdote is not data, yet we grasp at any straw that strengthens our own sentiments so we can maintain our status quo. This is called confirmation bias.

In an extensive its consideration of this phenomenon, American psychologist Raymond Nickerson argues it might in fact be the single more problematic facet of human reasoning.

once one has taken a position on an issue, ones primary purpose becomes that of defending or justifying that position. This is to say that regardless of whether ones therapy of proof was evenhanded before the stand was taken, it can become highly biased afterward.

Numerous examines have explained verification bias as it applies to all kinds of fundamental situations. For instance, we tend to seek out sources of information likely to reinforce what we already believe in, and we interpret the evidence in ways that support what we already believe.

Even the pressure to publish can create a bias in scientists which influences the objectivity and integrity of research.

A review of publishings and related biases by the British National Institute for Health Research found that examines with significant or favourable outcomes were more likely to be published or quoth that those with non-significant or unfavourable results.

When our meat eating which is seen as such a fundamental part of our existence, our culture, our economy and maybe even our identity is assaulted, we resort to confirmation bias and often use personal anecdotes as a counter attack.

Certainly anecdotes in health care shouldnt be ignored, but they need to be understood along with formal, research evidence.

Scientists Arent Exempt

The American Dietetic Association holds the position that meat is not required for a healthy diet. Yet we have heard many experts tell otherwise. In some suits, this could be because it is part of the social fabric of national societies, and scientists arent excluded from bias.

A recent study noted that when scientists were put in situations where they were expected to be an expert or insure themselves as experts, they tended to over-estimate the accuracy of their own beliefs.

Even if these notions stem from a knowledge in their field, the tendency to cling to prior sentiments increases the likelihood of bias.

Thankfully, once we are able to overcome our fatigue and biases, and reasonably consider the latest proof, we can steer ourselves in a direction where health risks of cancer is lower without any knee-jerk reactions.

Daniel du Plooy, PhD Candidate in Social Psychology, La Trobe University

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