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They said, some say

This is not a rant; it is more observation and inference. Blogging and tweeting on science topics, especially genomics, evolution or the environment, seems to inspire reader comments and questions. Some of these might subjectively be called ‘trolling’. In this blog I intend to critically examine a couple of the common phrases which trolls exploit to feed public uncertainty: I am looking at variations of ‘they said’ and ‘some say’.

I recently tweeted what I considered to be a non-controversial link to research which found exposure of adolescent males to organochlorine pesticides led to increased sperm disomy, a condition in which sperm cells have an abnormal number of chromosomes. Very shortly afterwards I received a reply asking me “When will they be sure? ‘THEY’ ... told us whole milk was bad 4 us.” I might laugh at the ignorance except for the fact that I remember when ‘they’ also told us that margarine was better for us than butter. Now there are different ‘theys’ telling us the dangers of eating either carbohydrates, fats, salts or GMOs. The science of food and nutrition is a moving target. Perhaps as we develop a more personalized approach to medicine, we will be able to make more sense out of all these assertions and interpretations of the research.

Here is a recent example. A couple of days ago on the TV news, ‘they’ breathlessly told us that a change in sense of humour was an early sign of dementia. I looked at the original research paper and found that the control size was n=21. The sub-groups of dementia patients ranged from n=7 to n=16. The results obviously warrant further research, but frankly I have seen low scoring science fair projects with bigger sample sizes than that.

The other phrase we need to examine critically is ‘some say’. I hear it so often on the evening news that I imagine the hipsters have already turned it into a drinking game. I did a search of the news for the phrase and found 191,000 results. To keep this blog brief, I’ll only examine a few recent examples.

ABC News San Francisco ran this headline: “Some say mandatory water restrictions may have done more harm than good”. The article goes on to say that “Despite the recent rain, our drought continues and so does the call to save water. However, some say the way the state imposed emergency conservation measures may have done more harm than good”. Further into the article, you realize that the some is really one. At least the one in this article does have credentials: he is a UCLA plant scientist.

Then there is the headline: “Some say coffee trend helps with weight loss” – in this story ghee, a special kind of butter, is added to morning coffee and it allegedly leads to weight loss. We are given examples on how to purchase or prepare both the coffee and ghee. A University of Connecticut medical researcher cautions about the possible side effects of this practice, yet the article allows unnamed advocates and a naturopathic physician to provide rebuttal.

I know it’s not science, but how about the recent story regarding Starbucks and Christmas cups? The first time I heard the story reported on my local morning news, it was announced that ‘some say’ “Starbucks is on a war against Christmas with this red and green cup”. At this point, it is possible that the ‘some’ was really ‘one’. Soon there was an entire piling-on via social media with even a US Republican presidential candidate calling for a boycott of Starbucks.

‘Some’ have a lot of power. ‘They’ may have even more if we believe everything ‘they’ say. We need to be aware of this when we watch the news or read about science-related topics in the popular press. Are ‘they’ credible sources of information? Are ‘some’ of them qualified to speak on the topic? When ‘they’ tell us something, should we listen? Send me your thoughts and perhaps in a future blog I will write ‘they said, some say’.

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They said, some say

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