The Bitch is Back: A Guide to Spotting Bullshit

Hi friends.

I’m back, I think? I hope.  The past few months have been filled with some major “adulting” leaving me little time to really get my snarky thoughts into text.

An issue I have been struggling with for some time; and have been pretty transparent about on this blog is the use of personal experience on social media to give (unqualified) individuals a voice of expertise.

It really pisses me off.  It pisses me off as much as people using their personal experience to make money off of people who can’t see through their bullshit.

Quite frankly it has taken a lot of the enjoyment away from blogging and connecting with friends on social media I once used to have. Continuing to be frank- I find that a majority of the time I spend on social media I feel a conflicting pull to comment on inaccuracies I see (but that would potentially start an argument- and really I feel arguing via social media is very 2007), or just “letting it go”, but also silently being irritated by it.

#firstworldproblems

So, in the light of being the solution oriented gal I strive to be, I’ve started thinking about some strategies to help other individuals that maybe do not realize the inaccuracies or over sensationalized garbage they are being exposed to.

But first a quick(ish) side story. What many people do not know, is that my first job as a dietitian was a part time consultant gig. I consulted for one of the largest fast food companies in the world and my job at the end of the day was examining data that had to do with anything that could directly or indirectly associate with fast food. My job was examine articles, and look at study designs and see essentially how strong the study design was.  You guys, I have spent a lot of time reading research articles.

What more of you may know is that when I did my Masters Degree (#humblebrag) I was required to do a Master’s thesis which trained me very well in understanding study designs and what was/was not statistically significant- or how to glean that from a study I was reading at the VERY least.

#nerdalert

That being said I have spent a large part of my career reading articles and studies – and while that sounds super riveting- it’s been very helpful in being able to decipher bullshit.

It has also made me really damn skeptical. Anytime a big nutrition related highlight hits the news I get asked a lot of questions about it- questions I do not mind fielding. That being said anytime there is a really sensational news headline a la “red meat linked to cancer” I find it helpful to go back to the study that is usually being very loosely reported on and look for a few things, but first it’s always helpful to go back to the original study, and use this nifty little pyramid to see where it falls on the Hierarchy of Evidence:

hierarchy-of-evidence2

Photo cred: thelogicofscience.com

A few other helpful things to look for are:

  1. How large was the study or sample (n) size?
    • You will see me joke that personal experience has a “n=1” sample size (that means it’s just their personal experience).  Sure experience is important but it’s unrealistic to expect that your set of personal circumstances will perfectly align with everyone else’s
  2. And in that sample- how diverse was the sample? Think age, sex, ethnicity.
  3. How long was the study conducted for?
    • This is valuable because it shows potential for long term outcomes
  4. Is this the first study like it? Or is this one study from a larger body of similar or dissimilar studies?
  5. What was the inclusion/exclusion criteria if there was any?
    • This is for human trials, how were participants selected and not included
  6. Were the results statistically significant?
    • If applicable this will be in the results and discussion sections of a study/article.  Statistical significance is importance because what it indicates is the study were redone the outcome would remain the same.
  7. What were the strengths and/or limitations of the study?
  8. If applicable what was the “dose” of the study topic (sugar, red meat, and how much was given in the study)
    • This is important because if a study is done, and the dose used is an exorbitant amount (i.e. eating 15 oz of red meat per day will produce x result)- it’s important to ask would the average person actually be eating that much?  Also, is the amount used in the study comparable to current dietary guidelines?

The fact that most people do not discern an Op Ed piece from an actual study is a large part of our misinformation problem.  The other issue I feel is that individuals do not discern or value professional experience over that of someone’s personal experience.

We live in a culture where we value testimony of strangers and their experience more than that of actual experts in these respective fields.  The other mistake is that we don’t question 1) what we’re being told and 2) the quality, or how valid the information is we are being told.

A good example is Vani Hari, or as she is better known: “Food Babe”. She has no professional training or experience in biology, chemistry, nutrition, physiology, or any other science related field.  In fact this applies to any celebrity who has leveraged their fame into making money off of unproven crap people try because it is directly or indirectly endorsed by a celeb (i.e. G. Paltrow and Goop, and J. Alba and Honest Co).

An example of this is both Food Babe and Gwyneth Paltrow (via Goop) are big supporters of raw milk.  Food Babe even goes as far to say “raw dairy products are “alive”” (while also suggesting that consumption of raw milk should only be “organic raw milk”).  And no, I’m not linking to any of their pages.  Feel free to do your own googling.

Of course raw dairy is “alive” as it has not been pasteurized, raw dairy can be teaming with bateria like: E Coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter, and/or Listeria; parasites such as giardia, and viruses like norovirus.  All of which at the very least can cause stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting, and in the most severe cases cause acute kidney failure, paralysis and a few other less than ideal health issues (i.e. death).  By the way this is according to the CDC .  Also, this does extend to products like yogurt, and cheese that are made from raw milk, and no it does not depend on if it is organic or not, nor the animal the milk came from.

I gave this example because this praise for raw milk may seem really innocuous, but I hope I have at least pointed out how consuming raw milk/raw milk products can pose some potential risks to you and your family.  This isn’t about being trendy, this is a safety issue.

 

CDC-Holy-Cow-raw-milk-outbreak-graphic

Infographic from CDC

These platforms are very different than that of accounts like Food Babe, Farm Babe, and (my favorite) Build Up Dietitians pages.  Who support their strong, and sometimes polarizing viewpoints with evidence. In fact on Goop, Honest Co, and Food Babe you will have plenty of opportunities to buy their products, services, or have no shortage of external links to similar pages selling similar products/services.  Goodness, I am sure there is no conflict of interest there.

Ok.  I’m done, because I’m not here to tell you who to follow.  My goal of this post is be a better bullshit spotter when you’re skimming your various social media platforms.

Also, it is TOTALLY ok to be skeptic, in fact I encourage it!  Seasoned pro’s are going to be able to support what they are sharing with appropriate evidence to support their points.

 

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