Why People Get Whiplash from Reading the Latest Science News

You know how it is: Today's science news (especially today's diet or nutrition news) seems to contradict what you heard yesterday. Coffee causes cancer! Coffee prevents cancer! Eggs are bad for you! Eggs are good for you! And so on. 

We've been posting a list of questions readers should ask whenever they see a science story (check out our earlier blog posts to see more). Answering them will help separate solid and well-researched stories from hype and hot air. 

Underlying it all, though, is a more central point: Science doesn't exist to give you definitive answers. What most people don't realize — and what a lot of people making money off of science don't like to admit — is that scientific research is less The Word of Truth than it is an endless debate. Of course results contradict other results. Of course interpretations differ. Of course there is critique and sniping, revision and re-revision and re-re-revision. That's what science is all about. It's not final conclusions. It's a shape shifting, moving target, or a string of best guesses.

Uncertainty is an unavoidable part of current investigations

The paradox is that people look to the science news for just the sort of certainty they will never find. It is because, I think, they have the wrong idea of what science is and what it can do. 

The key here is teaching that science is a process, not an end point. Each individual study is merely one punch in a long sparring match, not the final word on anything.  I found a good summary of the issue in a publication of the European Food Information Council (EUFIC), part of which I share here: 

The scientific process is a road of discovery. It is the process of gaining knowledge about the universe through the observation of measurable evidence. Contrary to what many people believe, this ‘road’ is not a straight, smooth motorway: researchers may take different directions of exploration, going down routes that twist, turn, and sometimes even backtrack or come to a dead end, before the facts are uncovered. Even then, the facts uncovered may be only part of a larger, partially understood phenomenon, which requires further research before we come to more complete answers.

As a result, the scientific process—how studies are designed, conducted, and reported—frequently generates a great deal of debate. Tracking the debate is often key to putting new research into context. With that in mind, new research studies published in scientific journals should be viewed as discussions among scientists. In these discussions, almost no one gets to have the final word, as it is rare that a study provides a final, complete answer. In fact, occasionally even old, accepted research results are revisited and discussed again. With the benefit of new information or technology, scientists sometimes see previous research results in a new light. The publication of research findings allows researchers to get opinions and critiques on their work by other experts, which not only confirms or contradicts their conclusions but also adds to the body of literature on a subject and so helps shape future research.

The bottom line is that dialogues characterized by cycles of revision, conjecture, assertion, and contradiction are frequently key to investigating a subject.  Although such cycles often frustrate non-scientists and contribute to increasing public skepticism about advice on food and health, it is important to understand that science is evolutionary, not revolutionary. Because scientific research explores the unknown, uncertainty is an unavoidable part of current investigations.