Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Law of No Restraint

There's a new law of science reporting or, perhaps more accurately put, of the science jungle.  The law is to feed any story, no matter how fantastic, to science journalists (including your university's PR spinners), and they will pick up whatever can be spun into a Big Story, and feed it to the eager mainstream media.  Caveats may appear somewhere in the stories, but not the headlines so that, however weak or tentative or incredible, the story gets its exposure anyway.  Then on to tomorrow's over-sell.

One rationale for this is that unexpected findings--typically presented breathlessly as 'discoveries'--sell: they rate the headline. The caveats and doubts that might un-headline the story may be reported as well, but often buried in minimal terms late in the report.  Even if the report balances skeptics and claimants, simply publishing the story is enough to give at least some credence to the discovery.

The science journalism industry is heavily inflated in our commercial, 24/7 news environment. It would be better for science, if not for sales, if all these hyped papers, rather than being publicized at the time the paper is published, first appeared in musty journals for specialists to argue over, and in the pop-sci news only after some mature judgments are made about them.  Of course, that's not good for commercial or academic business.

We have just seen a piece reporting that humans were in California something like 135,000 years ago, rather than the well-established continental dates of about 12,000.  The report which I won't grace by citing here, and you've probably seen it anyway, then went on to speculate about what 'species' of our ancestors these early guys might have been.

Why is this so questionable?  If it were a finding on its own, it might seem credible, but given the plethora of skeletal and cultural archeological findings, up and down the Americas, such an ancient habitation seems a stretch.  There is no comparable trail of earlier settlements in northeast Asia or Alaska that might suggest it, and there are lots of animal and human archeological remains--all basically consistent with each other, so why has no earlier finding yet been made?  It is of course possible that this is the first and is a correct one, but it is far too soon for this to merit a headline story, even with caveats.

Another piece we saw today reported that a new analysis casts doubt on whether diets high in saturated fat are bad for you.  This was a meta-analysis of various other studies that have been done, and got some headline treatment because the authors report that, contrary to many findings over many years, saturated fats don't clog arteries. Instead, they say, coronary heart disease is a chronic inflammatory condition.  Naturally, the study's basic data are being challenged, as reflected in this story's discussion, by critiques of its data and method.  These get into details we're not qualified to judge, and we can't comment on the relative merits of the case.

However, one thing we can note is that with respect to coronary heart disease, study after study has reported more or less the same, or at least consistent findings about the correlation between saturated fats and risk. Still, despite so very much careful science, including physiological studies as well as statistical analysis of population samples, can we still apparently not be sure about a dietary component that we've been told for years should play a much reduced role in what we eat?  How on earth could we possibly still not know about saturated fat diets and disease risk?

If this very basic issue is unresolved after so long, and the story is similar for risk factors for many complex diseases, then what is all this promise of 'precise' medicine all about?  Causal explanations are still fundamentally unclear for many cancers, dementias, psychiatric disorders, heart disease, and so on.  So why isn't the most serious conclusion that our methods and approaches themselves are for some reason simply not adequate to answer such seemingly simple questions as 'is saturated fat bad for you?'  Were the plethora of previous studies all flawed in some way?  Is the current study?  Do the publicizing of the studies themselves change behaviors in ways that affects future studies?

There may be no better explanation than that diets and physiology are hard to measure and are complex, and that no simple answer is true.  We may all differ for genetic and other reasons to such an extent that population averages are untrustworthy, or our habits may change enough that studies don't get consistent answers.  Or asking about one such risk factor when diets and lifestyles are complex is a science modus operandi that developed for studying simpler things (like exposure to toxins or bacteria, the basis of classical epidemiology), and we simply need a better gestalt from which to work.

Clearly a contributory sociological factor is that the science industry has simply been cruising down the same rails despite constant popping of promise bubbles, for decades now.  It's always more money for more and bigger studies.  It's rarely let's stop and take a deep breath and think of some better way to understand (in this case) dietary relationships to physical traits.  In times past, at least, most stories like the ancient Californian didn't get ink so widely and rapidly.  But if I'm running a journal, or a media network, or am a journalist needing to earn my living, and I need to turn a buck, naturally I need to write about things that aren't yet understood.

Unfortunately, as we've noted before, the science industry is a hungry beast that needs its continual feeding, and (like our 3 cats) always demands more, more, and more.  There are ways we could reform things, at least up to a point.  We'll never end the fact that some scientists will claim almost anything to get attention, and we'll always be faced with data that suggest one thing that doesn't turn out that way.  But we should be able to temper the level of BS and get back more to sober science rather than sausage factory 'productivity'.  And educate the public that some questions can't be answered the way we'd like, or aren't being asked in the right way.  But that is something science might address effectively, if it weren't so rushed and pressured to 'produce'.

1 comment:

Ken Weiss said...

Of course, doubting Thomases can always be proved wrong and ordered to make a serious mea culpa. But there has been so much exploration, amateur as well as professional, in the Americas and even in Siberia, that the plausibility of the Abominable Snowman (isn't that the right name for it) evidence to be taken the way most strained claims about human paleontology should be taken. We have plenty of truly good evidence for our ancestry that doubt should be the preferred response, and the news media should not ballyhoo something without a lot better evidence, the way this story has been made into today's Big Discovery. But if it's true, of course, it will be important; then the search for Yeti will obviously be intensified, as well as for more direct evidence of Abominable here in the Americas.