Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Baloney Detection: Part II

Yesterday's post included applying questions 1-5 of the "Baloney Detection Kit" to evaluating nutrition claims.  Today I will discuss questions one through six.  I have also found a link that contains the "written" version of the Baloney Detection kit here::
6) Where does the preponderance of evidence point?
You are going to find a lot of articles about how this one particular food or one particular nutrient is going to help you lose weight, have better skin, ease your aches and pains, etc.   There are people out there who are deficient in certain nutrients, but they can usually improve their health by eating more of a certain general category versus eating one specific  food.  Sometimes it can actually be detrimental to your health in other ways.  For example, I had one patient who had to take a medication that caused him to lose a lot of potassium through his urine.  "Someone" told him that bananas had a lot of potassium so eat started eating about 3-4 per day.  When I looked at his blood glucose records I noticed his blood sugars were elevated in the past few weeks.  He told me what happened and I reminded him that he was now going way over his carbohydrate intake and that's likely why his blood sugars were high.  We talked about some other ways for him to increase his potassium intake (e.g. Greek yogurt) without eating as many of that one food and his blood glucose levels came down.
7) Is the claimant employing the accepted rules of reason and tools of research, or have these been abandoned in favor of others that lead to the desired conclusion? (In other words, is the claimant playing by the rules of science?)
There are some people out there that start with the premise that this particular food, or nutrient, or food additive is always good or always bad.  Typically they will only "evidence" that supports whatever they were trying to say.  A lot of times the "evidence" is also anecdotal and any studies they cite are obscure, unpublished, and not in peer- reviewed journals. Often you will find them trying to market a particular alternative that may or may not have any evidence to support it.   If the claim about a food seems anecdotal, be skeptical.
8)  Is the claimant providing positive evidence?
I have seen a lot of websites and books where the author spends a lot of time criticizing the other side but he/she doesn't actually provide evidence on why their diet plan, etc is actually better.  Typically if the author mentions that they are being criticized and/or "persecuted" by another group this should raise a red flag on the validity of the information they are providing.  If the author uses phrases like "what your doctor doesn't want you to know about" and "everyone is being ruled by Big Pharma" more red flags should go up.
I have actually seen websites where the author was able to provide positive evidence and express the frustration that they have had dealing with other health care professionals, etc.  You can do both, but merely making fun of something is not scientific evidence.
9) Does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory?
Most of us who work in nutrition related fields are fascinated by how some diet plans work better for some people than others.  I have seen all sorts of "reasons" presented from differences in blood type to the type of pesticides used on foods  to how well you chew and so on.  There might be something to some of the issues that are raised, but not all of these theories will take into account, for example, the many different ways of classifying blood besides the A/B/O, etc or the amount of certain foods that people take in.  If the new explanation is raising more questions or outright ignoring other factors you should start seeing more red flags.
10) Are personal beliefs driving the claim?
When I first starting hanging around with other people of a skeptical mindset I was fascinated how people could be very logical about many things, but when it comes to their diet they are willing to believe some pretty crazy things.  In other words, most of us have been guilty of allowing personal beliefs to get in the way.  I'm not sure I have an easy answer to avoiding this, but usually I will try to go to someone who has more expertise in that area than I do to try to find verification.  For example, one time I was skulking around on a blog that normally contained some pretty sound info, but then author linked a story about a woman who "cured" her child's cavity by giving him supplemental fermented butter oil capsules because they were anti-fluoride and a lot of anti-other things too.  Something smelled quite fermented to me, but I went to a friend who I will call "SkepticDentist" to get his opinion.  I not only had my suspicions confirmed, but got some other good info as well.  Also, another way of detecting whether or not someone is letting their personal beliefs get in the way is to look at how much time they spend ranting against "the other guy."  SkepticRD acknowledges that there are plenty of people out there who have had unfortunate run ins with doctors and other people in the medical profession, and this is one reason why people turn to the internet and other sources, but please, find ways to keep looking at everything with a critical eye.

Michael Shermer concluded his article by stating ”Clearly, there are no foolproof methods of detecting baloney or drawing the boundary between science and pseudoscience" and I would remind people that this applies to all the above stated.  You will probably also find plenty of books, articles, websites, etc that contain a range of info that is both useful and totally erroneous.    So I will tell you what I told my co-worker who asked "Is there any grocery store where I can just walk in and everything is good for me?"
"No, you still have to think."

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