Friday, May 8, 2015

Social Media vs. Reality

Given the choice to believe information passed around by friends, family and Facebook or the often-contradictory information passed around by doctors and experts based on scientific research, why do so many people go with the former?  Some of this effect may be blamed on the prevalence of what used to be called old wives’ tales and later urban legend, but are now sometimes referred to as a "psycho fact" – defined as a belief in the truth of an assertion based only on constant repetition.  A textbook example of a psycho fact is the myth that we use only 10% of our brain, an assumption easily disproved by MRI or other imaging technology as well as some common sense reasoning.

Now the formula for Diet Pepsi is being changed, not for any scientific or health-related reasons, but because of the public belief that aspartame currently used as a sweetener is unhealthy.  The company attributes a 5% reduction in sales to this widespread misinformation, so they have no choice but to succumb to public opinion and loudly advertise that they are changing.

In most articles, the press reports this fairly and emphasizes the fact that aspartame is, according to the FDA, “one of the most exhaustively studied substances in the human food supply, with more than 100 studies supporting its safety."  As reported in the Guardian from the UK, “the decision is a canny marketing move to allay the fears of US consumers, rather than one based on science; aspartame will still be used in Diet Pepsi for the rest of the world.”  As with many other substances, when taken in high enough doses, the individual ingredients can be dangerous; but as I have pointed out several times before, even water can be fatal if too much is consumed.

This LA Times report explains how wrong these rumors of danger are and how often they have been debunked.  For example, a 1996 paper purported to link exposure to it to a rise in brain tumors, but the increase in tumors was shown to began in 1973, “eight years before the introduction of aspartame, and mostly to affect people 70 and older -- not a major market for diet drinks. A team from the National Cancer Institute in 2006 found ‘no support’ for the hypothesis that the chemical posed a risk to humans.”  Nevertheless, the fear mongers persist, often quoting each other’s warnings and supposed research as proof of their point.

These aspartame rumors are not an isolated example.  It is just one small example in a growing list of fears driven by a small group of presumably well intentioned, but ignorant people who use fear tactics to promote their agendas.  Consider the bad reputation and continued assault on other safe products and practices:  fears spread about the use of Deet in mosquito repellant; claims by anti-vaccines and anti-fluoridation of drinking water movements; irrational resistance to irradiation as a food purification method, bold lettering declaring problems with milk from rBGH-treated cows, misperceptions about the health effects to animals and children of radiation from electrical powerlines and far too many others to mention.

We are left with a choice.  We can spend our resources worrying about these fabricated dangers in the environment and the food supply, participating in protests, spreading unfounded rumors on social media, and spending money on more expensive products that have been forced to meet every artificial restriction and preference of a non-scientific public; or we can use some critical thinking to look for the real science behind these supposed fears.  Don’t we have enough problems without letting these scaremongers, who may be profiting from the rumors they spread, invent more for us?  And just as the housing boom/bust was not caused by the prudent homebuyer but affected everyone regardless of financial responsibility, this surge in anti-science misinformation on social media, on television and in casual conversation perpetuated by an increasingly gullible public will have long-lasting and unnecessarily detrimental effects on our economy and our lives.

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