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7 bad science and health ideas that should die with 2016

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There’s no shortage of misinformation in the world — particularly around health and science topics.

Sometimes that’s just because the research can be a little contradictory (nutrition, for instance, is famously hard to study). Sometimes that’s because there are quacks or vested interests trying to spread lies and pseudoscience. And sometimes there are just weird myths that have randomly taken hold and refuse to go away (like the idea that you need to drink eight glasses of water a day — you don’t).

Alas, it’s unlikely that the world’s ever going to be completely free of nonsense. But we can start small: Here are seven myths in health and science that were decisively debunked this year. (Or, in some cases, extra-super-decisively debunked after years of previous debunkings … well, you get the point.)

1) “Exercise will help you lose weight”

We’ve been conditioned to think of exercise as a key ingredient — perhaps the most important ingredient — of any weight loss effort. You know the drill: Join the gym on January 1 if you want to reach your New Year’s weight loss goal.

But in truth, the evidence has been accumulating for years that exercise, while great for health, isn’t actually all that important for weight loss.

To learn more about why, I (Julia) read through more than 60 studies (including high-quality, systematic reviews of all the best-available research) on exercise and weight loss this year. I learned that the extra calories you burn only account for a small part of your total energy expenditure, and that cutting your food intake is a much more efficient way to lose weight. Obesity doctors have even been calling for a rebranding of how we think of exercise.

To be clear: Exercise has staggering benefits — it reduces the risk of chronic conditions like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, it strengthens your bones and muscles, it even helps with weight management — it just isn’t the most effective way to slim down. In 2017, we need to stop treating a lack of exercise and diet as equally responsible for the obesity problem in this country. Public-health obesity policies should prioritize fighting the over-consumption of low-quality food and improving the food environment.

2) “There’s been no global warming since 1998”

When you look at this chart of Earth’s average surface temperature over time, what do you see?


Why, it looks like the Earth is getting steadily warmer, with average temperatures in 2015 roughly 0.89 degrees Celsius warmer than the 20th-century average. This is global warming, and there’s overwhelming scientific evidence that it’s caused by human activity.

But notice that it isn’t a smooth increase — there are fluctuations over time. One reason for that: As we burn fossil fuels, we trap more heat on the Earth’s surface. But about 90 percent of that extra heat is absorbed by the oceans. So subtle interactions between the oceans and atmosphere can cause natural variation year to year. During years where there’s a strong El Niño event in the Pacific Ocean, more of that excess heat gets transferred to the surface. During La Niña years, more of that heat goes back into the ocean. Hence the bumpiness, even though the broader trend is clear.

For many years, climate deniers seized on that bumpiness to try to pretend that global warming doesn’t exist. One hugely popular denier line was to cherry-pick the graph above and say that there’s been no global warming since 1998 (which was, at the time, a record hot year thanks in part to an especially strong El Niño).

For a while, they could sort of get away with this. Here’s the trend between 1998 and 2013:


Unfortunately for those climate deniers, the effects of all that extra CO2 in the atmosphere are overwhelming that natural variability. 2014 was a record hot year even without an El Niño. And then when El Niño came back, 2015 set a new temperature record. And it’s looking like 2016 will shatter records once again.

So even though the “no global warming since 1998” line was always misleading, it’s now just flatly false, as this chart with the years 2014 and 2015 added in shows:

Anyone who wants to pretend global warming doesn’t exist is going to have to find some new chicanery. One possibility: With last year’s El Niño fading, it’s likely that 2017 will be slightly cooler than 2016 — though still very, very warm in the broad scheme of things. So some House Republicans are already switching to “there’s been no global warming since 2016.”

3) “Antibiotics cure colds”

Batman is angry, too.
Medicine and Social Justice Blog

For years, public health experts have been practically begging people to stop taking antibiotics for flu and the common cold.

For one, the drugs don't help: Antibiotics treat bacterial infections. Colds and the flu are caused by viruses. So taking antibiotics for these illnesses is an entirely futile and wasteful exercise. But even more importantly, the more we take antibiotics — particularly when they're not necessary — the more we increase the chances of helping develop antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These "superbugs," as they're known, have become a huge public health threat around the world, killing thousands of people every year and, researchers expect, many millions more in the coming decades.

That's not to mention the damage antibiotics do to the gut microbiome, wiping out good bacteria in the body that keep us healthy.

Yet despite all the warnings, the message doesn't seem to be getting through. In a study published in JAMA this year, researchers estimated the extent of antibiotic overprescription in the US: They found 30 percent of antibiotics doled out in emergency rooms and doctors' offices are unnecessary. That amounts to 47 million prescriptions every year! The majority of unnecessary prescriptions were for respiratory illnesses caused by viruses —€” colds, sore throats, bronchitis, and sinus and ear infections — which don't even respond to antibiotics.

For the love of God, people, stop taking antibiotics for flus and colds. It isn't helpful in any way. Antibiotics kill bacteria, not the viruses that cause these illnesses. And the abuse of these drugs contributes to a huge public health problem. So just stop.

Watch: Stop taking antibiotics to treat your cold

4) “Willpower helps you accomplish goals”


Many of us assume that if we want to make big changes in our lives, we have to sweat for it. The plate of cookies in front of you ought to be resisted. You have to force yourself to save money.

But psychologists are increasingly finding that willpower alone is an ineffective strategy. Several psychologists Vox talked to this year echoed the same thought: “We don’t seem to be all that good at [self-control],” as Brian Galla, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, said.

It’s an acknowledgement that if you find yourself in front of a pile of cookies, the pile of cookies has already won.

Here’s the key finding in recent studies: “The people who are really good at self-control never have these battles in the first place,” Kentaro Fujita, a psychologist who studies self-control at the Ohio State University, says.

This idea was crystallized in the results of a 2011 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The study tracked 205 people for one week in Germany. The study participants were given BlackBerrys that would go off at random, asking them questions about what desires, temptations, and self-control they were experiencing in the moment.

The paper stumbled on a paradox: The people who said they excel at self-control were hardly using it at all. Further studies find that changing the environments we are in leads to an “effortless” version of self-control.

The implications of this are huge: If we accept that brute willpower doesn’t work, we can feel less bad about ourselves when we succumb to temptation. And we might also be able refocus our efforts on solving problems like obesity.

5) “GMOs are unsafe to eat”

Moves To Grow GM Crops In Britain Rejected By British MPs

Okay, this one should’ve died years ago. Ever since the first GM crops hit the market in the 1990s, billions of people worldwide have been consuming GM ingredients — largely corn, soy, and canola — without any noticeable health problems. Yet anti-GMO groups still insist that these foods are somehow dangerous to consume.

This past May, the National Academy of Sciences released a sweeping report on GM crops that should’ve put these fears to rest. It was an independent look at all the evidence to date, and it found, much as past reports have, that GM crops are just as safe to eat as their conventional counterparts.

Among other evidence: Scientists haven't found any upticks in obesity or cancer or gastrointestinal illnesses or allergies that could plausibly be correlated with the introduction of GM foods anywhere in the world. This has been corroborated by animal studies, which, while imperfect, have found no particular dangers from eating GM foods. (There are signs that animals on GM diets show "small perturbations" in their gut microbes, but nothing that's expected to cause health problems in humans.) Nor is there reason to think GM crops could pose a health risk by "transferring" their modified genes to animals or humans.

That's why the report ultimately concludes that "no differences have been found that implicate a higher risk to human health and safety from [current] GE foods than from their non-GE counterparts."

Now, the report has plenty to say about other aspects of GM crops, from their economics to their environmental impacts (both good and not-so-good) and their potential to boost yields for a growing global population. You should read the report, it’s nuanced and thoughtful. But the idea that the GM crops currently on the market are unsafe to eat? That notion needs to die.

6) “Homeopathy is a real medical treatment”


Homeopathy is one of the most enduring forms of snake oil available to consumers; it has been duping people since 1814. Yet the United States government only this year decided to clamp down on these treatments, with a recent policy from the Federal Trade Commission.

The FTC’s policy statement explains that the agency will now ask that the makers of homeopathic drugs present reliable scientific evidence for their health claims if they want to sell them to consumers on the US market.

Mustering that evidence is likely to be difficult given that homeopathy is gobbledygook. The main idea behind homeopathy is that an animal or plant extract that causes symptoms similar to the ones a person is suffering from can cure the symptoms. So homeopathic remedies on the market are just extremely diluted versions of plant or animal extracts believed to bring relief to symptoms.

The scientific community is monolithically stacked against homeopathy. There have been many studies, books, and investigations demonstrating that this type of therapy is bogus. There's so much evidence on homeopathy's failure to help people, in fact, that some researchers have argued it’s time to stop investing government research funding on this alternative therapy in favor of putting it into treatments that might actually help people.

This FTC ruling is definitely a step in the right direction of raising awareness about the lack of evidence behind homeopathy. But it doesn’t mean these "medicines" will disappear. The FTC only has the right to crack down on misleading marketing claims, and if the makers of homeopathic remedies clearly state that their products are based on no science, they can still sell them.

So it’ll be buyer beware going forward. Let’s just hope consumers are wise enough to read the packaging that will now tell them there’s no evidence behind the products.

7) “‘Power posing’ will make you act powerful”

power pose
Sergey Nivens /Shutterstock

In 2010, researchers at Columbia University published a blockbuster paper in Psychological Science. The study found that when participants made themselves look big (bodies outstretched, either reclining or standing A-frame style with open limbs) they actually felt more powerful, took on greater risks, and had higher levels of the hormone testosterone flowing through them.

This became the basis for “power posing,” which you’ve probably heard of. Amy Cuddy, one of the study’s co-authors, presented the findings in a TED talk, which has since been viewed 38 million times. It also appears in Cuddy’s new book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges.

It all sounds great. Who wouldn’t want to feel more powerful? All it takes is one weird trick!

Too bad posing doesn’t check out. For the past six years, other labs have been attempting to replicate the results in larger samples to little or no effect. And this year, Dana Carney, the lead author of the 2010 paper, decided to put it all to rest. “I do not believe that ‘power pose’ effects are real,” she wrote on her website, adding that she thought additional work on the topic would be “a waste of time and resources.”

(Study co-author Cuddy still stands by the research. And to be fair, a power pose replication test did find that participants felt a subjective sense of power. But the test failed to confirm the hormonal and behavioral changes that made the original paper a sensation.)

It’s unfair to pick on “power posing” alone. It’s just a small piece of a larger trend in psychological science. Psychologists are now realizing their institutions are structured so it's more likely that false positives will make it through to publication than inconclusive results. And they’ve realized that experimental methods commonly used just a few years ago aren’t rigorous enough. That means whole meta studies on published results may be biased and, ultimately, untrue.

Ultimately, this “replication crisis,” as it’s being called, is a good thing. The discipline is reforming its methods, calling for bigger sample sizes in studies, preregistered study methods (so researchers can’t cherry-pick results after the fact), and increasing data sharing.

The past few years have seen many psychological phenomena destroyed or diminished in rigorous replication attempts. The list includes: ego depletion (the idea that willpower is a finite resource); the facial feedback hypothesis (if we activate the smile muscles in our mouths, we actually become happier); the heartwarming finding that reading fiction improves empathy and theory of mind (but you should still read anyway; it’s great); and how a whiff of the hormone oxytocin can make us more trusting. Plus many more.