IANS – It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. ~ Mark Twain
When George Gershwin composed the song It Ain’t Necessarily So, he was onto something. I’d love to have a nickel for everything I was taught or told or just accepted as fact in the course of my life. From food preservation to gardening to animal husbandry to medicine to finance, there have been a lot more ‘not-so’ things than ‘so’ things. A while back I did a post on not needing to waterbath jams and jellies; I got more than 100 comments corroborating my “not-so” position. At which point it occurred to me there are lots of other not-so things out there, and shazaam, I had an ongoing blog topic. Here’s the latest “it ain’t necessarily so” (IANS).
Sorting the Wheat From the Chaff
So, how do you sort out all this confusion? Well, here’s what I do.
1. Take nothing on faith. If it’s a “but we’ve always done it this way,” keep asking why until you find out. Remember the joke about the woman who always cut off the end of the ham because that’s what mama did? The woman kept climbing her family tree and asking “Why?” until she got to her great-grandmother. Great-grandma had to do it that way because her pan was too short. She passed the maxim about shortening the ham down to the fourth generation.
2. If your experience is different from accepted wisdom, don’t just shrug it off, think about it. Again, why is it different? Maybe it’s because accepted wisdom is wrong.
3. Read everything you can get your hands on, about all sorts of things. Sometimes you’ll find the answer to a gardening question in a cookbook, a historical novel or a medical journal. The more you know about a wide variety of subjects, the more likely you’ll be able to take a broad view and sort out various conflicting viewpoints.
Now, about research. First, try to find the original article. Look to see who funded the study — it’s usually down at the end, just before the references, in small print. Funders always, always, ALWAYS have an agenda, and researchers know that if their results don’t support the agenda, they aren’t likely to get funded in the future. Second, look to see what conflicts of interest were reported; it’s generally in the same place. If you see a study that was funded by a pharma giant or a farma giant, take the findings with a very large grain of salt. If any of the authors received personal funding (fees, honorariums, etc.) from the giants, or hold stock in the giant’s company, use the whole salt shaker. If the study was funded by a giant and the researchers also were paid by the giant, toss it in the trash.
For agricultural or food-related studies, it’s a little harder to dig out because the study may be done by a university or professional organization that has ties to big farma through grants, endowments, and so on. For example, the American Society for Nutrition and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (two professional organizations for dietitians) have partnered with Kraft Foods, McDonald’s, PepsiCo and Hershey’s, all of which manufacture or sell various unhealthy food products, many laden with high-fructose corn syrup. The Coca Cola Company actually paid dietitians to tell patients that Coke was a healthy snack (personally, I think those dietitians should have lost their licenses to practice).
Once you have the original study, the scientific jargon can be pretty intimidating. Having looked at research over the course of many years and having read studies published over at least the last 100 years, one of the things I find fascinating is how language in current studies is used to create such tortuous obfuscations of ‘scientific findings’ that you need three translators to make sense of it. Research from many years ago is much easier to read, on the whole. Take a look at this example from 1928 (which also has some fascinating information about healing cavities with diet). There are exceptions; highly technical biochemical research is one example. But some of these studies are pretty obviously spinning their data with fancy words. Look at the ‘discussion’ section in the paper. If you can’t read and understand what you find in that section, I would be very cautious about the findings.
Has anyone raised concerns about the study findings? If so, who were the folks raising concerns? If it’s big pharma or big farma raising the concerns, or one of the establishment professional organizations, you should always remember they have a (large) ax to grind and an agenda that includes suppressing research that could put them in an ‘Emperor-has-no-clothes’ situation.
What do the regulatory agencies say about it? Has something been passed by the US Food and Drug Administration as GRAS — generally regarded as safe? GRAS often translates either as “We haven’t done the research but this stuff has been around for a while and we don’t personally believe there’s anything wrong with it, so it must be OK” or as “We have a vested interest in this issue and it makes money for us, so we don’t care about the facts as we could lose money, influence or power.” The FDA actively suppressed its own scientists who said they were concerned about genetically modified organisms and even broke the law by exempting GMO foods from testing, according to Steven Druker in his book Altered Genes, Twisted Truth. Now the FDA actually has a $3 million dollar budget to counter “misinformation” and “educate the public” (AKA counter anything that goes against the party line) about GMOs. As of this writing, 39 percent of American adults believe GMO foods are harmful to health (smart folks!).
Can you find any evidence that the study has been replicated? When molecules or experimental animals or chemicals act one way for person A and nobody else can get them to do the same thing, it could be magic. Or it could be person A faked something, spun the data or left out a few important findings. One of the really cool things about the new Study 329 findings on Paxil is that this was a truly independent look at a study that put teens at risk. When you’re looking for evidence that the study has been replicated, you must remember some of the caveats I’ve mentioned previously about soil and produce tests that compared organic and conventional systems. All the variables should be the same when the study is replicated. If the first study on calcium in cows’ milk was performed on raw milk from cows fed only grass, the second study shouldn’t use pasteurized milk from a commercial dairy. Even then you may have some natural variations. Central Kentucky is famed for its race horses, which eat grass and drink water that is full of bone-building minerals from the soil and water. If you’re comparing the mineral components of horses’ bones, and the horses in the first study came from Kentucky while the second batch came from Nebraska, there may be variations in the results. Those variations are not necessarily because someone fudged the data. They could be because you didn’t start out with equal variables. But assuming the variables are equal, Scientist A should be able to perform Scientist B’s study, and get the same results. If no one can replicate the study results, odds are there’s a problem.
Take a Missouri Approach
Missouri is the “show me” state. The mental attitude of “you’ll have to prove it to me” is a good one. Use your common sense. When your experience or that of people you trust is contrary to accepted scientific wisdom or expert recommendations, odds are very high the scientific wisdom and the experts are out to lunch. Ask the old homicide lawyer’s question, “Cui bono?” Loosely translated as “Who benefits?” what it actually means is “To whose profit?” When big bucks, company survival or professional reputations are on the line, ethics quite often take a back seat. Circus entrepreneur PT Barnum was the one who coined the sucker-born-every-minute rule. Don’t be a sucker and remember: it ain’t necessarily so.