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“Science” and the public interest

by Greg Krehbiel on 8 January 2018

Sometime over the weekend I saw an article about a study on exercise and losing weight. The point of the article was that you can’t expect to lose weight by exercise alone, and that, in fact, exercise doesn’t help that much with weight loss. You have to watch your diet.

This isn’t the article I saw, but it’s similar: The science is in: exercise won’t help you lose much weight.

My immediate reaction to this was, “Okay, but did you ever read how much Michael Phelps ate in a day?” Or, IOW, I think you might be pushing your conclusions too far.

Exercise clearly affects how many calories we burn. It also increases the proportion of weight that is muscle (rather than fat), which increases how many calories a person burns during the day, so exercise has a cumulative, building effect. A study based on weight loss over a month isn’t going to tell the full tale.

However … I’m no expert on this. I’m just making casual observations based on what I hear and see. So one of my inner interlocutors is saying, “you’re denying science!

And the interlocutor has a point … to a degree.

In some sort of ideal world, if we were dealing with, on the one hand, credible, serious, peer-reviewed science that came to a definite conclusion, and, on the other hand, my casual observations, it would be foolish for me to trust my casual observations over the science.

But that’s almost never what we really have. There are layers of BS between me and the science.

First, it’s highly doubtful the journalist got it right. In just about every case where I have known something about an issue, articles about that issue were wrong on important details. (I say “just about” in a fit of concern over accuracy. I have a feeling it’s actually every single case.)

Other people report the same thing, on many different issues. The ugly truth is that we really can’t trust the press to report things accurately.

Second, I have a very strong suspicion that any science that addresses public interest subjects is very heavily filtered through a series of questions like “but what will people do if they read this?” I don’t think they report the facts and let us make our own conclusions. I think they go through all kinds of mental gyrations about social outcomes.

I know this to be the case some of the time. I’ve listened to hearings on subjects like the public health response to vaping, and there’s all kinds of hand-wringing and moaning about what people will do with the information.

They don’t treat us like adults. They don’t tell us the facts and let us make up our own minds. They try to fashion a public reaction. While this is most clearly seen in public policy statements, I think it creeps its way into news coverage, and even into the studies themselves.

There are certain topics where you simply can’t believe the science because the outcome is predetermined. Who, for example, is going to publish a study saying that girls are bad at math? I’m not saying girls are bad at math. I’m saying that even if they were, very few people would make the career-destroying move of publishing that. So — and this is the perverse thing about it — there’s no reason to believe a study that says they’re good at math. You can’t trust an assertion when the opposite is simply not allowed.

Third, in my lifetime the science on diet, nutrition and exercise has flip-flopped so many times it’s hard to take any of it too seriously. I have a general feeling (or is it a hope?) that it’s getting progressively better all the time, but my attitude towards such stuff is along the lines of, “okay, I can afford to wait five years to see if I should believe that.”

This is why I usually chuckle when people say they “believe science.” They believe no such thing. They believe some weird, distorted summary of something that’s been filtered to them through reporters who don’t know much, and even at that it might have been influenced by some sort of social policy goal. They don’t “believe science.” They believe science popularizers — who usually don’t understand the science that well anyway.

Science — real science — is a wonderful thing. It’s how we know whether a bridge will hold so many tons of vehicles, and it’s how people come up with the tech for my rear-view camera and the surveillance device in my pocket.

But until it’s that kind of science — i.e., until it’s become engineering — we layman are perfectly justified in saying, “yeah, maybe. I’ll wait and see.”

2018-01-08  »  Greg Krehbiel

Talkback x 10

  1. smitemouth
    8 January 2018 @ 2:45 pm

    Nutrition “science” is voodoo. I’ve been reading a lot in the last 6 months. FWIW, I went on mostly a low carb diet 2 months ago. Since then, I am down 24 pounds–and remember this spans Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Years.

    The good thing about nutrition, is that you can do your own experiments. If I was going to advise someone, I’d advise them to first try a low carb experiment for a few weeks and see what the results are. If the results aren’t good, try something else. Of course, that is for losing weight. What are the long term effects to your health following any particular diet? Who knows??? There’s a study that says A is bad and another that says A is good.

    If you drink soft drinks, stop. Once in a while, for a special occasion? Ok. As a habit? Bad. Same with junk food and processed foods. (Same goes for beer…:( )

    I’ve read people losing hundreds of pounds going low carb, and others doing the same going low fat.

    Honestly, I think the people are right saying you can’t out run your diet–IOW, you can lose a bunch more weight with diet vs exercise. The amount of calories in a bowl of ice cream or a piece of cake wipes out any workout–let alone the effect on your blood sugar, insulin, and other hormones.

    Running a marathon uses up about 3500 calories. That’s one pound of fat. Most mortals don’t have the time or the knees to run several marathons a week let alone one or a half or a quarter. (Well, most people don’t have the knees to run a 1/4 marathon every day). Most people gain weight after running a marathon. Yes, they burn 3500 calories (a pound of fat is 3500 calories) during the marathon, but most don’t even start burning fat until mile 20. Before that, they’re burning carbs and glycogen. Then they hit the wall and burn fat. During the race they are drinking energy drinks and trying to keep their carbs up to avoid hitting the wall sooner. They gain weight after the marathon because although there will be a calorie deficit for most, after the race, the body experiences inflammation and holds extra water because of it. Often, people reward themselves after the marathon too. There’s free food and beer and etc.

    I’ve lost 24 pounds without exercising. I’ll probably start some up soon just because it is good for health. It might help with weight loss, but not as much as diet.

    If you look at the food pyramid and how it came to be and the gov’t agencies and lobbyists involved… well, you’d wonder what science has to do with it. Often people think “the science ought to show that _______”, when in reality the science does not.

  2. Robin R.
    8 January 2018 @ 3:09 pm

    But how do I know that the crap from Crowhill is not just one more layer of BS?

  3. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    8 January 2018 @ 3:16 pm

    Of course it is. It’s just my opinion on various things I see and here. What else could it be?

  4. Nathan
    8 January 2018 @ 3:59 pm

    Nutrition tends to treat calories vs weight as follows

    Weight change = Calories Eaten – Calories burned.
    – If you eat more than you burn, you gain weight. Else lose weight

    I think that’s overly simplistic, because there’s another place for calories to end up: the bathroom. Your body doesn’t absorb 100% of the calories eaten. Changing that percentage could help a lot of people

  5. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    8 January 2018 @ 4:51 pm

    You raise something I’ve always wondered.

    If I eat an extra 200 calories every day for a week, will that have the same effect as eating an extra 1400 calories on just one day?

    Or, to put it another way, does there come a point where it doesn’t matter how much more you eat because you’ve already maxed out your system.

  6. Dave Krehbiel Dave Krehbiel
    9 January 2018 @ 9:43 am

    Regarding being anti-science, I think it is important to define what each person needs by, “science”. I personally prefer to think of science as the use of the scientific method, rather than peer-review.

  7. William
    9 January 2018 @ 1:16 pm

    Dave makes a good point. When people use the term “science”, is there a common point of reference? I suspect their isn’t and the term is being bandied about to bolster a particular point of view.

  8. Robin R.
    9 January 2018 @ 2:22 pm

    But who is in a position to judge whether certain results arise from an application of “the” scientific method in the myriad domains of scientific inquiry?

  9. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    9 January 2018 @ 2:26 pm

    One possible manifestation of what your average person means by “science” is the collection of things that show up in the Facebook group “I f%$$ing love science”

    Most of them aren’t “science” at all. Just nature.

  10. smitemouth
    9 January 2018 @ 4:11 pm

    The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is the group (private not governmental) that pressured McDonald’s, Burger King, and other fast food restaurants to use shortening to fry their fries instead of beef tallow. Turns out the trans fat of the shortening was much worse on the heart than was the tallow–and it didn’t taste as good to boot. Now on so many packages you see “contains no trans fat”…whereas it was promoted as healthy before.

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