Organisatie - 5 april 2012

Vision: Confusion about health is no simple problem

Confused and helpless, that's how all that conflicting health advice leaves us feeling. At least, that is the conclusion drawn by the authors of a Dutch book entitled The Health Epidemic.

Clearly it is high time for less frivolous science and more restraint in the media. Confusion among the public is indeed a problem, says Edith Feskens, epidemiologist with the Human Nutrition Group, but this analysis and criticism are much too simplistic.
‘Like others, I am noticing the confusion among the public in my day-to-day life and in our research. There's a stream of health advice about, say, peanut butter: today it is good for you, tomorrow it is bad for you. The authors of this book lay the blame on scientists who are too eager to publish their findings. They claim that this prompts the media to write about a certain subject more often, such as ADHD. This triggers a self-reinforcing mechanism that involves more people going to the doctor. Then, as the number of diagnoses increases, yet more is written on the topic.
But the authors are ignoring the fact that these days everyone immediately turns to the internet, where they are confronted with a wealth of information. And conflicting information at that, since it is simply a fact that research delivers conflicting results, and they are all posted on the internet without delay. This is a tricky problem and I do not know how it can be solved.
What's more, the idea that we look for frivolous connections in datasets is completely alien to me. In good epidemiological research, you use a hypothesis that is based on something; You have to have evidence for correlations. What we do indeed need to do carefully is communicate. Often the publication itself is described perfectly well in a press release. But you have to draw in the rest of the field, set the thing in its context and refer to the guidelines of the Netherlands Nutrition Centre. All too easily, these nuances are omitted in the press release and neglected by journalists.
There are other issues that the book makes no attempt to tackle. Take, for example, the lack of trust that scientists are coming up against these days. Or the level of prosperity in the Netherlands that means that we are ever more demanding when it comes to our health. The book helps fuel an interesting discussion but the authors don't present a solid enough basis for the idea of a health epidemic.'