Anecdotes are a powerful tool in forming our opinions
Science is often enough suffering by public misunderstanding, misconceptions and fear, and even scientists attacking each other. But while this is often uncalled for and predominantly by hype-hungry media and disturbing agendas, to a large extent it is our (the scientists) own fault. And I’ve already addressed this to an extent in a recent post, when I got overly excited by the fact that many scientists chose to remain silent, and thus – give up the stage to entities with much fewer grounds to speak of the merits of science and technology. We are obliged to express educated guesses (to a reasonable extent of course) in public debates. Silence is always perceived as something hidden, something held back, something “shady”, and science can only take so much public mistrust. But teaching halls are different. We, as scientists, cannot afford to be wrong in a teaching environment.
I was a witness of a case like this, just few days ago, when I was completely taken aback by a professor cheerily explaining to ~50 students how he’s experimenting on himself to see to what extent the “blood type diet” would improve his overall health. It might sound overly dramatic, but it kept bothering me for days after the lecture. Let me take a step back first.
The who and the what behind blood-type diets?
The original blood-type diet is a creation of naturopath Peter J. D’Adamo. (#facepalm time) For those of you who were lucky to not have encountered naturopathy, this is what is it (source Wikipedia):
Naturopathy or naturopathic medicine is a form of alternative medicine employing a wide array of pseudoscientific modalities that are branded as “natural,” including homeopathy, herbalism, and acupuncture, in addition to diet and lifestyle counseling.
In case you need to know more, check out these brilliant and extensive examples of why these practices are bullshit and you should stay away from them, especially if your health is already compromised – (1) and (2).
But back to the blood type diet, it essentially is a dietary restriction based on your blood type. The blood type is determined by the “accessories” your red blood cells are genetically pre-equipped with. These accessories can be proteins, carbohydrates, glycoproteins, or glycolipids. There are many reasons why buying the idea that your blood type defines your diet is a bad way to go, but if you only need one, let it be the total lack of scientific data to support this claim.
What has science has to say about blood-type diets? One article worth 1415 studies.
This whole thing came out during the lecture I was attending, in relation to the conversation of how our gut microbiota influences our metabolism. We know very well that the microorganisms living in our digestive system do indeed play a key role for our well-being. It has been extensively studied, tested and reported in a number of articles that the microbes we host are able to keep us healthy and make us sick. One of the many good summaries you can find here. We are nothing without our microbes – a number of foods/components, we are completely incapable of digesting, synthesizing or taking in on our own (some plant fibers, VitK, lactose, calcium, magnesium and iron, to name a few.
And while human genetics are known to influence the microbial societies we equip ourselves with from early age, there has been no proof that the genes which determine our blood type, are the same genes responsible for the microbe recruitment. A group of scientists went the extra mile to mine the existing scientific literature on the topic, asking this simple question:
In humans grouped according to blood type, does adherence to a specific diet improve health and/or decrease risk of disease compared with non adherence to the diet?
In the end their search came out empty – not a single credible study supported the notion that sticking to a certain dietary regime is positively influenced by the test subject’s blood-type.
Back to the class room example
While a person is free to choose what and how to experiment on himself as long as no threat is posed to other individuals, spreading nutritional/medical quackery in academic halls is a very different thing from making personal choices. It was obvious that many of the students present in the room were not aware of the blood-type diet concept. I can only imagine that after such introduction, at least a few were left with the wrong impression that “if my prof is talking about it, it must be a real thing”. Even I – a grad student, having had at least several years more to delve into the numerous scientific reports on various topics than the master students around me, was completely confused. I immediately started wondering if I had missed some vital info on the topic and someone came up with proof to support D’Adamo’s claims. So I came home and started digging, and digging, and nothing came out – zero, zilch, zip, nada, nothing! The one study I got to, I did thanks to a friend of mine – thank you so very much, Jay! I’m sure (based on personal experience too) that few, if any, of these 50 students would’ve questioned this aspect of the lecture enough to “waste” as much time as I did to “check the math” behind it.
The outcome? Why does this case matter?
The occasions when scientists get things very wrong and spread the misinformation to students are frightening. We, as scientists, cannot afford to be wrong in a teaching environment. The classrooms are places where young minds, free of prejudices and preformed opinions, shape, grow, flourish and learn to always keep a critical ear to the information flood surrounding us. In my opinion, it is completely inexcusable to talk anything but credible scientific information in a teaching room. That is not to say that bad science should not be discussed. On the contrary – it should be part of the curriculum, to learn about studies which were conducted badly, were outright fraudulent and were, hopefully, discredited. This would be a great case-study based course on how not to do science, and I’m sure it’ll be interesting and challenging for both students and instructors alike. What we cannot let happen is the situation when in a university hall all of a sudden a professor starts elaborating on topics of (very)questionable scientific merit without eventually clarifying whether or not this is a supported conclusion or pseudo-scientific misconception that was just used as an example to make the point of the lesson.
Misconceptions (at best) and false scientific conclusions (at worst) being thought in our university halls are not something we should take lightly. In a day and age when person after person is mistreated and harmed/killed by scientific and medical quacks, the work against such claims should be even more thorough. When we do and when we teach science we should be ever more vigilant and do it right! We cannot afford to lose more bright minds to lies and fraud.
Some of the good places where you can start training yourself to be critical, if your environment is failing you, are the local skeptical societies, and the ever-growing list of retracted scientific articles. But most of all – be curious and always be critical!