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March 29th, 2010

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11:46 am - Comfort in the Unreal
I've been reading a lot of publications lately, mostly as a result of real-life conversations that I wanted to know more about. At zoethe's prompting, I read a study on High Fructose Corn Syrup in rats. I skimmed a few of the references on whether vaccines cause autism, in the wake of a US Court ruling. I ready a study that found the first conclusive link to addictive properties of fatty foods that are akin to cocaine.

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.
Current Mood: annoyedannoyed

(4 comments | Leave a comment)


(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
Date:March 29th, 2010 07:09 pm (UTC)
*laugh* Ok, so it seems that ALL of my posts lately somehow end up as HFCS debates.

The issue is Acid Hydrolysis. I don't dispute that monosaccharides are more biologically accessible than disaccharide. So when you look at studies that compare the effects of monosaccharides versus disaccharides, you do see significant differences. That's to be expected.

But then we get into acid hydrolysis. The problem is that disaccharides (sucrose in particular) break down into monosaccharides fairly rapidly in the presence of acid. Most manufactured foodstuffs with high sugar are also acidic to reduce bacterial action. Even for the ones that aren't, when you eat a disaccharide, the acid in your stomach (then combined with other enzymes and biologic factors that are meant to make monosaccharides for the body to "eat") breaks that sucrose into a 50/50 blend of glucose and fructose. (Zero calories expended, unless you count acid production, which most people do at a fairly constant rate anyhow.)

HFCS is a 45/55 blend of glucose and fructose. And typically less than 2% of sucrose fails to hydrolize in acid over time. So you're looking at best a 7% discrepancy between table sugar and HFCS. Which, in studies that have accounted for that, hasn't amounted to a statistically significant result.

So. What you say makes sense. But any study that's controlled for the metabolic processes of sugar has come up inconclusive. Only those that force-test individual sugars in isolation tend to get discernible results. Which is great from a discovery standpoint, but not especially meaningful from a life-lab standpoint since those conditions don't occur naturally. It would be a different argument if HFCS was 100% fructose, but it isn't.
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
Date:March 29th, 2010 07:33 pm (UTC)
Absolutely agree with that, but as I've always said, the issue with that is quantity -- not the specific substance. Because of American preferences (what tastes out the best in focus groups and market trials) we have all of this stuff crammed into our food.

But HFCS has become the red herring of the sugar debate. People seem to think that banning HFCS will somehow solve the obesity epidemic. When, in fact, prices will go up 5-cents per package, and manufacturers will switch to sucrose, or sugar alcohols (like Xylitol) or even manufactured glucose syrup... all of which have their own problems, sometimes the same ones as HFCS.

Until we get a handle on quantity of consumption -- which is actually the larger problem of changing preference -- all the "war on HFCS" will do is raise prices and spin out a lot of questionable and inapplicable research looking for a cure-all.
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
Date:March 29th, 2010 07:44 pm (UTC)
... and inside the US as well. They boosted the price 5 cents per can, and called it Pepsi throwback. ;)

One thing to look at here is that the "obesity epidemic" is emerging in places throughout the world where HFCS isn't broadly used. Kids in Japan are getting diabetes and putting on weight, but there's nary a drop of HFCS to be found, since southern Japan is great for cane sugar, but most of the country is terrible for corn. So you have familiar trend lines starting to form, but completely different products. If that doesn't kick the HFCS crowd in the pants eventually, I'm not sure what will...
[User Picture]
Date:March 30th, 2010 04:08 am (UTC)
If nothing else, using less HFCS might help take the pressure off of the corn crop, devastated by all this ethanol nonsense. The price of everything from chicken to corn bread has skyrocketed, due to the diversion of a food crop to some ersatz global warming panacea.

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