By: Rachel K.
I think most nutrition students have
experienced this before. You go home for a family
gathering, and Uncle Albert has recently heard that eating acai
berries every day reduces prostate cancer risk. Uncle
Albert is confused because last year he heard that acai berry
consumption increases prostate cancer risk. He expects you,
clearly an expert in all things nutrition, to give him a straight
answer (you actually study cholesterol absorption).
Sadly, Uncle Albert has become another victim of scientific mis-communication. I recently read a PhD comic strip the other day entitled the “Science News Cycle” which does an excellent job of illustrating this problem.
Many factors contribute to the contradictory nutrition messages received by the lay public. First, information is transmitted through so many channels that by the time it reaches the lay audience, the message has been altered. I envision this process as a giant game of telephone (you know, the children's game where you whisper a message in someone's ear and then pass it along until the original message is no longer there).
In addition, journalists usually don't put result in context. Cells and rats are not humans. Researchers often use these model organisms to understand a piece of a process which they could not study otherwise. They never intended to make broad-based claims for humans with the results of one of these studies.
Moreover, good science is repetitive and methodical. It's usually far from glamorous, and to the lay audience it can be - (scientists brace yourselves) - dry. Consequently, science stated in proper context does not lend itself to the entertainment reporting practiced today. Journalists often “spice up” results to make them more exciting but usually lose the true message.
Scientists are partially responsible too. Scientists are trained for many years to do science – but there is no formal training process for communicating results in lay terms. Sometimes scientists just do a poor job of explaining the results. Sometimes scientists overstate results too.
I think the interpretation by the lay audience is another problem. In high school, my teachers emphasized the scientific method (you remember – identify problem, collect data, generate hypothesis, test hypothesis, evaluate results, state conclusions). Bing, bang, boom! They made research sound so easy and so straightforward.
I discovered many years later that this is a MYTH! Scientific research is rarely easy and almost never straightforward. Your hypothesis is frequently wrong, and results often contradict each other. Consequently, the outcome of any one study will not change the way we view a problem. It takes multiple studies by different research groups to challenge old scientific dogma and add new knowledge. Scientists are accustomed to this uncertainty, but people who chose to do anything other than scientific research professionally still picture it as bing, bang, boom.
So the next time Uncle Albert asks a question, spend a little time dispelling the scientific myth before you tell him you don't know anything about acai berries.