Science is not a group that scientists join. It is not a club with rules of admission. Science is a way of figuring out the world. It is a method of investigation, a set of rules for determining what the evidence is suggesting. Scientific fact is always subject to modification. Scientists sometimes are immune to change and are extremely set in their opinions about what the science is telling them.
Today in the Washington Post I read that:
Exactly what governments and other public health organizations ought to tell people about salt has been the focus of fierce debate in recent years. The U.S. government, through the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, as well as the American Heart Association, have long warned that most Americans are consuming far too much salt, and that excess consumption raises risks for high blood pressure, strokes and heart disease. However, research in recent years by some prominent scientists have raised doubts about those warnings.
The problem is not the science. It is mute on the topic–providing only evidence. The problem is that the scientists on either side of the science are only using the evidence that will confirm their conclusions about the issue. This, my friend, is not science, it is pseudoscience.
The problem, exactly the same, is in informing public debate and policy utilizing science concerning sugar, saturated fats, tobacco, and just about any other substance that may be ingested by one of us on a regular basis. We are constantly getting confusing mixed messages from “scientists” who are looking at primary research (the actual clinical data) and then drawing pseudoscientific conclusions from it. Then like-minded “scientists” will cite this research in supporting their latest analysis of the “existing data” and reaffirm the conclusions. They cherry-pick studies to include so as to pick up bandwagon support, the more studies on the wagon the more solid seems the research. The resulting echo chamber makes the devotees on the bandwagon feel secure in their validity. Meanwhile the opposing bandwagon is just as full of people on the other side.
Is there a right and wrong in the case of salt? Is there a dangerous level that applies to all people in all cases? Probably. Is there a level that is harmless to all people in all cases? Probably. In fact in every case where there is scientific debate on an issue, the reality lies somewhere along the spectrum. In fact YOUR REALITY will lie somewhere between those extremes and will be different than mine. There is not truly a “right” science in this case, and the honorable men and women arrayed in battle dress on either side of the issue are not always wrong, and their hearts are all in the right places. It has been said that science progresses one dead scientist at a time. This means that the people whose views are outdated will hold those views until the end. The new men and women just coming up will be schooled on both sides and invariably over time science gets to progress past the point where there is still debate about whether the earth is round or flat or obloid.
Just this morning I noticed that my friend Nina Teicholz is calling for help ensuring that the Nutrition Evidence Library may be missing crucial counterpoint evidence in it’s database of nutritional studies. The Library is supposed to be a way for scientists to find all of the evidence, on both sides of every dietary science issue (fat, sugar, salt, carbs, etc) so that when it comes time for the Govmet to issue advice to the public all of the conflicting reports can have their say on the outcome. Here is her request:
Please help with this effort to complete a list of studies missing from the US government’s Nutrition Evidence Library. This library is what the Dietary Guidelines expert committee draws upon for all its expert reviews–which become our Guidelines. And it seems that a great deal of crucial science is missing from that library. In fact, most of the science testing the diet-heart hypothesis appears not to be there. So if you have time, please help us flesh out what’s missing from this Library. Time Sensitive! I need this by Friday, when I’ll have the opportunity to present this to the USDA.
Teicholz is not a scientist, but she senses that any true scientist would want to know about contrary evidence to the opinions that they are used to espousing. A true scientist would not want to recklessly promote a false fact. Pardon her naivety, she is young. Even in primary studies, where evidence is being initially collected, as compared to secondary studies where primary studies are being compared to one another, the conclusion paragraphs are basically the opinions of the scientists that conducted the research. These conclusions are not facts. Later work, or decades of reality, can show a scientist’s conclusions were prima facia false. For instance, switching from a diet high in fats to a diet high in carbs will not end the ‘heart attack epidemic.’ Science that says it will could safely be thrown on the trash pile of history…but it won’t until all of those old scientists are deceased.
I applaud the researchers in the salt comparison study for pointing out the dichotomy in science research. They could easily just find/replace the word salt with sugar and reissue the report and it would be just as true. I applaud Nina for her work advertising and attempting to correct the Nutrition Evidence Library lapses. I even applaud the US Government for having a thing like the NEL that can be improved.
So for us, here living life, what should we believe? “Scientists Say” is now one of those phrases that will mean just another man’s opinion. This is always what it should have meant, but some people, usually NY Times headline writers, seem to think it means more than it generally does. It is probably safe to say that you can keep enjoying your daily ration of salt. If you eat real food, especially food that doesn’t have any health claims on the label, then you will be safe from just about every disputed nutrient in processed foods. Better yet, avoid processed foods and just eat real food.