July 10, 2008

The buck stops... down the road a bit

[By Merry]
No, not that buck...

The buck stops over there

One of the hazards of working at Cranky Fitness is the need to make people think that you are able to keep up with the latest in scientific research. Sometimes I wonder if there is a limit to how much information a brain can absorb. I mean, you only have so many synapses. Don't want to blow a fuse.

Where's a stop sign when you need one?

Is there ever a time that you can stop learning, put your feet up, and say that's it. Stick a fork in me 'cause I'm done. No more studies ever again?

Are theories like buses?

I know the media (media here refers to the news and other information sources that are glib and superficial... as opposed to well-written, extensively researched, and incredibly witty blogs, like the ones Crabby writes) tends to come out with a new study and say "Here! That's it! This is the final answer!" And of course next week they do the same thing with a new study that turns the previous one's findings 180 from the original direction. But that's because they need to save air time for the next round of commercials. Thinking doesn't contribute to their bottom line, so why bother?

Sometimes a seeming contradiction is actually a clarification

The salt study referred to research that focused on people who exercise heavily and who also make a conscious effort to restrict their salt intake. It doesn't supplant the finding that couch potatoes need to watch it on the salty snacks. It supplements those findings. The latest research on vitamin D looks like a total contradiction of what the Skin Cancer scientists have been preaching for a couple of decades, but it's refining the original idea. They're not saying tanning until you resemble a prune is a good idea; they are suggesting that a little sun might help you.

In both cases, the studies presented conclusions that modified the previous conclusions, which requires readjusting the brain. Which is a pain. It's tempting to just think Hell, I don't like that theory. I'll ignore it and wait a few minutes until the next theory comes along.

I keep thinking that sifting through all this medical research can be compared to putting together a jigsaw puzzle: eventually we'll get the complete picture. (And then we probably won't like it and will ask for the puzzle that had the picture of the fluffy kitten instead.)

more cat pictures

Are decisions some kind of hot potato?

Not to sound (more than usually) paranoid, but I can't rely on someone else to do all my thinking for me. I need to make up my own mind about health issues, or political issues, or whatevah. The buck stops here. (In inflation terms, I think it's no longer a buck. More like my two cents' worth.)

Once upon a time, after I got out of school, I worked for a fancy shmancy interior designer. This woman catered to the extremely wealthy, CEOs of major corporations and such, who settled in the richest pockets of the San Francisco peninsula and wanted their mansions to reflect how rich and important they were.

It was hard to sympathize with people who would call up and scream at me because the new paint in the ballroom wasn't quite the right shade of mauve. But what really puzzled me was when people would call up and leave messages asking the designer to tell them (the client) whether or not they (the client) liked the antique chest that she (the designer) placed in their (the client's) living room.

Me, being poor, I have to make up my own mind about whether I like something or not. They'd pay her ginormous sums of money to make their decisions for them. I worry sometimes that this is how we treat scientists.

I'm curious -- how do you handle the information deluge? How many people have tuned out all the latest "findings" and do whatever they feel like?

fail owned pwnd pictures
see more fail pictures


  1. As a trained biologist (although a non-experienced one, due to lack of jobs, notbitternotbitter), I tune it out.

    These studies are important. But none of them are trying to change the big picture. Think of healthy eating/living as a huge, 500 000 piece jigsaw puzzle. We've got enough pieces of the puzzle in there in the right spots to kind of know where we're going with this. And we've got the other pieces lying around to have a general idea of what they're like too, and every once in a while another piece snaps in. But it doesn't make THAT much of a difference to the puzzle on it's own. One study usually only takes care of one piece - which barely requires me to change what I'm doing - the puzzle still looks pretty much like the same half baked giant 500 000 piece puzzle that's only 1/3rd of the way done (but we've got the sides and corners and that's the most important!)

    Ok. Enough puzzle analogies. My point is, the science is making progress - but slowly. We got the big groundbreaking stuff out of the way years ago. Nothing's set in stone, we might find something else ground breaking any day now. The leptin studies are promising. But it's nothing to worry about YET because until scientists can tell us what to DO about their findings, they're useless to us.

    Stick to what you can do. If you've been feeling good, if you're healthy, if you're losing weight and that's what you're after - stick to doing that. Read up on how doctors recommend you do this, and allow them to distill the science for you. (As long as they're not doctors of gregorian architecture or whatever - do make sure that there's an MD after their name. Anyone can get a Doctorate off the internet in some bullshit subject and start calling themselves Dr. Health)

  2. Great post--this is such a hard issue.

    Scientific data often conflicts when there are too few studies for a consensus to emerge. Plus, there are lots of crappily-designed studies out there, and sometimes weird results happen by chance. So you can't take any one study as gospel. (Though I definitely do if it says something I like, like dark chocolate is good for you.)

    But when study after study says something like: you need to exercise, or, whole foods are better for you than processed, I'm inclined to believe them.

    What I don't think makes sense is to throw the baby out with the bathwater and say science is useless when the conclusions are frustrating.

    It's perfectly possible that something could be both good for you (in some ways) and bad for you (in others) at the same time. But if you just look for a simple message from a complicated finding, i.e., "avoid this" vs "do a lot more of it," then the results look more screwed up than they actually are.

    (Which you already said much more eloquently in the main post).

  3. Oh and I posted as the same time as Christine--

    What she said. Excellent points.

  4. Im the nosciencefitnesswoman.
    not in a great way.
    not in an IM PROUD OF IT WAY but in a what christine said way:
    I do what I can do.

    I get overwhelmed but too much info and ---knowing myself---would end up doing far less.


  5. I tend to do a little research when I hear results of some studies - for example, what is the sample size? How long was the study performed? Etc., etc. Sometimes knowing those answers puts a different spin on the results.
    Just my $.02

  6. Personally, I read those studies but often end up doing whatevah the heck I want. Especially with nutrition. Maybe it's the culinary upbringing I have received but I have never been able to equate all carbs and/or fats with Satan, or believe that red meats kill (though I don't eat them for other reasons). In regards to the sun, well, I was never truly convinced that a little sun would take me down a path of certain melanoma etc... This is going to sound so extremely cliche, but I think if you don't overdue anything, you're probably fine.
    I am always unsure of any study advising us to take a complete 180..

  7. Studies can be skewed to get the results wanted. Not each and every study, of course, but it happens. Some recent looks at echinacea determined it didn't work. One study used very small amounts daily while another used the non-medicinal part of the plant.
    Generally studies should be taken with a grain of salt and a good bash of dark chocolate.

  8. Christine is absolutely right. Being a scientist too, I totally agree with her.

  9. Tuned out. Fluffy kitten picture please.

    Okay, maybe not completely tuned out. But I honestly can't keep track of everything. And even if I could, a person can only do so much. I like Christine's answer. We know the basics. Sometimes we might hear something else that is useful to us in our day-to-day life. Sometimes it's more of a wait and see thing, or a that doesn't apply to me thing, and sometimes it's just confusing.

    So I do the best I can.

    Now can I have my kitten?

  10. Hello Merry and Cranky -- I posted on Cranky Fitness today on my own blog.


    I've been lurking for a while and thought I'd finally say Hi. I love the conversations that happen on Cranky Fitness.

  11. I'm with Christine (love the puzzle analogy!) and Crabby - try to take it all with a grain of salt.
    Some of the studies have come up with skewed results for one reason or another, so we just have to try to keep our heads, be sensible and remember that moderation in everything is the key to a healthy life.
    (The tricky part is applying that to our lives.....)

  12. This is great -- I wake up to a bunch of intelligent comments!

    It's true that science is making progress, but I wish it weren't so slow :(

    (I want patience and I want it right now!)

  13. I think I'm more impatient in the hot summer months. In winter it's easier to sift through studies :)

  14. I love the puzzle analogy (only I'm not sure we really have all four corners--and what if the kitten chewed up some of the pieces?) With my librarian past I always prefer an information flood to a trickle, but I always interpret it for my own situation. (For instance, it doesn't matter to me whether echinacea works or not, since I'm allergic to the flowers, and I'm not about to try ingesting any part of the plant. And I welcome good news about chocolate, but bad news is never going to lower my chocolate consumption.)

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  15. I agree with what a lot of the other ladies have said. You can't rely on these studies as a holy grail...it's research and in many cases the studies are done with a small sample size or rats. And, hello, rats are not people.

    However, I do covet studies that purport the health benefits of chocolate and wine. I'll live by those even if they involve just two rats and a researcher! ;)

  16. Jenn - two rats and a researcher sounds a little kinky.....

  17. So, these two rats and a researcher walk into a bar...

  18. It's easiest to trumpet the research for those things you already agree/like. And ignore the rest. THOSE studies don't know what they are talking about.

  19. I just sat next to a guy on the place yesterday who doesn't own a TV, doesn't watch TV or movies - he's on an ultimate, never-ending news fast. So he doesn't have to deal with all the changing facts and studies...not to mention the ads that make us feel like crap about ourselves. On the otherhand, he prolly isn't as on top of things as we are. And he's not into science or health. I try and stick with the basics and when I new hot study comes out touting a certain vitamin or somesuch, I wait until I can hear a bit more before rushing out and buying it.

  20. Best to read the facts as presented and try and make a conclusion from them. Often people present their data with a bias, and it *is* a learning process, so often things and discoveries are additive and cumulative.
    And...depending on what you look at and measure data may conflict. Also, samples sizes are often small...or the people in the study may or may not be representative of a healthy population. Or they may be animals and the work doesn't really transfer over to people the same way. Or (gasp) the reasearch may be flawed or biased...or a surprise to all, giving unexpected results.

    The thing is, researchers are pressed s hard to publish their findings to "prove" their worth...there is far less time spent on what to *do* with this information (if anything). That is the timely challenge...

    Because, things can be good and bad for you at the same time.

    I think there should be more of a focus of moderation. We tend to take the "a little is good, so I'll have LOTS and get even better!" approach to a lot of things.

  21. Studies are the bane of my existence, yet I hurry over to Marijke's blog every day to read about all the newest ones.


  22. I think it's hard to sift through the muck, but I also think that journalists/popular media/newspapers/soundbytes don't help. I can say that because I was a journalist for years and I remember how difficult it was to take a VERY complicated subject (say nutrition studies, for argument's sake) and turn it into an attention-grabbing headline. It's very hard not to distort the original facts/conclusions/findings in order to meet your word limit.

    That said, I tend to be skeptical when I read articles in the press that never cite the original source or study. I rely heavily on Science News which always tends to get the information before the major news outlets anyway.

    It's by no means perfect, but I have to draw the line and pick a source for my information on this stuff. Information overload is really hard to avoid.

  23. I also like to think for myself- you can't always rely on the studies and keep going back and forth between what they all say. (And sometimes it is tempting to just say "screw it, I'm going to ignore that one and agree with the next one that I like better!").

  24. With a cancer diagnosis, I had to jump in the info deluge with both (big) feet and try to find out everything in order to be informed. At first, I sat back (in shock) and wanted doctors to cure me but I found out that's a lofty goal. Even with all the information about cancer out there, you have to have reliable resources -- and who judges reliable when you're consumed with a diagnosis? All the info is enough to drive a person mad -- but at least a person wouldn't be as concerned about their cancer diagnosis if they are crazy.

    One other option of coping with information overload is to drink tequila.

    I use CrankyFitness (among some other of your blog) posts more for the ability to make me smile and remember humanity than for the actual information though the info is always useful if and when I apply it.

  25. I take one cup of studies, mix it with a table spoon of personal experience, stir in some intuition, throw it in a blender, with ice, and enjoy the research margarita, no salt of course :-)

  26. I try to run everything by how much sense it makes, and how hysterical the study is. If the article says, "OMG FATS/CARBS/WHATEVS ARE BADBADBAD AND IF YOU EAT THEM YOU WILL DIE AN EARLY DEATH!!! I ignore it. If the study says, "We're not totally sure, but early research indicates that man-made trans fats might be really unhealthy," I consider that one more carefully.

    The more hysterical, the less attention I pay. And the more reasonable (man-made substances are probably not as good for you as nature-made ones) the study is, the more credence I give it.

  27. Crabby! Did you see that That's Fit linked to your post from yesterday? http://www.thatsfit.com/2008/07/10/making-comfort-foods-healthfully/

  28. All the good comments have been taken! I agree with everyone who said that all things in moderation is probably the best, anyway.

    And, since I work with research doctors & scientists, I know much is riding on "new information" or, at the very least, new twists to old information. That's where the money comes from!

    Salt = tasty.
    Sun = happy.
    Red wine = nirvana :) but I like mine w/o rats, if you don't mind.

  29. Ha ha! Merry, I know where you got that Whoa stop sign photo! :)

    I like studies. I think their fun to read. They're interesting. But, as Colbert would say, many of them have only an air of "truthiness" to them!

    glamour-geek, with eternally lost password.

  30. I read the post. It was good - expressed the way I feel about all the latest, greatest health research. As soon as I reached that last image though, I forgot all of it.

    That is the best FAIL photo ever. There are funnier ones, but as someone who spends her time making maps... That. Is. Awesome.

    Thank you for brightening my day.

  31. I took a science writing course last year and it was a fascinating look at how studies are done, how the "science" industry works and how these studies inform our writing.

    I'll never look at a study the same way.

  32. Ah I tend to take what I like from different programs and plans and abandon what I see as being unfeasible or unreasonable for me. What's left is a mishmash of a dozen different philosophies of health and nutrition.

    For example, I feel better when I drink a couple of litres of water a day...new studies now apparently say that we need nowhere near that amount, so should I reduce my consumption accordingly? Eh, no.

  33. Wow, great comments!

    I should give Glamour Geek credit for the photo of the Whoa sign, since she's the one who pointed it out to me!

    Dara, maybe you could post about your science writing course -- it sounds like it must have been fascinating!

  34. I try to tune it all out, too. Everything in moderation, I say. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Or so I try!

  35. Oh you KNOW I love this post. I suffer from the same information overload except my response has kinda been different. Instead of tuning it all out, I try it all out. Obv. I can't try everthing but at least it keeps me occupied long enough to not worry about it as much. Yeah, I'm crazy.

  36. I've always guessed that salt intake (within reason) isn't a big problem so long as you are active and healthy and don't have a history of heart problems. I really don't worry too much about my sodium intake on a day to day basis.


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