Corn Pone and Coca-Cola
(August 18, 2015)
"You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I'll tell you what his 'pinions is," quoted Mark Twain in a wonderful little essay that should be required reading for those of us who pride ourselves on our independence of thought. Putting aside self-interest is extremely difficult any time we're trying to figure out the truth, because from the very start we are usually cheering one side on. So when the issue at hand has been cynically distorted to serve up a particular point of view, it can be next to impossible to get to the bottom of it. Particularly if, deep down, we like what they're trying to sell us.
Much scientific research – particularly the kind that makes the morning talk shows – is sponsored these days by someone who has a financial interest in its outcome. Bending over backwards in the interests of fairness here, it is true that just because the bills for a particular study have been paid by someone who would like it to turn out in a particular way doesn't mean that those results are automatically invalid. But it should ring at least three out of five alarm bells in anyone’s mind when they see this is the case.
The particular issue I’m writing about today is a slant on obesity research that is being promoted by a new nonprofit group (the Global Energy Balance Network). Which group just happens to be sponsored by The Coca-Cola Company. Yeah, I heard you laugh just then. Me too. But we should never underestimate either the willingness of someone with money invested to distort the truth or their ability to find a bunch of shills to make it sound plausible.
In this case, the group in question is actively pushing the very unsubstantiated idea that it is lack of exercise that is the cause of the obesity epidemic. Versus, say, drinking hundreds of calories a day of sugary drinks. Coca-Cola has put several million dollars into this group and its formerly-respectable members and it is issuing press releases right and left, and it's getting the slavish media attention that is usually reserved for the plastic surgery of a particularly trashy celebrity.
Now. although you can still find people who assert otherwise, it's pretty clear that overeating is what is responsible for our obesity epidemic. Exercise can be of tremendous assistance in maintaining weight loss, not to mention that fitness or its lack is an important subject in itself. But all you need to do is a little simple arithmetic to see that it is the rare person indeed who is going to be able to exercise their excess pounds away. In light of that, this group's promotion of exercise-to-banish-obesity is worthless at best and harmful at worst. Unless you happen to own a lot of stock in Coca-Cola.
It's an interesting tidbit of human psychology that if you manage to cast even a bit of doubt on something, you can change people's behavior enormously. As long as you think that it really might not help to swap your daily can of Coke for a Dasani water, you are a whole lot less likely to do so. Multiply that by a million and you can see what I mean.
Coca-Cola isn't the only offender (although it's the one that brought this topic to mind). The area of food production and consumption is heavily infiltrated by corporations and the influence their tax-deductible "donation" dollars buys them. Think Monsanto and GMOs, and Perdue and ag-gag laws. Hell, think how long you could get away with declaring that it was "controversial" to assert that cigarette smoking ruined your health.
If you get all your health information from headlines, you can be particularly vulnerable to doubting when there is no real doubt, because all you ever see is the “controversy”. There may not actually BE any real scientific controversy. But if it says so in a headline, that's what stays with you, and now you're not so sure -- and that small lack of certainty can be enough to totally change your behavior.
When you have a media that thinks any conflict is a good conflict, all it takes is a sneaky corporation, a few purchasable scientists, an editor of a respectable scientific journal who isn't really paying attention, and a couple of million dollars and you can make a bunch of people think "hey, I don't need to stop drinking sugary sodas. I just need to take a walk at lunch once in a while, starting next week sometime." Which is what Coca-Cola is trying REALLY hard right now to put across.
The great thing about science is that before you can label something a fact, you've got to prove it. You are not allowed to believe whatever you want and call it science. And the more evidence that accumulates in favor of an idea, the more likely it is that you've got something that is actually true. Eventually you get to the point where you've got a Preponderance of the Evidence, as we say in the biz. And once you have that, the likelihood of your beautiful theory being slain by an ugly new fact is essentially nil.
Sadly, you can have an almost insane preponderance of evidence in one direction, but if some jerk with a hidden agenda can find the smallest blemish in it, or construct a study of even poor quality that seems to invalidate it, enough Doubt can be Cast on the concept or even on the field itself effectively enough to paralyze action. Because the simple entrance of the smallest amount of Doubt can cause people to decide not to take action after all. Especially when they have their own vested interest in the result.
Almost all of our opinions are secondhand. (Mark Twain asserted that ALL of them were.) Especially in the area of science. We trust science and scientists and what they say because we know what a driving positive force science has been for us all. But if we don’t know the background of any particular scientific assertion that’s not immediately self-evident (gravity is self evident; quantum mechanics is not), we'll quickly decide that maybe nobody really knows after all. And so the vending machines stay in the school cafeteria.
Any truly respectable study will readily identify who financed it. So if you can’t find out who it is that paid for the research that produced the amazing new discovery that Cheetos prevents the flu, that’s a giveaway in itself.
So if Bernie Madoff tells you that his investment algorithm is scientifically proven -- or if the bank tells you that if you re-finance you can take $70,000 out of your house and your mortgage payment will actually be lower than it was before - or if Coca-Cola tells you that drinking sugar-laden sodas are not why you can't get into your skinny jeans anymore -- be sure you dig a little deeper.
--dr. diane holmes
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