Fifth Estate’s: War on Wheat. Observations on Scientists Interacting with our Culture

Felsoetold_Wheat_field,_HungaryCBC’s Fifth Estate presented a series by Mark Kelley entitled War on Wheat. Personally, I have enjoyed wheat products all of my life and I have no reason to change. However, several members in my circle of family and friends have changed to a gluten-free diet and so I was interested in hearing Kelley’s perspective on the subject. I had another reason for listening. As a scientist I am interested in examples of how scientists interact with the general public. I hope to learn how I can make my own communication more honest, open, and effective.

Every news program has a point of view. From the title, from the arrangement of the segments, and from the questions that were asked, it was clear to me that Kelley had organized the program to convince the audience that wheat is good, that “science” is almost unanimously on the side of eating wheat, and that going gluten-free is a fad promulgated by “food evangelists.” Remember, I am saying this as a person who loves his slice of bread and has found no reason whatsoever to change.

How the message was presented

The program began with a number of very short comments by notable contributors to the debate. It then moved on by focusing on two women, Rachel and Rachel who explained by personal anecdote how abandoning gluten had benefited them, making them feel and look better. It was clear they would not consider going back to gluten in their diet even though, being gluten-free involved a lot of work and presumably a good deal of expense.

The show then cut to a series of experts who presented the conclusions of many medical and nutrition organizations that gluten in the diet, except for the 1% with Celiac’s disease, was beneficial. When asked why so many people were switching away from gluten, they concluded it was motivated by celebrity example, by over reliance on anecdotes rather than data, and the impact of compelling talk show hosts who were swaying the public.

Finally Mark Kelley interviewed Dr. William Davis, a cardiologist and author of Wheat Belly. Kelley’s questions for Dr. Davis were quite different than those directed at the previous. Kelley called into question Davis’ claims, asked him if he every thought he was wrong, and cited or alluded to comment after comment on people who disagreed with him.

As an organic chemist, I am not really an expert on the science of nutrition, but I can learn something from this example on how scientists should and should not communicate with the public. Here is what I have learned about behaviours and approaches to avoid.

Underestimating the importance of personal anecdotes

Personal anecdotes are important because they are “personal.” Whatever their defects and shortcomings, these anecdotes are based on personal and direct observation by the decision maker. Everything else is second hand and has to be taken to some extent on trust, so of course, people will rely on directly and most confidently on their own observations. And so they should. However, like all observers we need to learn how to observe more astutely and eliminate bias which plagues us all, scientist and non-scientist alike.

To make my point, consider that you have been bedridden with no end in sight and you make a change in diet and suddenly you recover and have returned to a more normal life. Of course, you will be reluctant to change your diet back no matter how many controlled dietary studies are presented to you. You may at some point try the old diet again just to prove to yourself it wasn’t a coincidence (i.e. the change in diet was related to the change in health) but studies cannot trump personal observation. This is what people mean by “listening to your body.”

I also think scientists make an ambiguous distinction between anecdotes and data. If you look behind every data point, you will find an anecdote: a researcher planned and conducted an experiment, analysed the data, compiled it into presentable form and then drew conclusions from the patterns. I think what scientists mean is that not all anecdotes are the same or equally useful for deciding questions of study.

This can easily be seen from a business example. One might ask “how is my company doing?” One CFO may give a thumbs up, saying “sales and margins are great; we have lots of money in the bank.” Another CFO may approach the same question with  sales and margin data, graphical summaries of trends and projections based clearly defined assumptions. I would find the second more convincing, but both ultimately are based on anecdotes.

Scientists presenting badly

Decisions and conclusions in science ought to depend on the data available. Too often, as was the case in War Against Wheat, scientists are set up as experts. We are given their titles and credentials and then they tell us what conclusions to believe without walking us through the data. This is not how science works. If they were truly expert, the could help us understand the data. If they were truly honest and forthright, they would also tell us the limits and shortcomings of the data, even if this uncertainty undermines the tendency of their basic message.

My own conclusion: always talk data from a perspective of humility and potential bias. Don’t assume I’m smarter than my audience and leave the final decision and conclusions to them. Everyone needs that freedom.

Scientists behaving badly

I think there is a third general tendency by scientists and scientific societies that have generally undermined their credibility. In science, decisions and conclusions should be based on the best data available, and not on power, politics, and propaganda. Scientists are human, and the power of an individual scientist, his ability to gain support for his ideas by networking (politics), and finally his ability to present his case in a way that sways a large number of his colleagues (potentially propaganda, depending on how its done) have always played a role. However, our goal ought to be to step back from those defects and end up where the data determines the conclusion.

From where I sit, there is a perception or perhaps angst in the scientific community that presenting and explaining the data is not enough. In other words, the questions on the table are viewed as so important, the consequences of wrong action so disastrous, and the critics of our proposed solution so persuasive that we have to make sure of the outcome by taking strong action. In other words we go beyond the science and the presentation of data to politics, power, and propaganda (by propaganda I mean selectively using data with the clear intention of persuading the audience to a particular point of view and action) to silence our critics, by discrediting, defaming, and de-funding them.

What is curious to me is the effect on people who effectively use politics, power, and propaganda to further their ideas and convictions. Even though they are effective in implementing their point of view, they begin to believe that’s how we should proceed and they seem stunned when the tables are turned and they are on the losing end of another issue when others use the same tactics.

We ought to always allow everyone into the debate and argue about the value of the data. If our case is really so strong, compelling, and one-sided as we think, the data will win in the end. At the very least, in a democracy we depend on the cumulative wisdom of the voters and we ought to do everything to make all points of view available to them so they can decide.

Not recognizing postmodernism as a reality

The fourth problem I see is the inability of scientists to recognize how their audience has changed. In our postmodern society, people trust their friends much more than experts. They believe everyone has an agenda and so strangers are more suspect than people who demonstrably care about their well-being. Everything is driven by relationship. It’s the reality of how people weigh evidence. If I want to get a hearing, people need to get to know me a little bit. I cannot take short cuts.

In summary then, I found the War on Wheat singularly disappointing and unconvincing. Still my own convictions continue to be that wheat is good food and good for me (the actual conclusion War on Wheat was driving towards). I have made a renewed commitment in my own discussion of scientific questions that I will be data driven, respect personal anecdotes, and not rely on my degrees, my credentials, or my publications for credibility. I realize I need to have a personal connection to be heard.

I know these are controversial questions. I would love to hear from you.

Peter Kazmaier is author of The Halcyon Dislocation, a colonization epic about a university transported to another world.

About Peter Kazmaier

Lover of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Author of the SF series THE HALCYON CYCLE. I frequently re-read my favourite books.

Posted on February 28, 2015, in Postmodernism, Science and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Hi Peter. It was good of you to say that you respect personal anecdotes. Men of science generally take a dim view of such things. I have come to believe that for every fade diet/ exercise/ supplement there may be some people who benefit. But mostly not. The mistake people make is in believing that if something is very bad (or good) for some people then it is at least a little bit bad (or good) for everyone. Not so. The best examples are vitamins. Vitamin supplements are great if you have a deficiency and mega doses may do some good for a few people who have absorption problems, for everyone else supplements are a neutral to a negative. The chemistry of life is very complex and often counter intuitive.

  2. Thank you for your comment Joel. I think that when using the scientific method, which can only apply imperfectly to complex structures like our bodies, the researcher has to assume most people are pretty much the same. I think there may be many special effects that apply only to a few people and these positive results will fall through the statistical cracks for the whole population.

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