The dreaded scientific reversal, covered very well in today’s New York Times, is a bane to healthy living on many fronts. The Times is talking about when medical advice is given based on old knowledge, that has to be changed when new data eventually debunks the old notions.
This is a dreaded moment for doctors: the “medical reversal” discussion…. While the latest guidelines make it clear that most ear infections should not be treated with antibiotics, that’s a big change — and a good example of how seesaw science frustrates doctors and leads to tricky moments in the exam room.
I have written at length about the scientific reversal phenomenon before, in relation to food. You can find samples here, and here, where I discussed the progress of science. Science is never really and truly ‘settled’. Today’s great thought will be constantly tested and retested.
When writing about scientific progress, one of history’s greatest physicists, Max Planck wrote in 1950, “An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out, and that the growing generation is familiarized with the ideas from the beginning.” There is one opponent of scientific innovation that can never die, though. A corporation, that deathless, soulless entity whose only purpose in ‘life’ is to generate and protect it’s profits can be counted on to resist science that would restrict it’s profitability in perpetuity.
Ages ago it seemed like a great idea to limit the amount of fats that a person eats, so as to prevent those fats from accumulating in the heart arteries of the eaters. A very simple theory was developed that eating fat led to fat in your veins. The theory was based on interviewing people in places where there was not yet a great deal of heart disease. “Do you eat lots of saturated fats?” When lots of heart-disease free people said “Why no, I don’t eat vary much saturated fat” then a hypothesis was formed. Eating saturated fat seems to be related to heart disease, scientist thought. Through years of dedicated politicking, eventually this notion became a foundational part of dietary advice for a huge first-world nation. After years of government advice and food pyramids, the food industry concocted a plethora of food choices based on this notion. The food industry placed its marketing muscle behind selling the new creations. Fat free became conventional wisdom for weight loss, as the public and marketers took advantage of the simplicity of the message, “Eat less fat, be less fat.”
Nobody was concerned that the science, as slip-shod as it was, had NEVER implicated eating fats with weight gain.
Science is more than a collection of theories and notions, though. The testing of the notions and theories, as difficult as it is to do in the real world, continued just as science demands that it does. The implication of dietary fats as having a role in heart disease is on the cusp of being reversed. The theory that artificial fats (trans fats) was a heart healthy alternative has already been reversed–these fats are now banned in most modern societies, and is virtually banned in our own money-driven society.
However, the advice to eat no saturated fats will be given out to heart patients, and be offered as science-based fact in food marketing for many years to come. People will be eating ‘heart healthy’ breakfast candy in the form of cereals–clogging their arteries with the fats created from eating too many carbs, while their doctors tell them to keep doing it. Changing scientific advice is hard.
People resist changes in science because marketers sell every bit of it as fact. Science is not fact, it is a continuum of thought. Even the ‘fact’ that gravity always behaves like it does here on Earth was overturned by the scientific method. The ‘fact’ that light travels in a straight line was overturned by physicists that challenged that perfectly sensible notion. People do not realize that every scientific idea is constantly under scrutiny. A ‘fact’ as non-factual as “eating fat leads to heart disease” was really no challenge at all for the scientific method. It will be a huge challenge for the public though, as we await the death of the scientists who will always believe they are saving lives by giving this bad advice. Science changes one dead scientist at a time. The market will change more quickly, when a significant number of the money-spending lemmings have changed their course to affect the bottom line.
Soon I predict that most people will be living in a post-fat-free world. We will be healthier for it. Government advice will catch up as soon as more money is on the side of science. The only lasting damage will be to the reputation of science, which, in the mind of the public “Was Wrong Again”. Never mind that in reality, science is never ‘right’. It really never claimed to be ‘right’.