I'm not up five minutes, and it looks like I'll get my RDA of science claims at breakfast. Cheerios "can reduce your cholesterol."1 My milk derives from a dairy whose cows "graze freely on lush natural pastures as nature intended."2 My Concord Foods soy shake is "fat-free" and a "good source of fresh fruit."3
Then it's off to the e-mail inbox for some fresh scientific-sounding morning spam: A miracle pill guarantees I will "gain 3+ full
inches in length."4 A second promises me "huge breasts overnight."5 A third will make me "look 20 years younger."6 I wonder what I'd look like if I took all three.
1. Cheerios: Fair enough. Good for sales. In 1999, the FDA allowed Marketers to make unprecedented claims about the power of whole-grain foods to cut heart disease, based on its review of scientific research. General Mills, meanwhile, has funded Cheerios-specific research, and most recently published a 2003 study showing that if women eat two bowls a day, they can reduce their total cholesterol by 4 percent. A press release (not the study itself) concludes that Cheerios could save 24,000 lives per year, "if everybody in America ate Cheerios as recommended." Interesting extrapolation: 280 million Americans times 2 bowls times 365 days equals 204 billion bowls of Cheerios per year. Healthy indeed.
2. Cows: Specious. I'm happy for the cows-nature did evolve cows that wandered around and ate grass instead of the more efficient corn-based gruel some commercial dairies use. But "natural" is one of the most slippery words in marketing. Nature never "intended" humans to drink cow milk, nor to place cattle or pasture land in upstate New York. Cows descend from the wild aurochs, a now-extinct native of Persia, and were bred and imported by humans who made pastures by clear-cutting the thick forests that had blanketed this land for eons.
3. Soy shake: Misleading. The packaged powder contains no fresh fruit. The fruit is a banana you buy separately. Bananas contain fat, though not a lot. Only the powder is fat-free, and only the prepared shake has fresh fruit.
4. 3+ full inches: Bogus. Drugs can't extend penis length (except, of course, temporarily).
5. Breasts: Equally bogus. No pill can enlarge breasts overnight.
6. Younger: Even more bogus. No pill can make someone look 20 years younger. This pill further claims to increase emotional stability by 67 percent. Such pseudoscientific precision increases the absurdity of the claim by at least 68 percent.
In my first waking minutes of October 15, I wrote down 13 scientific claims. Only one, for Cheerios, had any reasonable science behind it. According to the National Science Board's 2002 study "Science and Engineering Indicators," only one-third of Americans can "adequately explain what it means to study something scientifically." Which presumably leaves those who would exploit scientific claims with two suckers born every three minutes. As a nation, we are easy prey to the pseudoscientific, and the National Science Board survey blames education and the media for this.
But how much "science" is the average American fed in a day, and how nutritious is it? I did not actively search through scientific journals, because the average American probably doesn't do that. Rather, I simply noted every claim to scientific veracity thrust upon me through radio, television, the Internet, product packaging, billboards and a light read of the daily paper. By bedtime, I had encountered more than 100 (not all of which are detailed here, you'll be relieved to know; I've included a representative assortment). That's one science claim every 10 minutes, on average.
The majority of the claims came from advertisers. Advertisers probably feed more science to Americans than anyone else, which is not surprising since they are in the business of making claims, and the same NSB study cited above noted that Americans are all ears about science: 90 percent of respondents were moderately or very interested in new scientific discoveries. Companies have a legal obligation to tell the truth (not always obeyed, of course; promising "3+ full inches" would seem to be a heartbreaking lie), but they have a marketing imperative to put the best possible spin on it. The marketing imperative is, of course, antithetical to the scientific method. Science proceeds slowly, painfully, and with considerable uncertainty: The cholesterol"heart disease connection has been researched for more than 50 years, and it's still not completely understood. In simplest terms,
science is gray. Science in advertising wears makeup-it sometimes looks 20 years younger and has huge breasts and a, well, you get the picture.
Very few of the 100 claims I encountered proved completely true. A good number were patently false.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.