Read Very Well, But Please Don't Eat the Headlines!

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This being my inaugural contribution to Verywell as an independent platform, I am compelled to say how honored and delighted I am to serve here as the Senior Medical Advisor. For me, this role combines the virtues of the new, and fresh, and exciting, with the comfortable reliabilities of the tried and true. I have been working with the excellent team behind Verywell for some time. We now get to drive a more refined vehicle, and expand the collaboration, while keeping all that has worked well right along.

The Verywell team is indeed both able and sizable. As a result, we start out here with a large archive of content you will see grow briskly if you check back routinely, which I certainly encourage. I will, of course, contribute content of my own—as I am doing now—and look over the shoulders of others doing so. But the volume of content is an argument unto itself.

Science, and thus understanding, are, or should be, all about the weight of evidence. True experts in any field qualify as such not because they have written, let alone read, any single article, but because they know a whole body of work. Those who genuinely qualify as experts, in my opinion, are especially careful to read the literature presenting perspectives alternative to their own. Too many people these days seem to consider the selective hunt for expressions of the opinion they already favor “research.” I could tell you what I call it, but it’s not suitable for family programming.

Suffice to say, real research means looking as receptively at the conclusions you don’t favor, as at those you do, and allowing both to influence you in accord with their merits.

Nowhere is this more important than in the domain of lifestyle as medicine, and in particular, the role of diet therein. There is a lot of money to be made, for a whole array of industries, by fostering perennial confusion about the basic care and feeding of Homo sapiens.

Interestingly, headline hyperbole is both cause and beneficiary of this tendency. By distorting what studies actually mean, headlines foster the very confusion I am citing here. By cultivating that confusion, they create interest in, and need for, the next batch of headlines to clarify the truth. But the truth tends not to ensue when science is played like a game of Ping Pong. The batting of opinions back and forth takes us nowhere.

This is a recurring, perennial problem, but seems to be getting more acute for two reasons. First, the cyberspatial age has thrust a figurative dagger into the heart of expertise. Anyone with a blog can broadcast an opinion and masquerade as an expert. In the days before the Internet, reaching a large audience required an actual media outlet, which meant journalistic filters. That day is gone, and the result is an opinion stew all too often spoiled not just by the number of cooks, but by their caliber. Second, for whatever reason, what used to be scholarly debate about details of nutrition has devolved into competing ideology of apparently religious fervor.

The two are no doubt related.

A spate of recent nutrition studies, and attendant headlines, make the case compellingly. A study about adaptations to traditional diets and gene frequencies was absurdly transmogrified into news that vegetarian diets increase cancer and heart disease risk. An observational study showing an association between select fatty acids found in dairy in the context of a typical American diet and a reduced incidence of diabetes was translated into claims that dairy fat prevents diabetes. And when a study revisiting 50-year-old data about high-dose corn oil ingestion suggested that practice was not preferable to intake of saturated fat, it was at first presented in headlines as evidence that the Mediterranean diet isn’t good for us, after all.

That these headlines in no way represent the underlying studies is something I have already addressed, and I invite you to have a look. Here, I want to provide a unique peek into the world of true health experts around the globe.

We have an unprecedented assembly of just such experts in the Council of Directors of the True Health Initiative. Expect to be hearing those very voices here, and often, as we cultivate the relationship between Verywell and this uniquely deep well of insight, experience, and wisdom. I am extremely gratified that part of my new relationship with Verywell is a general alignment between our efforts here and the fundamental principles of living well espoused by the True Health Initiative.

We actually sent out a poll to our Council members to ask: on the basis of the several, very high-profile diet studies cited above, and the associated headlines, how many of you changed your own diets? As I write this, we have roughly 70 responses back, and roughly 95% of those said: not me. I am only a little surprised it isn’t 100%, but I believe I know why. We are home to many members with expertise in areas other than nutrition, so some of them may be as confused by diet study headlines outside their purview as everybody else. For the established nutrition experts responding, as best I can tell, none changed their diets based on recent headlines.

This is not just an important reality check about those headlines. It’s a reality check about how scientists process science. We simply don’t expect to change our fundamental understanding with each new study to come along. We do not replace what we knew yesterday with what gets published today. Rather, we add the new research to what we knew before, and interpret them together as an evolving argument. We ignore the headline hyperbole and go to the source material. We change our minds, not in tandem with media cycles but rather in tandem with the far slower tipping of the overall weight of evidence. We are running a marathon, or climbing a mountain, not playing Ping Pong.There are redirects as warranted over time, but not a constant frenzy of quick pivots.

Content here at Verywell will certainly be addressing the exciting health headlines du jour. We will, I hope, always do so thoroughly, and thoughtfully. Check back here often for that.

But be careful not to count on any given study or column to form the sole basis for your complete understanding. That should come from a complete archive of relevant evidence and insight, and you will find that here, too, keeping pace with science as it evolves.

So my advice is not just to read Verywell, but to read very well. Among other things, that means to chew your food for thought fully and carefully, and whatever you do, please don’t just eat the headlines!

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