Today I was hanging out at the mall with one of my friends, and we were just wandering aimlessly when I saw out of the corner of my eye a kiosk that was claiming that green tea could help you lose weight.
Naturally I just had to stop and ask more. The kiosk was manned by a young woman, and she offered to let me try some of the miracle diet tea for free.
While she was shaking some sort of powder into a bottle of water, I started asking if there had been any studies done on the miracle diet tea. “Oh yes, and they found that it helps you lose weight if you do it along with exercise.”
Uh huh… I thought. After all, people can’t possibly lose weight with exercise alone if they don’t have green tea!
When somebody does a scientific study you expect them to have something called a “control” so that they’ll have something to compare their product to to see if it has any actual efficacy.
In this case, you’d expect to have a group of people who were exercising but not drinking tea to see if the tea-drinkers had a significantly larger amount of weight loss. Thus, I assumed I could ask an innocent little question like “how big was your control group?”
She had no idea what a control was. And how am I supposed to know that I can get more benefit from drinking this tea than I can from just working out a few hours each week?
Well, then, perhaps it would be sensical to ask her where if this study was published in a peer reviewed journal.
The woman told me that she didn’t know but that in terms of publications she knew that Oprah had supported them.
[sarcasm]And an appeal to authority like that made me feel oh so very convinced![/sarcasm]
Even if this weren’t from the same woman who said that positive thinking would cause the quantum vibrations of the universe to give you everything you desired, I’m also non-plused by the fact that there are astronauts who believe that UFOs are alien beings visiting the Earth.
The woman then told me that the tea was better for my health because they used a powder instead of any chemicals.
When will people learn that the word chemical doesn’t just mean something that’s bad for you? Ever heard of something called dihydrogen monoxide (two hydrogens, one oxygen, aka H2O)? That’s right… water is a chemical. If it’s made of atoms, it’s a chemical and if you don’t think your special powder is a chemical what do you think it’s made out of? Pixie dust?
Is it wrong of me to pick on this woman for her ignorance of basic science?
Well, I’m not one to claim that I’m not ignorant of a lot of things that I wish I weren’t ignorant of. But, if I were to be selling something and claiming it would have any sort of positive effect on your health I’d like to be well-versed in the scientific studies behind it so I could help people make good decisions about it.
If I were to deceive people about how well something worked whether consciously, or just telling them that I knew that the studies were accurate without even seeing if they followed basic scientific method, I’d be a snake oil salesman, a quack, a charlatan, and a jerk.
I’m not actually that mad at this woman, however. She’s just doing her job, and she doesn’t know any better (although she ought to if she has ever taken a single science class in here life). I am however sort of upset that she doesn’t seem to get confronted with questions like “was there a control group?” often enough to actually look at these studies she’s telling people have been done.
In school they taught us how to use search engines like Google, and to double check things on Wikipedia (which people should do more often). I submit that asking “was there a control group, and how large was it?” should be considered just as basic a skill. There’s going to be a lot of youths out there concerned about their body image and they’re going to easily fall prey to a lot of gimmicks, but not if they ask the right questions.
Call me crazy, but if you come out of high school without a desire to be informed about the scientific facts before making a decision, or the skills you need to become infomed about said scientific facts then I think that the school system has failed you.
This really ought to be a common sense thing! Doesn’t anybody ever think out loud “well, how do you know drinking the tea makes you lose weight better than exercise if you have to exercise while drinking the tea?” I think that asking if a study follows proper scientific method should be just as normal as using Google (which, again, people obviously don’t use often enough).
To make a well-informed decision you need to be, well, well-informed. Science isn’t just identifying the stages of mitosis, playing with the bunsen burner, or memorizing the names of all your carpals. Science is a method for finding truth. Use it.