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What People Are Reading About Science, Health, and Personal Safety

It Isn’t What Scientists May Want Us to Read
April 27, 2019 | Comments

There are three parts to effective science communication, two of which have robust infrastructure. The first leg is scientist to scientist: it is easy for scientists to find out what other scientists are thinking about—scientific publications and conferences abound in which every new finding, controversy, and dispute can be rehearsed in detail. The second leg is scientist to the general public: the scientific team at Critica, science journalists, and science educators all try to help non-scientists learn about what scientists are doing and saying.

A third interaction in science communication is less well developed, however. Few scientists attend to the ideas about health and safety that circulate among non-scientists. Some of the public’s beliefs are acquired from sources that transmit accepted science and are accurate and quite useful. Such sources might, for example, explain to parents when to take a child with a fever to the doctor or how to avoid exposure to toxic household cleaning and food storage products.  

On the other hand, many sources from which non-scientists obtain information about health and personal safety issues are less reliable. When these rise to the level of causing serious harm to the public’s health, the scientific community may finally take notice and even respond. We at Critica, for example, have spent endless, and sometimes painful, hours reading what anti-vaxxers write and listening to their lectures, trying to fathom how completely incorrect notions about vaccines and the human immune system have gained such traction in some public circles. Other examples incorrectly claim that owning a gun confers protection on its owner or that one needs a “Lyme literate” doctor to properly treat Lyme disease.

These are exceptions, however, and we believe that for the most part, scientists ignore popular representations of science, health, and personal safety. In that regard, we can say that scientists are not listening to what non-scientists talk about and not reading what they read.

Awakening to Natural Awakenings

Recently, a member of the Critica team randomly picked up a magazine called Healthy Living Healthy Planet: Natural Awakenings while waiting in a New York City store.  Flipping through the pages, she noticed that advertisements and stories in the magazine make strong, definitive statements about what is beneficial or harmful for our health. Examples include:

  •      Cannabidiol (CBD) reduces exercise-induced inflammation, stress, and anxiety
  •      Lemon balm improves the condition of people with chronic stable angina according to a study in the Journal of Herbal Medicine.
  •      Drinking nettle tea helps with allergies because it contains quercetin, “which helps to lessen the body’s histamine response to allergens.”
  •      A number of health problems improve by switching to “largely non-GMO and organic diets” according to a survey of 3,256 people published in the International Journal of Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine.

Some of these statements are made in advertisements, others in “advertorials,” and others in articles. All of them are suspect as follows:

  •      The only thing for which we conclusive have data about CBD is its efficacy for the treatment of some forms of epilepsy, which is why FDA approved the CBD-containing drug Epidolex for the treatment of two types of rare childhood seizure disorder . We don’t yet know for sure if it works for anything else.
  •      The study done with lemon balm in patients with chronic stable angina, a type of coronary artery disease, did show significant improvements in ejection fraction (a measure of how much blood the heart pumps out with each contraction), exercise tolerance, LDH levels (the “bad” form of cholesterol) and blood pressure compared to placebo. That’s interesting and probably deserves follow-up investigations, but the study did not show that the patients who took lemon balm had any reduction in chest pain, that they were less likely to go on to have heart attacks, or that they lived any longer than those who took placebo. Moreover, the differences between the lemon balm and placebo groups were very small. For example, at the end of the study the lemon balm group had an ejection fraction of 48.86% and the placebo group of 48.60%, both smack in the middle of the slightly below normal range. Similarly, the difference in systolic blood pressure (the top number in blood pressure readings) was 122 in the placebo group and 119 in the lemon balm group, both normal readings and a difference that is not of much clinical significance. Thus, the study showed some statistically significant but very minor changes in biological markers associated with heart disease but did not demonstrate that lemon balm is an established treatment for angina.
  •      The ingredient quercetin that is claimed to give nettle tea its anti-inflammatory properties has indeed been shown to do this in isolated cells in the laboratory and some animal models. But a recent review points out that “studies in human did not totally support these results from cells and animals”. It is not uncommon that things show promise when tested in the laboratory but do not prove to modify human diseases. At this point, we have no real evidence that nettle tea is good for people with allergies or any other malady.
  •      The survey participants who reported health benefits from switching to a non-GMO diet were all taken from the membership database of an organization called the Institute for Responsible Technology, which advocates against genetically modified foods. Only 1.8% of people contacted for the survey responded, making it invalid by standards used by survey experts. And of course, this is a biased group of people, as the authors of the paper concede. One has to read through many pages of anti-GMO material before getting to the crucial details of how the survey study was actually conducted. When we get there, we immediately know that this survey was designed to obtain the answer the authors already believe in, not to accurately assess whether any dietary changes are linked to health outcomes. In fact, as we have previously written, there is absolutely no data linking consumption of genetically modified foods to health harms.

Fresh nettles and nettle tea (source: Shutterstock)

To be sure, there are many statements in the Natural Awakenings magazine that are true. The benefits to individuals and society of getting more exercise, saving water, and eating less meat cannot be disputed. The problem is that a casual reader of the magazine has no way of knowing which statements and claims are actually backed by solid science and which are opinions or even untrue. Indeed, in writing this commentary, we had to look into quercetin, nettle tea, and lemon balm ourselves to find out what evidence exists for their benefits. Will many people take the time to do that? And if they do, will they appreciate subtleties like the size of the differences in ejection fraction between taking lemon balm and placebo or the requirements for a valid, unbiased survey? We don’t really know at this point how to explain the technical details of scientific research like these in ways that non-scientists will find accessible and convincing.

Learning What’s Out There Is Important

One might say that the advice given in Natural Awakenings is harmless. After all, it is unlikely that lemon balm or nettle tea will hurt anyone. But can we be sure that people with angina won’t forgo accepted medical treatment in favor of lemon balm or that someone eating an unhealthy diet high in sugar will believe he is solving the problem merely by switching to sugary foods that don’t have any GMOs in them?

Unless scientists make the effort to actually read and listen to the things that non-scientists are reading and hearing about, it will be impossible for them to know what needs to be done to address misinformation. We cannot simply tell people “it isn’t true that lemon balm is a proven treatment for angina.” We must instead figure out how people are misled into thinking that is the case. And then develop strategies for explaining things like the difference between statistical and clinical significance or between relative and absolute benefit.

Actually, we must admit it was kind of fun reading Natural Awakenings. We had never heard of some of the things mentioned before, like quercetin, and learning about them was definitely interesting.  We also liked the fact that, unlike scientific reports, there is such confidence in the way statements are made. Absent are all the annoying caveats and limitations that burden scientific reports, in which scientists point out all the shortcomings and uncertainties of their work and insist that more research is needed before firm conclusions can be drawn.

We urge scientists to pay more attention to popular media, not in order to reassure themselves that they have superior knowledge but to come in direct contact with what people are being told about health and personal safety. Only then can we begin to formulate solutions to science denial by addressing fundamental misunderstandings.


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