A Science-ish year in review - Macleans.ca

A Science-ish year in review

Also, pick a topic for the first post of 2012

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There are some things we think we know for sure when it comes to health. They manifest in the daily rituals we perform without question or doubt. Take flossing as an example. Jamming the waxy string between our teeth is the surest way to fight cavities, right? The famous “Wear Sunscreen” column-turned-song even lists “floss” alongside the things you should do for a full and healthy life.

But when scientists recently analyzed the studies comparing flossers to non-flossers, for a new Cochrane systematic review (the highest form of evidence) on the subject, they found they were mostly biased, industry-sponsored junk. Moreover, not a single study looked at the reduction of dental cavities in flossers versus non-flossers.

Sometimes conventional wisdom is not so wise, or, at least, stands on some surprisingly shoddy evidence. Other times, the science about health seems too confusing to make sense of, the media mucks up reporting on it and (perhaps unintentionally) misleads, or politicians enact health policies that seem to be dreamed up for political rather than public health purposes.

In the last six months, Science-ish has tried to address these attacks on reason. A couple of weeks ago, I asked readers to submit their thoughts on the health- and science-related debates that they felt were most baffling this year.

Climate change, creationism, asbestos, Plan B: In the chorus of Science-ish claims in my inbox, I thought clear trends and narratives around the year’s bogus science claims would emerge. Instead, you had a whole whack of other Science-ish stuff on your mind.

Prompted by the discourse around the Japanese tsunami this year, Mclean from B.C., for example, wrote in about his concerns that the risks related to nuclear energy were misunderstood or overblown in the media. The evidence about another invisible threat puzzled Tweeter @_ColinS_: He wants clear answers on the health risks related to WiFi in schools. “That whole mess needs to end.”

Taking a bigger-picture approach, one reader asked about whether peanut allergy was a particularly Canadian phenomenon. Concerns about the effects of our aging population on the health system troubled some of you. Carol from B.C. asked to see the data about expanding in-home care in acute versus non-acute patients, and Tweeter @jonbrodyharris from Saskatchewan asked if the “grey tsunami” will really bankrupt our health system.

There were questions about illness. Gilbert from Ontario wrote in asking for an analysis on “the state of play on neurological disorders, Parkinson’s, MS.” Julia from the same province asked: “Is the world making us crazy? Or are there just many more documented cases of mental illness in society today? What do we know about the long-term side effects of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety prescription drugs?”

Many of you wanted to debunk notions about what keeps us healthy: from barefoot running to alternative medicine (from acupuncture to ColdFX to naturopathy). Fad foods were also a curious matter. Tweeter @PharmacistScott asked cheekily whether the next superfood is white veal, while @ErikJDavis wanted to know what superfoods were anyway, and whether raw milk is healthier than the pasteurized kind.

Trendy diets—from alkaline to gluten-free to high-protein—were a source of skepticism, as well. As Ryan from Ontario put it: “Everyone has a (diet) book and each book says its method is the new revolutionary way to lose weight. They can’t all be right, so how on earth do books like this get published?”

The questions and concerns varied, but they had some things in common: a shared frustration about anti-science rhetoric and a desire for certainty.

So back to flossing. Does the new systematic review suggest we should throw our dental floss away? No. It says that the evidence for this part of the oral hygiene routine is shaky, and that the scientific community should strive for better proof. But as with all health and science questions, there are probabilities at play. There are flossers who will get cavities and non-flossers who won’t, just as there are smokers who, against the odds, will live long lives and vaccinated folks who will get the disease.

So there are few things we know with utter certainty, and often no single, correct answer. Yet, these mysteries of the body and public health are not entirely unknowable. There are best bets, and decisions—personal and political—based on the best-available evidence.

The challenge is to answer these questions as clearly and honestly as possible. In 2012, Science-ish will continue to meet that the challenge head on. For now, thank you for sharing your Science-ish concerns. In return, I’ll let you decide the topic of my first 2012 post:

Science-ish is a joint project of Maclean’sThe Medical Postand the McMaster Health Forum. Julia Belluz is the associate editor at The Medical Post. Got a tip? Seen something that’s Science-ish? Message her at julia.belluz@medicalpost.rogers.com or on Twitter @juliaoftoronto