The field of nutrition is an imperfect science, but that hasn't stopped the media and its adoring public from jumping on scientific studies that claim daily coffee consumption promotes a longer life; sugar is as harmful as cocaine; or drinking wine is as good as going to the gym. Last night after a brief hiatus, comedian and commentator John Oliver returned to Last Week Tonight to clear up some of the misunderstandings surrounding scientific studies.
Ultimately, Oliver says, it comes down to how scientific journals sell studies to the media using press releases with catchy phrases and dumbed down results, and then how media companies further dumb down that information for a consumer public that loves reading and sharing news like "the benefits of eating chocolate during pregnancy." The study that yielded that headline did not, in fact, find there were any benefits to eating chocolate during pregnancy, but that isn't how the media reported it because no one wants to hear or read about a study that found there was no correlation between eating chocolate and blood flow to the uterus during pregnancy. (Even this publication has been guilty of falling down this slippery slope.) Oliver: "It's like a game of telephone."
Also of note: Most readers of scientific studies do not make note of the organization that funded the study or said organization's sometimes suspect motivations. Oliver notes that while science is not bullshit "there is a lot of bullshit in science." As Eater data visualization reporter Vince Dixon wrote earlier this year, "just because a claim is supposedly backed by 'clinical studies' doesn't mean it can be trusted. Even if the research is scientifically sound, ultimately the basis for many corporate-sponsored research is marketing, not just public health."
Another major issue, Oliver points out, is that scientists are under constant pressure to publish studies of value, and studies that show statistically significant results. This can lead to a sort of fudging of the results. And though studies published in the most prestigious journals are vetted, many others published elsewhere are not.
Oliver's final word: "Science is... hugely important, and it deserves better than to be twisted out of proportion and turned into morning show gossip."