2011-09-18

Public understanding

You may have noticed many of the recent blogs by my colleague at EOS, Andrew Wallace, have been rather critical of people. Although I tend to avoid this form of public expression out of my respect for humanity, an example has been brought to my attention which provides an opportunity for interesting discussion.

This is Robert and as you can see from the picture he is a Scientist. Ever since he was a kid he wanted to be one, until the Internet provided him with a sufficiently gullible audience, to accept him as a certified nutritionist. On his blog he tells you the source of all disease is in the sourness of food, justifies this by defining the all of human cellular metabolism as an interaction between Hydrogen and Baking powder. His theories have circled the globe and nobody who has passed his Science around suspects there is anything wrong with his reasoning. After all, we all know that incorrect feeding habits are the source of all our health problems, right?

What is wrong here?

Let's look at history. Looking at the example of Scurvy, it appears that people feel a persistent need throughout history, to dumb down dietary problems beyond recognition. The Wikipedia article on Scurvy goes to describe how the cause of Scurvy as a dietary deficiency of then-unknown vitamin C was relatively well understood since antiquity, yet in the 18th century the British navy opted not to help it's people survive, in favor of a simpler explanation: that it was fresh vegetables or acids or even morale that cured Scurvy, which unfortunately for most sailors who afterwards died of Scurvy, was not the case.
...it was not until 1747 that James Lind formally proved that scurvy could be treated and prevented by supplementing the diet with citrus fruit such as limes or lemons, though not by other acids, in one of the earliest European clinical trials. This solution was not adopted by the Royal Navy until the 1790s, and the idea that any acid would suffice continued in Britain into the late 19th century...
Although a simple display of stupidity in a technical person's eye, the reasons why people opt for these incorrect explanations is no trivial matter. In an article that I and Raffael Kéménczy are co-authoring, myself covering the biology-themed problems and solutions and Raffael covering the social problematics; we will touch on some of the examples of such issues, analyze the data, the possible explanations and present some solutions. It is our understanding that these misconceptions present an important lesson, a failure in the scientific community to transfer knowledge into domestic use; and represents an important problem to be overcome in the quest to provide the highest quality of life for everyone, whilst maintaining personal freedom for all.

LP,
Jure