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Recent news stories on diet study & stimulants illustrate complexity of scientific research findings

Duke University Pratt School Of Engineering : 13 December, 2006  (Technical Article)
People expect science to provide clear-cut answers, especially on health matters, but scientific research doesn
People expect science to provide clear-cut answers, especially on health matters, but scientific research doesn’t always yield simple conclusions, says a Duke University expert on science and popular culture.

“We think science has the answers, and we also desperately want answers when it comes to health,” says Priscilla Wald, a professor of English who studies the way that science is portrayed in the mainstream media and popular culture. “But it is impossible to get the real sophistication of medical information to the general public.”

Two stories this week have contradicted accepted ideas about health and medicine. A new study indicated that eating a low-fat diet didn’t significantly reduce the risk of some diseases.

Also, a federal advisory panel voted this week to recommend warning labels on stimulant medications used to treat Attention Deficit Disorder because they might increase the risk of strokes and heart problems.

People tend to see the results of scientific studies as all-or-nothing, and advertisers reinforce this by picking up findings and using them to promote products, she said.

“We are looking for answers rather than being willing to accept complexity. We are looking for solutions rather than best chances,” she said. “You have to live with uncertainty.”

Conflicting information and advice in the media and in advertising also reflect the fact that the meaning of scientific research isn’t always clear, even to the scientists themselves, she noted.

“Journalists cannot get across the full complexity of any scientific information, any scientific study. Complexity is going to get edited out of a news story,” she says.
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