Friday, April 30, 2010

Another jolt to keep you awake at night

American epidemiology follows our puritanical culture, and intensely focuses on how harmful anything fun must be for you. Coffee, tea, alcohol, McFastFood, sugar, salt, chocolate, and sex (especially sex) are the Devil's own work. After all, when did you last see a big, expensive epidemiological study designed to show that brussels sprouts, rudabegas, or other delicacies of that sort are harmful. No--sin which means pleasure, is harmful. Must be harmful!

But here's a shocker: the latest bulletin from the Professor Sez One Food Fits All Department claims that coffee may be good for you (after all), and in so many ways! Now, after years of how bad it was for you, course is reversed by this deeply insightful, highly technical, perceptive study.

Now, it's too easy to poke fun at epidemiology (even genetic epidemiology) and the media, hand in hand with Claims of the Day. It's a major theme of this blog, since we try to be entertaining, and silly science is always good for a few laughs.

But another, actually serious, side of our blog is to comment on how science is working and at least to argue that it ought to be reformed. The first big problem is that reform involves several sticky wickets: how to disengage our professional careers from dependence on hasty results, self-marketing, grant-based salaries and tenure, proliferating competition and all. Those are all too human factors.

The other big problem is that the topics we're all trying to chase are damned difficult. You can't manage a career easily these days and still have time to try--really try--to wrestle with the general question of understanding multifactorial complexity without taking reductionist approaches, and usually hasty ones at that.

This latest Big Finding about coffee means that you'll live longer, with fewer diseases of all sorts, but in two ways. You'll not die of the typical diseases, which will add years to your life (if not hairs to your head or inches to your waistline). And you'll live more before you're dead because if you dose up on coffee you'll have fewer hours of sleep to waste your life away in. But you may have to accept feeling dead tired instead, as you lie wide awake all night thinking how great it is to still be alive. And, being tired, you'll be more accident prone, and .... well, there's a damnable trade-off to everything, it seems!

We have no solution (not even decaf). We wish we did. But if we did, we'd not have time to blather on in a blog like this. So maybe Silly Science is good for us, too!


JKW said...

Now I can say that both of my vices (coffee and Guinness) are good for me! Fantastic. The Guinness slogan "Guinness is Good for You" actually did make scientific sense when it came out. Guinness is good for you (assuming you are worried about getting drunk and faced with hard liquor, higher ABV options). Its context is usually forgotten in practice, and "findings" that coffee might be good for you will be taken out of context as well. Just because coffee might be not as bad as we thought doesn't mean that what people often add to that coffee (the sugary syrups + fatty whipped cream) isn't doing its own damage. As my Grandma Wagner (wiser than she'd ever realize) used to tell me, "If it's not something, it's something else."

Ken Weiss said...

Now, don't go spoiling your caffeinated fun by worrying that you're compensating for the good by dumping in the sugar and cream! If you do that, by worrying you'll negate all the good value of the coffee, and multiply the bad value of the additives. Because I'm sure the next study we find in the Hot News department will stress how stress and worry are bad for you.

(Unless they make you cut down on the bad stuff. So your Grandma was right)

By the way, even in my own childhood there used to be ads showing doctors recommending cigarettes, with company slogans to match.