Top 10 Scientific Misconceptions That Most People Fall For…Part 1

In the age of alternative facts and fake claims about ‘fake news’ it can be difficult to ascertain what is fact, what is fiction, and what is somewhere in between. While the internet has connected us to untold levels of information right at our fingertips, in many ways we appear to be getting dumber, not smarter, while trying to access it. Simply put, while the data is easy to see and even easier to ascertain, we haven’t yet evolved to be able to filter the fact from the fiction. The flip side to being able to access anything anyone anywhere cares to put on the interwebs is that it could be anyone anywhere saying anything that we choose to believe.

Its easy to see how it happens. Often misinformation is well packaged. It fits a popular narrative and requires only small leaps of faith to reach a fictional conclusion, and given the meteoric rise of availability of information, we seem to take it on without question. Personally, as a writer of both fiction and non fiction, I find the distinction an important one. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen posts in mothers’ groups asking about the validity of the onion in the sock cure for any respiratory condition, or variations thereof, and it is disheartening just how many people happily believe that it works. Well educated, articulate, intelligent people.

To coin the phrase of a popular science communicator, why is this so? Are they so desperate to believe that an onion is a cure all that no one has asked by which mechanism this would work? I mean, what particular magical properties might an onion possess that it can do what antibiotics and decades of intense medical research can not? And why did anyone bother with medical research at all if onions were the answer all along – when they’ve been readily available, inexpensive, easy to grow in your backyard and hardy in a number of climates for centuries? Does no one remember year 10 biology at all, in which we learned about viruses and bacterium?

Recently,  twitter hashtag #myonesciencetweet highlighted the frustration that many scientists feel with regards to the lack of critical thinking surrounding false information. My one science tweet as a lowly science communicator (not a scientist) would be this: #askmorequestions. Without the ability to critically evaluate the information around us we end up with disease break outs caused by anti vaccination and Trump as President of the United States.

I suppose what is most frustrating of all is that science is actually far more interesting than fiction. There’s no need for stories or fanciful cures because what humans can do with the knowledge we already have is in itself a story worthy of the classics. Better yet, its true.

So here’s my list of the most frustratingly prevalent science misconceptions – and proof as to their fallacy. I expect serious blowback and some level of trolling by writing an article that challenges long held but largely demonstrably incorrect beliefs. But before you come at me, evaluate the source of your information, consider vested interests carefully and check your logical fallacy at the door. I won’t believe it if you can’t prove it with valid scientific evidence.

  1. Organic food is ‘better’.

While marketeers have done a great job aligning the word organic with health and environmental causes, there is simply no basis in fact that organic food is better than anything non organic or even genetically modified. In fact, after fifty years of research not one study from a reputable, independent source has been able to provide any tangible health benefits for organic food. While many use the example of glyphosphate pesticides to stake their claim that organic farming practices are beneficial, the reality is that many organic pesticides (yes, organic food is exposed to pesticides as well) are far more dangerous. In fact, the commonly used organic pesticide Copper Sulphate has been found to have a much greater affect on humans long term than glyphosphate. But its organic, so it must be better, right?

If you think you’re doing your bit for the environment by buying organic, think again. Organic farming is in many ways much worse for our environment, particularly in a world where resources like arable land and water are incredibly scarce. You may be doing your bit for the organic retailer that charges five times the price, but you are also decreasing the need for genetically modified food to be made more available – food which could literally solve one of the least talked about and most pressing global issue facing our planet. Hunger. GMO’s can save lives.

2. Natural is better/Chemicals are bad.

This one picks up right where myth number 1 left off. I cannot count the number of times I have seen phrases like ‘I’d prefer to use a natural product’ or ‘I’m trying to avoid using anything with toxins in it.’ First, this is a false dichotomy. Natural vs synthetic does not equate to safe vs toxic at all. Recently, an all natural homeopathic teething remedy containing bella donna had to be removed from market shelves because it was killing infants. True story. Yes, bella donna is natural. Its also incredibly toxic – just like funnel web venom.

Putting aside for a moment the fact that homeopathic remedies are supposed to be diluted to the point where they cannot be detected in the final product (leaving one to wonder how stringently regulations are monitored) anyone buying a product containing bella donna because it was natural fails to grasp the simple concept of toxicity: the dose makes the poison. This means that almost anything in high doses (oxygen and water, for example) can be toxic. This has nothing to do with whether or not a product is natural. If it did, opium addicts would be the healthiest people in the world. Literally everything you touch, smell, taste and feel is a chemical whether its origin is natural or whether it was made in a factory. Forget what you think is true about natural products – this is one of the biggest logical fallacies thriving on the interwebs today.

3. Coconut oil is good for you.

This one is a matter of over simplification. Coconut oil, like all foods, is neither good nor bad. Good diet is in many ways about moderation, and like many types of saturated fats a little bit of coconut oil may have some health benefits (though the evidence here is weak and inconclusive). I could literally write a novel, linking dozens of studies and arguing the case for better dietary decisions to be made and a combination common sense and proven science to prevail. But in this case, you’ve either drank the Kool Aid or you haven’t.

If you haven’t, ask the question ‘why is coconut oil promoted so efficaciously?’ Or even ‘what is the chance that a food can be ‘super’ or a panacea for everything from weight loss to shiny hair? By which mechanism might that work?’ And if you don’t do that, at least ask yourself this: is it wise to consume large amounts of a saturated fat?  Coconut oil is 82% saturated fat, much higher than most other available supermarket oils. And the American Heart Association had this to say after their recent research investigated the pros and cons of coconut oil in a diet:

’72 percent of Americans rate coconut oil as a “healthy food,” compared with only 37 percent of nutritionists. Coconut oil is 82 percent saturated fat, they wrote, a greater percentage than butter, palm oil, or lard. And because multiple studies found that coconut oil increases LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol, a cause of heart disease, the report’s authors concluded: “We advise against the use of coconut oil.”’

You be the judge (but ask the question first).

4. Dinosaurs are not extinct

That’s right. They walk among us. Well, they fly among us really.

This myth is a bit less black and white, because there was a point in recent history when scientists did believe dinosaurs to be extinct. Interestingly, however, the science on dinosaurs is ever evolving and quickly. Ironic, considering we thought the species had died out. The reality is that dinosaurs have been reclassified several times over the last hundred years or so and new evidence has shown that almost all dinosaurs had feathers. Just like birds. In fact, after reclassifying the animals as recently as early this year most scientists now believe that modern birds are actually dinosaurs.

This is fascinating enough in itself, but it can get very confusing when you consider that pterosaurs – commonly thought of as flying dinosaurs – are not strictly speaking classified as dinosaurs. The science behind these discoveries is actually fascinating and I’d encourage fellow science nerds to look into how scientists determine details about dinosaurs – down to the colour of and pattern of their feathers, for example. And for those willing to dismiss this, ask yourself how many planets are in our solar system? We once thought it was nine but recent reclassification has suggested that there are only eight planets in our solar system. Science, like everything else, evolves.

5. Immune Systems do not need boosting and doing so would be harmful

This is the pet peeve of almost every biologist and medical scientist I know. If your immune system is working at optimal levels, which for most healthy people it necessarily is, boosting it would cause all types of auto immune diseases and cardiac or thrombotic events. Mark Crisplip, Immunologist, Infectious Disease expert and Science Based Medicine Co-founder states:

‘Those who say that that their product, for example probiotics, boost the immune system, point to studies such as these that show that in response to bacteria, cells of the immune system are activated, they are exhibiting the expected inflammatory response to a foreign invader. They call it boosting. I call it the inflammatory response. What could be better than priming your immune system so that it is better able to respond to a pathogen? This preamble leads us to the meat of this post: Is it good to have the immune system activated? Is it good to have your immune system primed? Or boosted? Maybe not…

…chronic inflammation and acute inflammation both increase your risk of thrombosis and vascular events. What would probiotics and immune boosters do if they really worked? They would cause acute and chronic inflammation. ‘

Luckily, most products that claim to boost your immune system don’t actually work, so aside from increasing the net value of your urine and wasting a lot of money, there is no real downside. I mean, except for contributing to a narrative that encourages people not to think critically, which I suppose this post is trying to prevent.

There’s more to come…stay tuned for Part 2 of Top 10 Scientific Misconceptions That Most People Fall For for myths six to ten.

 

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