Every day seems to turn up opportunities to abuse science in new and perverse ways, especially when it comes to health. You open a newspaper or news site, and you read about a health claim making the rounds: a diet that will give you the energy of a teenager, an exercise routine that will elongate your legs, a policy that will protect Americans from scary viruses.
Many of these claims — even the ones that come from the lips of the most esteemed doctors and public officials — aren't backed by any good evidence. Some even run in the opposite direction of what the best-available evidence tells us.
In the interest of the correcting the record, we rounded up the most egregious abuses of health science in 2014. (And if you have suggestions you think we should add to the list, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org)
1) We can stop Ebola by cutting off West Africa and locking up health workers
The Ebola epidemic was the biggest health story of the year and arguably one of the most important global news stories. But almost as soon as the virus turned up on American soil — in a Liberian man who has since died — dubious claims about travel restrictions started to go around. In particular, there were politicians who argued that travel bans and quarantines were needed to protect Americans from Ebola.
The debates reached a fever pitch when a doctor returned to New York from the Ebola hot zone with the virus, only to take a jog through the city, ride the subway and — horror of horrors — go bowling.
Governors in a number of states, including, New York and New Jersey, called for 21-day quarantines of health workers.
By the end of October, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Minnesota, and Georgia had enacted mandatory lockdowns for returnees from West Africa. New Jeresy’s trapped a feisty Doctors Without Borders nurse, Kaci Hickox, who broke her quarantine by not only riding a bike, but ordering pizza and launching a human rights case.
The trouble with trying to muzzle the virus through travel bans and quarantines is — as every single public health researcher and official noted — we have seen time and again that they don’t work. That’s why science-minded men and women were monolithically opposed to these measures.
Luckily, the great travel ban and quarantine caper coincided with a mid-term election in November and then quickly disappeared as soon as the ballots were cast.
Anecdotal evidence has since suggested the threats to lock up health workers hampered the relief efforts. And we learned that, despite all the costs and effort associated with Ebola screening at airports, it failed to detect a single case.
Again this shouldn’t have been a surprise: post-SARS airport screening in Canada didn’t detect any SARS cases. Travel restrictions didn’t stop the spread of HIV or Swine Flu. But Ebola served as a reminder that we’ll keep pretending these measures work whenever it’s politically expedient to do so.
Related reading: Why travel bans will only make the Ebola epidemic worse, How Ebola quarantines work, Why new post-entry screening in the US is unlikely to catch Ebola, The evidence on travel bans for diseases like Ebola is clear: they don't work, Just Let Kaci Order Pizza
2) Ebola will soon be airborne
Ebola is a very frightening virus. And when it seemed to be taking off in West Africa — and subsequently popping up in other countries around the world — people were rightly afraid about how much further it might go. Some started to spread the idea that Ebola could mutate to become airborne, and pass among people as easily as the common cold.
In September, in a New York Times op-ed, an esteemed researcher gave credence to the possibility, and — surprise, surprise — Dr. Oz picked up on the idea, suggesting airborne Ebola was something scientists were quietly worried about behind the scenes.
Scientists who actually know something about the disease emphasized the fact that, while viruses always mutate, they don’t drastically change the way they spread.
Ebola becoming airborne would be akin to HIV becoming airborne. Or, as one virologist put it: "We have been studying viruses for over 100 years, and we've never seen a human virus change the way it is transmitted." Still, the notion that Ebola would soon fly through the air spread like the common cold, stoking "fear-bola" and "ebola-noia" along the way.
3) Dr. Oz: You can boost your metabolism and bust your belly fat
Speaking of Dr. Oz, the famed surgeon continued to spread misinformation through 2014. This year, on too many occasions to count, he claimed you can boost your metabolism, detox or fat flush your body, bust your belly fat, or take miracle supplements to quickly and painlessly lose weight. The whole notion of metabolism boosting is bogus, no supplement works for weight loss, and targeted fat loss in one part of your body is not possible except by liposuction.
What's disturbing about Oz's bad medicine is that it persisted at a time when public opinion seemed to be turning against him.
In June, he was dragged to Capitol Hill for a dressing down by Sen. Claire McCaskill, who told him: "The scientific community is almost monolithic against you in terms of the efficacy of those three products that you called miracles."
Then, according to the blog Retraction Watch, a key study that the TV doctor used to tout a green coffee bean extract for weight loss was retracted.
Even Twitter turned on Oz. He asked his audience:
To which they replied:
#OzsInbox I just got my flu shot, when can I expect to develop autism?— Ryen Smorczewski (@Smorz7IU) November 12, 2014
Can you go an entire show without saying the words "miracle," "toxin," and belly fat?" #OzsInbox— Jennifer Gunter (@DrJenGunter) November 12, 2014
Can Twerking cure Pertussis? #OzsInbox— Lipitor Charizard (@Spammyjazzhands) November 12, 2014
You've told us to eat low-carb, low-fat, paleo, and vegan diets. I've been eating them all daily- why am I gaining so much weight? #OzsInbox— Colby Vorland (@nutsci) November 12, 2014
#OzsInbox I just read that my new detox regimen might be toxic. Can you recommend a detoxification to detoxify my toxins?— Andrew Kniss (@WyoWeeds) November 12, 2014
The science-based reality checks didn't stop him. Here's to hoping 2015 will be different.
Related reading: Why Dr. Oz can say anything and keep his medical license, The research paper behind a favorite Dr. Oz product was just retracted, Meet the medical student who wants to bring down Dr. Oz, Dr. Oz's three biggest weight loss lies, debunked, Here's what happened when Dr. Oz asked Twitter for health questions
4) Gwyneth Paltrow: water has feelings and you can add length to your legs
Gwyneth Paltrow is also not exactly known for doling out evidence-based wisdom. But she brought her ignominiously bad science to a new level in a May 2014 edition of her newsletter goop:
I am fascinated by the growing science behind the energy of consciousness and its effects on matter. I have long had Dr. Emoto's coffee table book on how negativity changes the structure of water, how the molecules behave differently depending on the words or music being expressed around it.
In the newsletter, a supposed health guru named Habib Sadeghi also wrote:
Japanese scientist, Masaru Emoto performed some of the most fascinating experiments on the effect that words have on energy in the 1990’s…In his experiments, Emoto poured pure water into vials labeled with negative phrases like "I hate you" or "fear." After 24 hours, the water was frozen, and no longer crystallized under the microscope: It yielded gray, misshapen clumps instead of beautiful lace-like crystals. In contrast, Emoto placed labels that said things like "I Love You," or "Peace" on vials of polluted water, and after 24 hours, they produced gleaming, perfectly hexagonal crystals.
You don’t need me to explain why this is total crap. It’s flat out ridiculous, and one of the worst assaults on science from a public figure who should know better.
There were other offenses. This year, Paltrow also claimed that, by rolling around on foam, you can lengthen your legs by a few inches.
While this specific assertion is ridiculous, she did draw attention an interesting and emerging area of science: researchers are beginning to believe that the "fascia" — or connective tissue surrounding the organs, bones, muscles, nerves, and tendons — has been overlooked, and that it might play an important role in keeping us limber and healthy. But manipulating your fascia won't make you lean and tall like Paltrow, unfortunately, and she does researchers everywhere a disservice by calling the tissue a "secret organ."
5) Gay and bi men will spread HIV through blood donations
The United States has prohibited gay and bi men from donating blood since 1977. According to the FDA, this policy is based on the group's heightened risk for HIV, hepatitis B, and other blood-borne infections. For years, however, groups like the American Medical Association, the American Red Cross, the American Osteopathic Association, America's Blood Centers, and the American Association of Blood Banks have all urged the FDA to reconsider its prohibition, arguing that it’s not based on science.
Finally, in late 2014, the FDA announced it'll move to a new policy that will allow gay and bi men to donate blood — but only if they stop having sex. The change will require any male donor who has sex with other men to abstain for a year before giving blood.
every donated blood unit has to be tested for pathogens including HIV.
Research on countries that have switched to one-year deferral policies or behavior-based screening also suggests they don’t lead to more contaminated units in the blood supply.
For these reasons, Elizabeth Warren and a group of Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Sylvia Burwell, noting that a one-year deferral policy is "a step forward" but it "still prevents many low-risk individuals from donating blood." The letter continued: "If we are serious about protecting and enhancing our nation's blood supply, we must embrace science and reject outdated stereotypes."
For now, the current discriminatory policy remains and the new one-year deferral — which could take effect as early as 2015 — is almost as irrational. As one expert said: "If you are a heterosexual man who admits to having unprotected sex with a sex worker or prostitute, you can wait one year and donate blood. But a gay man who has been in a monogamous relationship and who tests negative for HIV still can't."
6) The one thing standing between you and good health: gluten
Even though many people don’t know what gluten is, the idea that it’s somehow bad for your health has spread so widely that you can’t get through a grocery aisle or restaurant menu without wondering whether you should be afraid of the stuff. (Gluten, for the record, are protein molecules that give shape to several grains including wheat, rye and barley.)
As the New Yorker’s resident debunker Michael Specter wrote in his story "Against the Grain," there are simply no "scientifically satisfying answers" for the question of how gluten, "a staple food that has sustained humanity for thousands of years, have suddenly become so threatening."
Yet an epidemic of gluten intolerance continues and one-third of American adults now say they are trying to get gluten out of their diets. (These recreational gluten haters are not to be confused with people who suffer from celiac disease, a real medical condition that causes people's immune systems to attack their intestines whenever they eat gluten.)
Around the world, people continue to vote against science with their pocketbooks as the market for gluten-free products grows, hitting more than $10-billion this year.
7) The HPV vaccine will spread promiscuity
We finally have a vaccine that prevents girls and boys from developing cancer. But this, apparently, isn’t something many Americans are interested in.
There are more than 100 strains of the human papillomavirus, or HPV. Some of them cause cervical, vulvar, vaginal, head, neck, and anal cancers, while others cause genital warts. Three vaccines have been approved for use in the US, but — despite being safe and effective — they aren't very popular.
This year, the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices reported that only 57 percent of girls and 35 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 got one or more doses of the HPV vaccine. That’s really low compared to the other recommended vaccines. For example, 86 percent the same cohort had received a Tdap shot and 78 percent received the menigococcal vaccine.
The worst part is that, this year, we also got yet more evidence that the HPV vaccine does not spread promiscuity, as people once believed. And that doctors are partly to blame for the vaccine's lack of popularity. In one study, doctors reported that they were uncomfortable about bringing this vaccine up with parents, and they hesitated and skirted around the issue, resulting in some patients never being offered the vaccine at all.
If we want to bring the HPV vaccine rate closer to other industrialized nations (around 80 percent) public-health officials and doctors need to figure out how to spread the message that — again — we have a cancer-preventing vaccine that science has demonstrated will save lives and won't spread promiscuity.
8) The benefits of e-cigarettes outweigh the harms
This year, more people — particularly teens — used e-cigarettes than at any other time in the past. Part of the popularity of these devices has to do with the mistaken notion that they are somehow safe and fine for your health.
Medical researchers, however, are worried about risks related to using these products, particularly the toxicity of the vapors they produce. Or, they worry that — despite the growing popularity of e-cigarettes — we don't yet have enough data to know how truly harmful they may be.
The World Health Organization has called e-cigarettes safety "illusive", since the ingredients they contain are not always disclosed and there is not "adequate data on emissions." When it comes to helping people quit smoking, they also say the science is not conclusive.
The US Centers for Disease Control takes a similar stance: that there is not enough evidence to understand the health impact of vaping. They warn of the potential for nicotine addiction, poisoning, and call for more robust regulation.
The e-cigs industry, meanwhile, contends they're safe and helpful for getting people to quit real cigarettes, and some former smokers swear by these devices.
Maybe we'll get more evidence and learn that e-cigarettes are much safer than worried researchers could have anticipated, and that industry advocates and vapers are right. But for now, we need to square that future promise with the fact that some e-cigarettes have exploded in people's faces, and ingestion of the liquid within them has led to poisonings and even deaths.