Wednesday, September 10, 2014

When the evidence changes, so should your opinion

Prominent scientists and science journalists love to proclaim the benefits of science literacy. One point they are particularly fond of is the idea that following the scientific method forces us to change our opinions as new evidence arises. Richard Dawkins comes to mind as the most popular figure to make this point in recent years, but there are others as well.

The unfortunate fact, however, is that many people, scientists included, are fair-weather fans of science; they love science when it affirms their beliefs, but will ignore it when it counters their religious or political views. The evidence of this phenomenon is everywhere.

But there are scientists and educators who buck this disappointing trend. They change their minds when the evidence moves them to, and it's these individuals who really illustrate how our society can benefit from a healthy respect for science. 

Earlier this week, I received an email from Ross Pomeroy, the assistant editor of RealClearScience, one of the best places on the web for science news and commentary, by the way. Ross and I have sparred several times in the last couple of years over the merits of low-carb diets. Following the publication of a big study in the Annals of Internal Medicine which found that low-carb diets are superior to low-fat diets for weight loss, Ross emailed me the following:

The data is swaying to your side, my friend
 ... I'm more inclined to stick to an agnostic attitude on diet. There's evidence that any sort of weight-loss diet can work, so people should do what's best for them. With that said, I don't think the government should be so adamantly pushing their RDIs (roughly 60 - 25 - 15). I think they should definitely come out and say that fat isn't as evil as has been portrayed. 

After I asked him to look at some previous studies that reached the same conclusion as the Annals study he cited, he added:
What I take away from [the studies] is that a LC diet trumps typical calorie restriction in a weight loss setting. After the body has grown obese, what it really needs is something to "shake things up" so to speak 
 It's always validating when someone smarter than you concedes an important point. But beyond my own vanity, Ross' admission is an example of how the process is supposed to work. Researchers make observations, develop a hypothesis to explain their observations and then test it against the evidence. When the hypothesis doesn't fit the evidence, they throw out the hypothesis and come up with a new one, and the world is a better place as a result.

Of course, Ross doesn't have the influence by himself to shift the national conversation about proper nutrition, but there are many people who do--and they're changing their minds, too. The New York TimesTime and Wired have all run stories on the new evidence supporting the efficacy of low-carb diets. Researchers who were openly hostile to the possibility that carbs make people fat are now working with Gary Taubes on a series of studies that may definitively settle the matter.

 This isn't a trivial academic point. Because prominent researchers, writers and even governments (Well done, Sweden) are beginning to accept the benefits of low-carb diets, or at least admit that they're not harmful, average people, when they open their newspapers and turn on the daily news, are going to get accurate information about how they should eat. Provided that these people are willing to act on this new information, we may ultimately see a massive reduction in obesity and the ailments that often accompany it, like heart disease and diabetes. In the long run, that could mean more people living longer, healthier lives.

Think about the implications of such an outcome, and consider the economic costs of obesity while you do. In terms of missed work, higher insurance premiums and lost wages, the costs are significant for everyone. Simply getting accurate information to people is arguably the most important step in eliminating those costs. Add in the fact that being overweight or obese totally sucks, and we have  reason enough to embrace what science has to say about how you make people slim.


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