This year’s most outrageous attacks on science

Julia Belluz reviews the worst health myths of 2011, and her new year’s resolutions


‘Tis the time of year to look back, and in reflecting on Science-ish, it seemed wise to seek out all those who made outrageously science-ish statements in 2011, and ask them why—in their claims on topics as far ranging as asbestos and home care—they completely ignored the evidence. But pulling people away from the fireplace and eggnog seemed unfair over the holidays… and unlikely to elicit constructive responses, if any at all. So instead, from the Science-ish archives, here are the year’s most offensive attacks on science, with a wish list of questions I would like to see answered about these wildly unscientific ideas:

1. THE ASBESTOS DEBATES: It would be really great to find Dimitri Soudas, the former PMO communications director, and ask him why he said: “All scientific reviews clearly confirm that chrysotile [white asbestos] can be used safely under controlled conditions” when all those who care about evidence—from the World Health Organization to the Quebec-based Robert-Sauvé Occupational Health and Safety Research Institute—agree that all types of asbestos are carcinogenic for people and the “so-called controlled use of asbestos is a fallacy.”
Related story: Can asbestos be used “safely”? 

2. LIFESTYLE REPORTERS ON NUTRITION: I’d like to have a roundtable with some of the lifestyle writers and editors at our national media outlets and ask them why they report the latest findings about nutrition in a vacuum for the sake of a sexy headline, without asking some fundamental questions about the research they’re looking at or how a new study compares to all the other related studies on the topic. For example, the Toronto Star reported “the treadmill can act as second antidepressant,” when Science-ish found the evidence was a little more nuanced than that, and the Globe and Mail peddled probiotics in yogurt as a cure-all which stimulates the immune system, even though, as one researcher put it, “they don’t do anything to the immune system because they die in the stomach and bile.”
Related stories: Yogurt, the fermented panacea? and Can hitting the gym cure the blues?

3. SCARE MONGERING ABOUT CYCLING: I’d like to ask the columnists who had screaming fits about the dangers of cycling in cities—in the  Gazette and Winnipeg Free Press, for example—what evidence their statements were based on, and whether they ever considered that, in a society that is grappling with obesity, cycling might actually be a good thing. In fact, as far as Science-ish could tell, those who have systematically studied cycling in cities found that the benefits outweigh the harms, and, despite the headlines, the number of fatalities for cyclists has been declining in Canada.
Related story: Do the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks?

4. THE HOME CARE SOLUTION: It would be nice to have tea with Deb Matthews and ask why she offers solutions to our social ills in palatable side-bites, too often garnished with little evidence. As I noted in a post about “The end of hospitals,” Matthews this year announced the Liberal plan to invest $60 million in home-care for seniors and the disabled, which would supposedly improve access to health care, and reduce costs and hospital visits. People who dedicate their lives to researching this issue, however, found that it’s not so simple. As one scientist said, “the only way you can say home care has saved on hospital care is if you close down the hospital, which politically is not a very popular thing to do.” Otherwise, costs are just added to the health-care system through the creations of parallel services.
Related story: The end of hospitals

5. THE BAN ON BLOOD FROM GAY MEN: One particularly outrageous anti-evidence policy is the Canadian Blood Services’ continuing refusal of blood donations from gay men, when other countries—such as Australia and the U.K.—have lifted the ban to move in-step with the science. I would like to ask folks at CBS why they haven’t changed what seems like an awfully outdated and discriminatory policy when other similar health systems around the world have managed to do so.
Related story: Who’s afraid of a gay man’s blood? We are.

6. DRUGS AND LAW ENFORCEMENT: I know this might be a lot to wish for, but I really would like to meet Stephen Harper and his people to go over the National Anti-Drug Strategy, which has allocated 70 per cent of its $64 million in funding to law enforcement, only 17 per cent to treatment, and a mere four per cent to prevention. It would be neat to see how they square that policy with the growing body evidence showing that harm-reduction strategies to deal with drug addiction, such as the Insite safe-injection clinic, are actually helpful, while I’ve yet to come across compelling evidence showing similarly positive results for law enforcement.
Related story: Insite: ‘Too early to tell’ if it works?

In 2011, we reporters and politicians sometimes failed to make evidence-based health statements and policies. But we consumers also made baffling health choices. Skepticism about the flu vaccine remained, despite the fact that the benefits of getting the shot far outweigh potential harm; Canadians continued to throw their hard-earned dollars into alternative medicine, when the research shows that most of it doesn’t have any effect above and beyond that of a placebo; and we gobbled up antioxidant-rich functional foods when the science shows they can actually kill us quicker. Science-ish also noted that we continue to ask for more cancer screening and vitamin D testing—in the face of evidence that suggests we should not.

To an extent, of course, this is understandable: health matters are complex and often confusing. But there is a connection between ill-informed political decisions, the sometimes shoddy information about health in our broadsheets, and the way we choose to live. Hopefully, in 2012, we will raise the level of discourse, and from the personal to the political, make some wiser, evidence-informed decisions.

Science-ish is a joint project of Maclean’s, The Medical Post, and the McMaster Health Forum. Julia Belluz is the associate editor at The Medical Post. Got a tip? Seen something that’s Science-ish? Message her at julia.belluz@medicalpost.rogers.com or on Twitter @juliaoftoronto

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