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Cue the Snark When Reporting About Science

Posted Jul 09 2014 4:00pm

origin 6175226594 300x300 Cue the Snark When Reporting About Science I took offense to a headline that appeared recently in the online version of Popular Science. It read, “How Sketchy Research Got Us All Eating Low Fat.” It wasn’t so much about the low fat part as it was about the snark about research.

The story wrote about another piece in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about Ancel Keys. Keys was an American scientist who worked at the Mayo Foundation. He contributed to the development of K-rations during World War II and spearheaded the Seven Countries Study.

The latter was the first of its kind that studied possible links between lifestyle, diet, and coronary heart disease. The fact that it was the first is a key point—pun intended. It formed the foundation of where science has moved since then.

Finetuning Our Knowledge of Heart Disease

The first thing to understand is that science is dynamic; like a shark, it keeps moving. Yes, scientists now believe sugar may be a greater culprit than fat in our diets. And yes, we know better about dietary cholesterol.

However, this information is relatively new on the scene, so we shouldn’t criticize the fact that we know there is small-particle and large-particle LDL. (The smaller variety presents the greater health risk. In the future, it’ll be part of your cholesterol reading.)

Keys work provided the starting point for other studies that gave us the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, the scrutiny of sugar as a factor in heart disease by John Yudkin and others as well as other work that has built upon the fundamental connection between lifestyle and disease risk.

Calling Out the Snark

The suggestion that Keys work is sketchy is insulting and presumptive. The Star Tribune piece it references casts aspersions on Keys because of his associations with the American Heart Association and the National Institutes of Health in a classic example of the fallacy of appeal to motive.

My point in this discussion is to call out the negativity and snark that accompanies science reporting these days. Some writers have it out for science and other institutions, trying to find blame where it doesn’t exist. It’s dangerous because it creates an atmosphere of unwarranted distrust.

We can’t know everything as individuals. We must rely on authorities like the American Heart Association, the National Institutes of Health, and even your car mechanic to know the things we do not. If we don’t, what else do we have?

For the record, I am not related to, nor did I ever know Ancel Keys.

References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012, October 4). Saturated fat. Retrieved July 1, 2014, from http://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/everyone/basics/fat/saturatedfat.html

How sketchy research got us all eating low fat. (2014, June 24). Retrieved July 01, 2014, from http://www.popsci.com/article/science/how-sketchy-research-got-us-all-eating-low-fat

Scott, P. J. (2014, June 20). Chocolate milk in the schools and other products of expert opinion. Retrieved July 01, 2014, from http://www.startribune.com/opinion/commentaries/264041421.htm

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Ancel Keys | QuickiWiki. Retrieved July 01, 2014, from http://www.quickiwiki.com/en/Ancel_Keys

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Appeal to motive | QuickiWiki. Retrieved July 01, 2014, from http://www.quickiwiki.com/en/Appeal_to_motive

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Seven Countries Study | QuickiWiki. Retrieved July 01, 2014, from http://www.quickiwiki.com/en/Seven_Countries_Study

photo credit: Garrett Ammon via photopin cc

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