In health and fitness, science appears perplexing. One headline reads, “Eggs Give You Heart Disease.” Another reads, “Eggs: The Heart-Healthy Super Food.” Confusion ensues. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Keep in mind four things.
1.) Headlines aren’t science.
First, keep in mind that titles such as “Eggs Give You A Heart Attack” are newspaper headlines. That is very different than a research paper. Scientific papers usually don’t have titles which make grand sweeping generalizations. If they do, the intentions of the authors or publisher are questionable. A more likely paper title would be “Cytokine Expression (i.e. - Interleukin-6) And Its Role in ApoE Atherosclerotic Plaque Modeling.” A paper by that name may indeed implicate different contributors to the inflammatory cascades which are involved in cardiovascular disease and cardiac events. But it’s an enormous and inaccurate leap of imagination to turn that into “Food/Behavior X Is ‘Bad’.”
2.) What’s the mechanism?
In order for a statement to be considered a scientifically worthy one with regard to human health and performance, there must be at least a proposed, testable, verifiable, known mechanism in biology, chemistry, and/or physics.
A hypothesis is great. Opinions are great. Statistical models and epidemiological data gathering are fantastic. What’s the mechanism? *crickets*
Without an understood mechanism (or mechanisms, as it were), causality is elusive at best and totally unknown at worst. Period.
Going back to eggs, it once was thought that dietary cholesterol had some sort of grand impact on blood lipid profiles. Also, some believed blood lipid profile had 1-to-1 impact on risk of heart disease. Both of those assumptions are sitting on shaky ground. But even if they weren’t, WHAT IS THE MECHANISM YOU ARE PROPOSING THAT CREATES HEART DISEASE? An appropriate answer to this fundamental question isn’t “eggs.”
3.) Be precise.
Even mechanism is insufficient to constitute a thorough explanation. We need precise dosing and solution metrics in order to discuss whether something is beneficial or detrimental.
There is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” chemical, let alone a “good” or “bad” food. Not only are those terms non-science, they’re nonsense. In chemistry, reactions are dictated by the AMOUNT of different compounds and ratios in a given solution.
The brain cannot operate without sodium. The heart cannot beat without sodium. Is salt good or bad? That question is imprecise by design and unscientific in nature. The renin-angiotensin system monitors your circulating sodium levels. We have to completely ignore known and well-understood physiological mechanisms to even entertain imprecise questions about dietary salt.
4.) Stick to Arguments, Not Opinions.
This is really tricky for people, like really tricky. Partly, the trickiness comes from various experts themselves having no training in formal logic, critical thinking, or philosophy of science. They themselves don’t realize there is a chasm between opinion, no matter how well-informed, and argument.
Opinions are never arguments.
An argument starts with a universal axiom, a non-debated and non-controversial starting point, relying on straight-forward if-then statements, to draw all listeners toward an absolute conclusion. Opinions are subjective conclusions with a subjective and/or controversial/questionable starting point which bypasses the universal axiom step, bypasses rigorous logic, bypasses the if-then statements, bypasses critical thinking, and ignores the varied experiences of listeners.
It’s common to mistake a seemingly reliable opinion for a strong argument. But it’s still a mistake. I’ve seen even extremely intelligent and educated people conflate opinion with argument and then wade into water beyond their depth. You can be an absolute expert and a specialist while confusing your own opinion with a formal argument. No. They are not the same. An argument is detached from the presenter. Likewise, your expertise does not mean that your incredibly weak argument carries some inherently stronger basis.
There are opinions, a point at which someone has arrived based on his perspective. Then there is this entirely separate item: an argument, sitting atop a fundamental framework of universal axioms, which cogently weaves through if-then statements to bring any listener to a universal conclusion. A strong argument can exist while its presenter is totally discredited. A weak argument is still garbage even if it’s championed by the most respected expert on earth. And make no mistake: both of these happen all the time.
And this fact is why someone like me has to even write something like this. The various “authoritative” organizations have increasingly moved away from argument and toward opinion wrestling. This is often referred to as “my guru can beat up your guru.”
Going back to eggs, look at current statements by groups like the American Heart Association and Mayo. Go ahead. Take a moment to peruse their current standing on eggs. You can see that they’ve walked back their prior pronouncements, because their opinions had so deviated from argumentation and mechanistic empiricism. Twenty years ago they had shifted toward an unscientific opinion of “eggs are bad” only to be hammered by refuting research over and over again. Now, they temper their official position, trying to return to less opinion-heavy language.
Any recent pseudoscientific debate over vaccines or climate change has run into this bottleneck, mostly because the experts attempt to leverage “good” opinion against “bad” opinion. No headway is forthcoming, because you have failed to communicate to the layperson starting with universally-accepted axioms. You want to jump straight to the conclusion. And instead of engaging in argumentation or exploring known mechanisms, there’s a whole lot of statistical research, name calling, and hand waving.
This works in both directions, mind you. The ad hominem fallacy is still a logical fallacy whether you think there’s strength in an argument because it’s presented by an expert or whether you think it’s weak because it’s presented by a non-expert. For opinions, this can be true. For arguments, it is completely and utterly untrue. Arguments stand on their own. They don’t rely on suffixes or formal training.
Watch out for these:
“They say;” therefore true.
“Authority figure X says;” therefore true.
“Consensus says;” therefore true.
“Non-authority Y says;” therefore false.
“Non-consensus says;” therefore false.
Again, refer to tips #1, #2, and #3. News headlines aren’t research titles. Generalization is not science. Lack of mechanism is not science. Finally, popularity isn’t science. And alleged authority or big titles do not constitute an argument.
It doesn’t matter if the Director of NASA argues that the world is flat or if your crazy neighbor presents the heliocentric theory. “Who” is completely immaterial in this discussion. The argument must stand on its own. What is the argument? Does the argument stand up to repeated testing or is it increasingly doubted with further scrutiny? Is it useful? Does it make practical and valid predictions?
Expert opinion based on his/her personal observations is exactly that: opinion. Non-expert opinion based on his/her personal observations is exactly that: opinion. Weighing opinions is unrelated to assessing arguments. When weighing opinions, we have to take into account financial and emotional motivations of the source, whether their licensure or job is on the line, what incentive they have to say what they’re saying. With argument, none of that has any bearing on the discussion at all.
What’s the argument? Now, what’s the research? And what’s the proposed mechanism? And be precise.
I once had a consult tell me he’d met with a doctor and registered dietitian who didn’t believe diabetes could be reversed:
“That’s interesting - what scientific research supports that opinion?” I asked.
“What’s the mechanism of insulin receptor down-regulation and up-regulation?”
“PRECISELY, why is it impossible for a type II diabetic to regain glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity?”
The fact that there are numerous examples of former diabetics is an unnecessary trump card. Even if I didn’t have hundreds of examples of asymptomatic former diabetics, even if there weren’t published case studies on people who reversed their diabetes, we can still precisely examine the known biological mechanisms and genuine scientific findings. When we do, the answer is clear.
1.) Forget headlines. 2.) Focus on mechanism. 3.) Be precise. 4.) Examine arguments, not opinions.
In the face of these four very basic critical thinking asks, all archaic medical dogma evaporates. All “conflicting” science isn’t really in disagreement. All confusion about recommendations disappears.
There are a lot of beliefs which persist in modern medicine and science whose prior supporting arguments were long ago refuted. The contemporary research evidence is contrary. And greater precision has cast the imprecise generalizations in a waste basket of unsophisticated, outdated understanding. With that in mind, you can unshackle yourself from headlines, professionals who aren’t up-to-date on their own professional journals, and the seemingly “conflicting” science.