Today’s blog will be a little different, but touches on human credulity, especially in the modern world of mass distribution of (mis)information. As a person trained in science, it pains me to see the amount of crap being pumped through social media, and the remarkable zealotry that believers put into their misinformed beliefs. I’ve written before on how to think more rationally, and to question supposed fact (read here), but I’m afraid I can’t let this one go…
Yes, the misinformation du jour is about wheat. Specifically, the fact that, apparently (or at least according to the gluten meme), wheat isn’t just bad for us, it also causes all sorts of terrible diseases. The buzz word is gluten, the latest in a line of ‘evil’ compound that is destroying lives. Yes, apparently giving up all grains (not just wheat) will fix your problems, reduce disease, and improve your quality of life. Except that it’s pretty much all bullshit.
The main argument used by this mob of zealots is that gluten (especially when present in wheat) causes an immune response in the majority of people who consume it. This, apparently, results in a raft of epigenetic changes that ’cause’ everything from thyroid disease to intestinal permeability, intestinal damage, and other ’tissue damage’. To support these claims, proponents truck out a few, cherry-picked peer-reviewed journal articles (usually from obscure, low-impact journals) on celiac disease (a legitimate intolerance to gluten) and then present the information out of context. Readers of this third-hand information are impressed by the technical sounding words and reference list, and assume that the author/s must be correct. The problem is that, the original articles don’t actually support the claims of rampant disease. In fact, the majority aren’t even legitimate studies. Instead, they’re literature reviews that fail to estimate prevalence of gluten intolerance and only propose possible biological pathways for disease, without offering empirical support for these propositions.
It gets worse though. The gluten fad has been thoroughly taken advantage of by snake-oil salesmen taking advantage of human credulousness. Websites like “The Gluten Summit” pedal what, at first glance, looks legit – with a slew of supposedly highly qualified presenters. It gets dodgy when the site’s experts turn out to be the owners of the companies that “sponsor” the summit. It gets dodgier when they offer a “100% money back guarantee” and a $2000 “reference library” for $79! Now, call me sceptical, but real information that has been vetted and replicated by the scientific community isn’t usually sold online for the bargain price of $79. This “reference library”, were it actually based on scientific papers, would be available (at least in part) for free on Google Scholar. Again, colour me distrustful, but anyone claiming a scientific breakthrough, without being able to provide credible information, except through privately published information from their own company or ‘research institute’, is pedalling bullshit. It’s even worse when these people use their academic credentials to lend weight to their scam. Having a medical degree does not qualify someone in microbiology, and even a higher degree in microbiology does not mean you can spout whatever you feel like and claim it as fact (especially when you stand to make money from it).
I’m certainly no microbiologist. I do, however, have 12 years of tertiary scientific training. Enough so that my BS detectors are well and truly activated by the argument that grains are bad for humans. Those who advocate the so-called “paleo” diet do so on the assumption that our ancestors were healthier than us because they ate mostly meat. I hate to break it to you guys, but our paleolithic ancestors lived short, horrible, brutal lives, with life spans of a few decades. Their diet was limited because they didn’t have the technology to do much more than hunt mammoth and scavenge for nuts and berries. The invention of grain cultivation was a major turning point for humanity. All of a sudden, we were able to source protein from a widely available source, which freed up a huge amount of time and allowed for centralisation of food production. Pretty much all subsequent human learning, development, and technology stemmed from this one innovation. Sure wheat has changed since these early days – we’ve selectively bred the stuff to be hardier, to have a greater yield, to be pest resistant, and to be more nutritious. And it turns out that the real problem with grains comes from removing the husk and refining the crap out of them. High glycemic index foods (liked refined grains) are definitely a problem and big contributors to modern diseases such as type-II diabetes. And there’s a really simple solution: eat fewer refined grains and sugars, eat more vegetable matter, and get more exercise. D’uh.
And now for the human element. Whilst I’m incensed by the arseholes who use their credentials to make money by taking advantage of others, I’m equally flummoxed by those who are completely taken in by this crap and who subsequently take up the banner and shout it from the hilltops. Sadly, it appears that most of the proponents of the recent anti-gluten rampage are similar (in term of their zealotry) to those who push other pseudo-scientific agendas, like the autism-vaccine “link”, or electromagnetic syndrome. Despite the fact that there’s no evidence for their beliefs, proponents of these ‘almost-religions’ defend them with a fanaticism that’s scary. Their belief becomes faith, and heaven help anyone who might question it (read here for my take on faith). They’ll spout on about big pharma and scientific conspiracies, claim that we’re being hoodwinked and lied to, and then pull out a single study that ‘supports’ their claim. Social psychologists call this behaviour the confirmation bias – where humans grab onto any information that supports their world views, but deliberately ignore anything else. Interestingly, this is the opposite of empiricism: scientists examine problems by testing various theories about a topic by generating questions (hypotheses) which can be evaluated and falsified. The whole point of science is to modify one’s worldview based on evidence*, not to take a dogmatic viewpoint then work hard to bury one’s head deeper in the sand.
Look, people aren’t necessarily to blame for their own shortcomings. The average layperson has zero chance of understanding the concepts being presented in scientific papers on gluten. And a higher qualification doesn’t necessarily help either. My PhD in psychology doesn’t help much when reading papers on biology or chemistry. But it does amaze me that people who don’t or can’t understand the science of the area they’re ranting about, get so passionate about defending their beliefs. I suppose this simply represents the human need to believe without question; a sad human failing that has been manifest throughout human history in the form of religion and, more recently, in conspiracy theories and pseudo-scientific cults^.
I’m sure there are plenty of genuine conspiracies out there in this big world. But seriously guys, before you jump on the latest bandwagon, stop and think. Just because someone shares it on Facebook doesn’t mean it’s real (no matter how convincing the ‘evidence’ appears). Remember that, like everyone else, the evolutionary gaps in your cognitive architecture are easily hacked. You’re more likely to believe information that’s presented to you by people you know, and three days after hearing or reading something, you won’t be able to remember its legitimacy (or even its source). You will, however, spout it as fact if it came from a ‘trusted’ source (i.e., a friend) and defend this ‘knowledge’ as factual. If you’re not careful, you’ll then start hunting for evidence that supports your new belief (again the opposite of the scientific process). Instead, question at the source. Be suspicious of ‘facts’ and question their credibility. Think for yourself rather than spouting the views of those around you (and hitting the like button).
Or don’t, because I’ve just come into an unexpected inheritance which I’ll share with you if you’ll send me all of your bank details.
* This is key. As a scientist, if I am presented with sufficient evidence that the way I practise is flawed, I will change my views and incorporate this new evidence into my practice. I will also drop any actions that are no longer seen to be effective. This isn’t contradictory, it’s how knowledge evolves.
^ Seriously, if you want to be healthy, stop obsessing over gluten, eat a balanced range of foods, reduce your sugar, alcohol and processed food intake, get more sleep, take some exercise, and have some fun.