TODAY, the of collision science and social media has created a storm of mistruths.
Science is about focused, objective analysis, independent questions and nuanced answers. So, when science steps out of the lab and into the public dialogue, it somehow morphs into the opposite: a disorderly swarm of bias, group-think and black-and-white assumptions.
The International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation has been working to break down the sensationalism about food, agriculture and nutrition and instead interject real, science-based information with more than 30,000 myth busters to fight against the bad information on food.
In science fiction, "hive mind" refers to a group of individuals who lose the ability to think for themselves and submit to a collective conscience.
"Too often, food conversations online devolve into hive thinking," a recent blog explained. In a sense, this is why the IFIC Foundation's FACTS (Food Advocates Communicating Through Science) Network exists: to arm consumers with the knowledge they need to make their own food decisions and to stave off the hive.
The FACTS Network has developed new resources from a trusted community of experts who distill the science behind food and nutrition into clear, concise and understandable facts.
They recently broke down the life of a food myth — from the research lab to the pressroom to the Twittersphere — and offered some tips to help the public better distinguish fact from fiction.
Recognizing junk science
"Broadly speaking, 'junk science' refers to studies that don't adhere to the central and guiding scientific method, can't be reliably tested or reproduced and, therefore, present inaccurate claims or results," explained Dr. Megan Meyer, IFIC program manager of health and wellness communications who holds a doctorate in microbiology and immunology.
A summary of information from Compound Interest offers a rough guide on ways to identify bad science:
* Watch for sensationalized headlines that oversimplify the findings of research and misrepresent them.
* Misinterpreted results in news articles may distort findings for the sake of a story. If possible, read the original research for information rather than relying on an article summarizing the original.
* Analyze conflicts of interest.
* Be wary of correlation and causation; correlation between two variables doesn't automatically mean one causes the other.
* Watch for speculative language such as "may," "could," "might" and others as it is unlikely that the research provides hard evidence for any conclusions these words precede.
* Consider sample size, because the smaller the sample size, the lower the confidence in the results from that sample.
* Also consider unrepresentative samples if the sample is different from the population as a whole.
* Having no control group should raise red flags. A test should be used in which all variables are controlled.
* Having no blind test also could suggest faulty science, although sometimes blind testing isn't always feasible or ethical.
* Evaluate cherry-picked results involving selecting only data that support the conclusion of the research.
* Results should be replicable by independent research and tested over a wide range of conditions.
* Journals and citations indicate that the research has undergone a review process, but it still can be flawed. Large numbers of citations do not always mean that research is highly regarded.
"There are serious negative implications when junk science is accepted and touted by media and others," Meyer warned. "Hold all studies to the same standards, and ensure that the most accurate and scientifically rigorous data are presented, because without these standards, important information and results get buried under questionable findings, slowing down real discovery and progress."
For more on this topic, read the "7 Deadly Junk Science Sins" at www.foodinsight.org/7-deadly-junk-science-sins and "12 Steps to Spotting Bad Science" at www.foodinsight.org/12StepsForSpottingBadScience.
How myths go viral
Whenever scientific inaccuracies arise — in research, promotion or reporting — it's when they go digital that such food myths take on a life of their own, the FACTS Network explained.
For example, in 2012, Dr. Mehmet Oz of "The Dr. Oz Show" publicized a study claiming that green coffee extract pills were a "proven" miracle weight loss secret.
With this celebrity endorsement and catchy headline, many people fell for the claim, and the Twitterverse exploded with chatter. The Infographic shows how quickly things got out of hand.
"Many mainstream media outlets published stories about the study, spreading the falsity further. It wasn't until 2015 that the Federal Trade Commission investigated the study and found that the researchers failed to follow standard scientific protocol, even deliberately altering some results to 'prove' their hypothesis," the FACTS blog reported.
The study was eventually retracted, but not before the producer of these green coffee extract pills had sold $50 million worth of products to the public.
"Science is usually gray and messy," the FACTS blog noted. "Don't be fooled by the sexy suit and tie that people place on science, either in the lab, pressroom, media or online."
Use all of the tools available to break away from the flurry of fads and misunderstandings that too often influence food choices these days.
"Educating yourself on the characteristics and requirements of quality science and asking the right questions along the way are the only ways to attain true food freedom. Take comfort that the decisions you make can be safe, science-based and — above all — your own," the FACTS Network said.
For more information, visit www.foodinsight.org/viral-food-myths-how.