Vinoth Ramachandra

More Scientific Mythbusting

Posted on: August 31, 2012

The attitude of many laypersons to scientific and technical matters is one of reverence.  They will drink in the fake profundities of, say, television science programs with a credulity quite as remarkable as that of any religious fundamentalist. Any statement has only to be prefaced with the words “scientists think…” or “scientists have shown…” for it to be received with exaggerated awe.

The advertising world knows this well and exploits it to the full. People dressed up to look like research scientists and doctors appear in advertisements for products from toothpastes to miracle diets. Economists and bankers follow suit: anxious to bathe their work in the aura that attends the hard sciences, they mystify the public with largely meaningless numbers. Few economists ask the simple human questions: what is wealth for? What is the good life? What are the costs of our “growth” and who bears them?

The London Olympics was sponsored by multinational giants like Coca-Cola and Nike whose scientific credentials had to be “hyped” for a gullible world public. The website for Coca-Cola’s sports drink Powerade, targeted at the general public, states: “Drinking sports drinks, such as Powerade Isotonic, before intense exercise helps to ensure that you begin in a well hydrated and well fuelled state. This can be particularly useful if you find it difficult to eat, or find you need many bathroom stops prior to exercising. Starting exercise well hydrated is vital; leaving it until you are on the field or track may be too late. This is particularly crucial for longer duration exercise, or activity undertaken in hot, humid conditions, and even for people whose primary exercise is actually manual labour.” Powerade advises customers that “To avoid dehydration … you should drink before, during, and after sport” and that, “You may be able to train your gut to tolerate more fluid if you build your fluid intake gradually”. It even provides a “Hydration calculator” to work out how much Powerade Isotonic you will need before exercising.

Other drinks manufacturers claim that “Stimulants such as caffeine, guarana and taurine with energising fast and slow release carbohydrates produces a scientifically proven range designed to enhance your overall performance.” Red Bull says “In extensive studies it has been repeatedly proven that Red Bull increases performance.”

Where is the real scientific evidence that backs up such claims? A joint study by the British Medical Journal and Oxford University’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine has debunked the myth of “hydration”, a fictitious disease created by the advertising industry. The authors of the study write: “Drinking ahead of thirst may worsen performance in endurance exercise and carries a rare but serious risk of hyponatraemia. The body’s internal mechanism for staying hydrated is cheaper, easier, and seems to be the best way to optimise performance.” As for professional athletes, “Elite endurance athletes perform best when they drink to thirst; some studies suggest exercise induced dehydration can improve performance.” (“Mythbusting Sports and Exercise Products”, http://www.bmj.com/content/345/bmj.e4848)

Regarding the use of energy drinks by professional athletes, the authors conclude: “Limited, low quality evidence supports the use of energy drinks containing caffeine, taurine, or guarana to improve endurance in moderate intensity activity of around 60 minutes. No studies compare the effectiveness of these products with ingesting caffeine alone and there are important concerns regarding harms.”

The Internet has, of course, made such scientific knowledge available to a wider public but sorting out genuine science from the bogus is not easy. Unless a website carries peer-reviewed articles or belongs to a well-established professional institution, it is difficult not to be hoodwinked most of the time. Internet search-engines are not unbiased as some enthusiasts imagine. Sceptics about anthropogenic global warming, for instance, find it easier to migrate to websites that reinforce their views rather than to those that challenge them.

How do we combine a healthy respect for evidence-based scientific study with an equally healthy disrespect towards the pronouncements of scientists on topics outside their particular realm of expertise? One can share in the excitement surrounding the recent “discovery” of the Higgs Boson in the CERN Hadron Collider experiments, without capitulating to the myth that elementary particles are more important- indeed, “more real”- than the world experienced and inhabited by human persons; or labelling it a “god-particle’ in some pseudo-scientific act of worship. The “hype” by some scientists and popular philosophers about having come up with materialistic explanations for “everything”, including consciousness, should be treated with the same ridicule that most TV advertising deserves.

Raymond Tallis, the neuroscientist and philosopher whose book Aping Mankind ( see my last post) is exemplary in how to combine good science with the debunking of scientific hubris, writes that: “Ultimately, a theory of consciousness will have to make sense of science and, more generally, knowledge itself: of the fact that the blind laws of physics have given birth to a sighted watchmaker who makes those laws visible and sees how they may be used to shape the world according to her perceived needs. There is at present nothing in matter as understood through natural sciences- no, not even in the wildest reaches of quantum mechanics- that would lead one to expect matter to assume forms in which it would become conscious, self-conscious and knowing, so that it might be able to formulate universal laws that encompass its own existence.”

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5 Responses to "More Scientific Mythbusting"

well put thoughts! Yes, it is not that easy to find the wolves among the sheep who deceive and distract.

What Bro Vinoth has pointed out is very right. Unless we are able to identify the fake and original we are doomed. In this era of information explosion, fake news are soread in no time.

As an engineer, I wholeheartedly encourage people to ponder Dr. Ramachandra’s question “How do we combine a healthy respect for evidence-based scientific study with an equally healthy disrespect towards the pronouncements of scientists on topics outside their particular realm of expertise?”

I would also apply that question to political/philosophical bloggers.

I have been thinking about that very issue. I want to know who was paying the scientist’s salary and what results were being “expected”? I find a lack of neutral research on a lot of issues.

Thanks, Vinoth. I wonder if beyond scientific myth-busting, this suggests also some (christian) philosophical myth-busting too?
Christian apologetics has largely forsaken the tools of intuition, art, imagination, wonder, as well as concretization, sensority, and existentialism. Much Christian thought has allowed itself to be backed into the corner of philosophical rationalism, intimidated by ‘sceintific empiricism’s’ dominance of discourse about the natural tangible world. Christian dialogue speaks mostly in conceptualisations leaving science to do our observation, and culture to do our interpretation.
In practice (in Australia at least) the ordinary christian thinks they cannot speak confidently, and even less – meaningfully, about the cosmos they live in, because science ‘owns’ that conversation. Neither do they speak of a reality deeper than that which scientific measurables currently affords us, because this same discourse of empiricism has been allowed to discredit and thus (the real problem) disintegrate from other forms of thinking and knowledge. Whole disciplines of intelligence (including ethical, compassionate, non-verbal, faithful, collective thought-structures), are trivialised and marginalised from the way in which public debate articulates the human, technological and natural issues which concern us. In western public culture, Art (which should be an active resource) tragically degenerates into manipulation or sensationalism. Diversity is held in patronising representative captivity. Meaning is a subjective curiosity.
We have settled for a less than human conversation – and the tell tale sign lies in the fact that the discussion excludes so much real humanity. The perspective of non-western cultures, or children, of ‘non-profitable’ disciplines, of the ‘non-typical’ physically, intellectually or culturally is present only in ‘managed’ and bounded ways. Unfortunately christian conversation largely apes these conventions, when surely, the prophetic tradition would call us to re-shape the dimensions of the conversation.
It seems Tallis is giving that a go – and you wisely encourage us to join him.

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