Comfort in the Unreal
And then, of course, I read the press articles describing those studies to the public at-large.
For years I've been smugly dismissive of people who make life-changing decisions based on junk science and the over-digested, out-of-context sludge that appears in the press. Vegans tend to be a target of choice, for me. I enjoy laughing at Scientologists. I was pretty sure from the start that the runaway Toyota Prius in California was a publicity hoax, since neither computers nor mechanical systems work quite the way that guy claimed... (though it didn't stop a couple of imitators from duplicating his situation in the following days. Consequence-free high-speed joy ride, anyone?)
But to some extent, largely due to the autism thing (and reading posts from mind-whacked mothers desperate for any sort of relief), I'm coming to realize that I might be wrong. Fighting junk science with science is a losing proposition, and always will be. Scientists need to learn from the politicians, who discovered long ago that people don't want to be told how complicated the situation is. They want nice, digestible little packages of certainty that they can absorb and internalize.
Research, by nature, cannot ever give us inviolable answers. It's open-ended. It's conditional. It's often highly-specific and cannot be broadly applied. Will a study on white male rats under 6 months of age apply to black female humans over 40? Was there a strong electrical field in the area of Experiment A that wasn't present for Experiment B? What genetic or environmental factors haven't even been identified, much less isolated? When you read a study, it always sounds like the researchers are hedging... nobody ever gives you an answer. All you get are suggestions with a bit of causality. It doesn't even matter which side of an issue you're on, because if a publication has been adequately peer-reviewed, chances are strong that both sides will find conclusions they can take issue with.
Junk science, on the other hand, is conclusive. It relies on correlation. If people are getting fatter since McDonalds was founded, then McDonalds must be why people are fat. If the heartland is losing jobs since Wal*Mart moved in, then the collapse of the rural economy must be due to Wal*Mart. If my baby developed autistic traits at age 2, then the 20-month vaccinations must have caused it. We're human, and we always make connections in the world... we have to, to survive. If the bottle has a skull on it, then it must be poison, and we shouldn't drink it. We're trained to do so, and to some extent, it's the closest thing human beings have to instinct.
So there is great comfort in junk, and a queasy unease in truth. More often than not, there is even active disdain of inconclusive truth. If a study can't tell me that Food X won't cause heart disease for anybody, under any circumstance, at any point in time, well... then there's still a chance that Food X caused my heart disease. (Corollary: And I know that it did.)
(Corollary 2: And so I'm going to sue...)
What really irks me, though, is that people are used to playing the averages. If you're in a foreign country, and all of the hikers around you are eating the little purple berry off the trailside bushes, most people will eat the little purple berry. When a body of evidence builds up, people can make snap decisions based on the facts they are given, even if their internal judgment or prior beliefs are violated in the process.
And yet with junk science, they don't. In fact, usually when research is published that actively refutes one's beliefs, that does little more than to reinforce their belief. (I, for instance, am pretty darned convinced that High Fructose Corn Syrup isn't any worse for you than sucrose, but at least am willing to admit that the first study linked above may well be the vanguard of new data to indicate that it is. But that study alone is somewhat insufficient!)
The irony is that people who spend no effort to judge the truth of an issue, will make life-changing (often potentially dangerous) adjustments to conform to their beliefs. Those life changes are usually much harder and long-term than researching the science -- or even doing the research themselves -- would be. So much effort expended to chase a dream, rather than chase the truth. Undergraduate college kids are really the best at this, so maybe we just never really grow out of that phase. They'll twist themselves into moral pretzels to avoid even the slightest bit of navel gazing, or objective research, on any topic more meaningful than how many squares of toilet paper to use in the morning... and often, even on that. I know. I was once one too. ;)
Researchers worry about their credibility, and so they responsibly refrain from making many absolute statements. Maybe it's time to worry less. The junk science advocates have no such qualms, and it doesn't seem to hurt their future credibility as they continue to vomit their drivel into the face of reality. In fact, the researchers' unwillingness to take a stand does more to hurt their credibility in the court of public opinion than would the inverse.
It's time for science to take back the propaganda pages. It might not make you feel good, but at least it would be real. Because sooner or later, un-vaccinated kids, fad diets and environmental tinkering will start to kill people. Maybe that's ok... Darwinism in action? But it's rarely fair for the innocent to take the bullet for the ignorance of others. Reality needs to reimpose itself before kids start dying.
Oh wait. Too late.