The first examples we’ll look at that reinforce the need for healthy scepticism of experts in general, and scientists in particular, is of studies examining the benefits and drawbacks of various choices that we are forced to make in daily life, such as whether it is better for public health or the environment to use paper towels or electric hand-dryers after washing your hands.
Although most people would not worry about whether this is really an important decision in the big scheme of things, there are numerous studies into it, which means that a lot of money and time has been spent researching it.
Popular science reporting in the news then makes a big deal out of it, leading people to reach false conclusions based on reading these types of inaccurate and misleading articles.
One reason for the confusion is that several experts are quoted, and since each expert offers different and sometimes even conflicting conclusions, it causes extra misunderstanding for a reader who thought they might be able to get a clear-cut or at least useful answer to the issue being examined.
The real issue at the heart of the matter though, as the first article points out, is that oftentimes it is the companies that manufacture a product for a particular purpose that commission and then provide the funding for these studies.
As a result, the findings often predictably end up being in favour of the company’s products. This is an obvious conflict of interest for the researchers and it calls into question their objectivity and the very validity of the research itself.
Sometimes this leads to the research seeming completely absurd or meaningless, as in the example where a banana growing company funded a study into whether bananas were better than sports drinks for cyclists as an energy source and for recovery.
If you know the difference between being hungry and being thirsty then you might think straight away that this type of comparison is about as meaningless as looking at whether it’s better to eat a meal or drink a drink when you’re thirsty.
Surely most athletes (and people in general) eat a banana as a solid form of food, whereas they drink sports drinks for hydration. In other words, it is a completely faulty comparison and you expect no one in their right mind would eat a banana when they’re thirsty or drink a sports drink when they’re hungry.
That didn’t stop such reputable news sites as the New York Times or even a seemingly trustworthy resource for medical information like WebMD from reporting on this clearly flawed study. This type of reporting is pervasive in news media, and if you are not aware of where the money and impetus for the research comes from in the first place, it is likely that you will consider the reporting to be reliable science.
However, when we read about the findings of studies in news articles it is often very difficult to establish where the funding for particular research comes from. Not only that, we also need to carefully consider the motivations of the experts themselves, who may be desperate for the funding and required to publish a certain number of research papers to maintain their job positions – a point that we will examine in the following post.
Paper towels or air hand dryers: Which is better for the environment and hygiene?
Bananas as an Energy Source during Exercise: A Metabolomics Approach