I drop by to visit my friends Mike and Jolynn, and they serve BLTs in front of the evening news. Tom Brokaw introduces the case of Terri Schiavo, a woman in a coma in Florida whose husband wants to pull the plug on her. "A medical dilemma wrapped in a family battle," he calls it.26 A drug ad tells me that Lipitor reduces cholesterol27 (just like Cheerios), although a disclaimer (not found on the Cheerios box) flashes on the screen: "Lipitor has not been shown to prevent heart disease or heart attacks." On a home-shopping channel, a lady peddling skin cream tells me, "You know the benefits of vitamin A. Don't you want to use it on your skin?"28 Actually, I don't know the benefits, and she never tells me.
Later, just before saying my good-nights and heading home, I see a promo for George of the Jungle 2: George slams into a tree and Ape, his trusty gorilla butler, shakes his head: "And they say humans are more evolved."29
26. Schiavo coma: Incomplete. The report never gives us the details of the medical dilemma behind this big story. Without more science, the dispute is difficult to understand.
27. Lipitor: True. Lipitor lowers cholesterol, and cholesterol reduction is associated with lowering the risk of heart disease. But it's so difficult to prove a direct connection between a cholesterol-lowering medication and the long-term incidence of heart disease that Lipitor still runs this disclaimer, seven years after it hit the market. In contrast to the FDA's toothlessness with dietary supplements, the agency has the authority to ensure all statements about prescription drugs are scientifically true.
A Lipitor researcher predicted at press time that the disclaimer will be
off the drug within a year because of new studies showing that its active ingredient does lower the risk of heart-disease mortality.
28. Vitamin A: Bogus. Retinoic acid is the form of vitamin A used in prescription medications to rejuvenate skin. But, according to Mount Sinai dermatology professor Susan Bershad, the form of vitamin A used in creams "sold over the counter won't have the same effect."
29. Evolved: Misguided. This joke only works because of the common misconception that evolution is progressive and that humans are the "most evolved." Indiana University biologist Rudolph Raff cautions, "Evolution is not a ladder of progress." All species alive today are, each in its own way, equally evolved. Humans have evolved higher intelligence. Apes are better adapted for eating leaves and, in some species, swinging from trees.
So the 106th and last item in my day of scientific-claim collecting turns out to be a joke. Fitting, perhaps, that it came from an actor dressed in a gorilla suit.
Psychologist William Hallman says that people really do learn their science from science claims, which is rather like learning the fundamentals of automobile engineering from a used-car salesman. "If you ask people, "When you clean your kitchen, how clean do you need to get it to be safe?'" he says, "they respond: "I need to clean 99.9 percent of germs on contact'-repeating the claims of antibacterial cleansers."
Or, you might say, aping them.
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.