Photograph by Chris Buck
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.
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.
The Fine Print
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.
The New York Times features a story on the Chinese
astronaut’s launch aboard the Shenzhou 5 (which means “Divine Vessel”) and a report that centenarians “have larger than average cholesterol-carrying molecules,” which keep their arteries clear and healthy.7
On the radio, an ad for DuPont celebrates that “The fundamental understanding of life is something
that didn’t exist 15 years ago.”8 I websurf, starting with MSN, where a banner ad tells me Pletal is my “claudication solution”9?whatever that means. Just
a click away, WebMD reports “recommendations for breast cancer screening” from a panel of experts at the Cleveland Clinic: All women should have an annual mammogram starting at age 40.10
Just as I’m about to turn off the radio, Don Imus shoots a skeptical arrow at the Chinese astronaut: “How do we know those lying bastards got the guy up in the air?”
The breast cancer screening advice I clicked through to is a good example of how media?even careful media?simplify complex issues in order to give advice. Wait! I’m not allowed to call it advice because the site’s legal disclaimer states that WebMD “does not provide medical advice.” Whether or not “recommendations” and “advice” are synonyms is a moot point: In this case,
the gray was rendered in black and white. Concerning whether women should have annual mammograms starting at age 40 or (as some experts believe) at age 50, the WebMD site acknowledges that “not all medical institutions and advocacy groups agree,” but then comes down firmly on the age-40 standard. Further clicking does not easily reveal the full degree to which this
recommendation remains controversial.
Oddly, the Imus joke about the Chinese astronaut embodied the sort of attitude Americans could profit from in a world of promiscuous science claims. His “How do we know?” is a demand for fundamental evidence. (To answer the question: The Chinese launch and return were well documented, although some of the video was delayed by the Chinese government until it knew the taikonaut was safe on the ground.)
The Fine Print
7. Centenarians: Well reported. The science behind this story was published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, which, of course, doesn’t guarantee its truth but does mean it has been peer-reviewed: vetted. The Times covered the study’s method (comparing centenarians and their children to a control group of 60- and 70-year-olds); pointed out the unknowns, such as genetic links and the effect on “good cholesterol”; and cautioned against overemphasizing the significance of the findings.
8. Fundamental understanding of life: Puffed up. This
corporate-identity ad, promoting DuPont and the New York Stock
Exchange, vaguely suggests that genetics has profoundly deepened our understanding of life. Which of course it has. But the ring of finality here is meaningless. The life process is far from decoded.
9. Claudication: Oversold. The prescription drug Pletal can alleviate the limping and pain old people get from arterial disease (i.e., claudication). However, Pletal does not work for everyone, and, as a potential patient learns on the company’s Web site, it can kill patients with congestive heart failure. “Your claudication solution” is what happens when complex therapies are reduced to slogans; it implies the drug will help everyone who needs it. No drug works for everyone.
10. Mammogram: Incomplete and potentially dangerous. Hypothetically, if all women got annual mammograms starting at age 20, we would catch even more breast cancers early. Doctors don’t recommend doing so because we’d get too many false positives?resulting in a rash of unnecessary biopsies and worry, even lumpectomies. The critical public health question is, When does the risk of cancer outweigh the harm of false positives? While many doctors agree with the age-40 recommendation, others think 40 is still too young and that 50 is the right average age. The most important guidelines, they say, are a woman’s family medical history and her personal tolerance for risk.
Before I log off, I note an Atkins banner on my MSN homepage asking me to
fill in my height and weight. I lie, typing in that I’m a 5-foot-10, 135-pound, 25-year-old female. When
I punch “enter,” the Web site tells me I’m perfectly healthy, but pushes me to buy anyway. “Your low-carb meal plan will enable you to enjoy a lifetime of weight management.”11
I throw some clothes on my 6-foot, 185-pound body and head for the grocery store. This place is a feast for a science-claim junkie. There’s some Atkins low-carb bread, designed to contain as little as possible of the thing bread is famous for. There’s a sign over the bread aisle: “Go for the grains! Bread and other grain foods are the foundation of healthy eating.”12 Meanwhile, the Wegman’s brand bread claims to be “bromate-free.”13 Further along, a Perdue chicken assures me it’s “all natural!”14 and a bag of Diamond walnuts has a little flag saying “omega-3!”15
A package of yeast brags that it’s “gluten-free.”16
Puzzlingly, a nearby display suggests that gunky, white coconut oil may be a diet aid: A 2003 weekly magazine article conveniently posted over the bottles announces, “University
of Colorado research has found coconut oil can increase your calorie-burning power by up to 50%.”17
“People in a grocery store assume the government is scrutinizing the claims products make, so if they’re on the label, they must be accurate and important,” notes William Hallman, a psychologist at the Food Policy Institute
at Rutgers University. Of course, it’s more complicated than that. The assumption of accuracy is correct, but the assumption of importance
is not. Both Federal Trade Commission and FDA regulations require truthfulness on packages. Yes, the chicken is chicken. But, Hallman
continues, “while the claim
may be factually correct, the actual health benefits may lack practical significance.”
Why make claims that “lack practical significance”? Because, says Hallman, “we jump to the conclusion that the benefits are substantial.” Scientific language cues the consumer to take an insignificant claim and provide a significant health benefit on the company’s behalf. “The beauty of this is that the manufacturer doesn’t have to make the claim of benefits explicit.” Doesn’t have to, and, for the most part, couldn’t.
We do this because we generally believe science is good for us. The National Science Board survey found that although 90 percent of Americans consider themselves “interested” in science, only 15 percent consider themselves well informed. Ninety percent interested, 15 percent informed: That’s
a gap any marketing MBA could drive a truck of baloney through.
The Fine Print
11. Low-carb Plan: Blanket pitch. A healthy, right-weight 25-year-old woman needs a lifetime plan?
12. Go for the grains: Reasonable. Despite the renewed controversy about low-carb diets, the evidence is not definitive. Balanced diet, calorie control and exercise are still regarded as the best way to combat obesity. The FDA is reviewing the Food Pyramid, but it’s unlikely to replace it with a Meat and Fat Pyramid. University of Colorado physician and nutritionist Holly Wyatt says, “All these diets mess up the message, saying, ?It’s carbs!’ ?It’s protein!’ It’s neither. Calories are what count.”
13. Bromate-free: Voodoo use of chemical name. Wegman’s bread is indeed bromate-free, but it doesn’t much matter. Some studies have shown that bromate, a dough enhancer, is a carcinogen if consumed in large amounts, though these findings are controversial. Bromate has never been found in baked breads at harmful levels. Most brands have stopped using bromate altogether.
14. All natural: Invokes a magic word. “Natural” conjures up images of happy chickens prancing about a sunny barnyard under a windmill. All this claim really means, though?insofar as FDA regulators are concerned?is that the chicken is not made of plastic. Chickens labeled “all natural” may have been crammed by the thousands into tight pens, clipped of their claws and beaks, and stuffed full of antibiotics they’d never find in that “natural” barnyard.
15. Omega-3: Cryptic. Omega-3 fatty acids are a form of fat underrepresented in our diets, according to many nutritionists. All walnuts contain omega-3’s, so the claim is accurate. But the message is reduced to code. Greek letter plus number equals “science-based,” ergo good.
16. Gluten-Free YeasT: Duh. Yeast is a fungus. Gluten is a product of plant protein. In evolutionary terms, yeast and gluten are as unrelated as a cow and an orange.
17. Coconut oil: Fad. Two public-information officers at the University of Colorado canvassed their scientific faculty, trying to find anyone who had done this research. No luck. The notion that a saturated fat boosts “calorie-burning power”?rather than increasing the number of calories to be burned?is problematic. Well-known studies have shown that saturated fats increase the risk of heart disease. Still, the rumor of coconut oil’s “power” created a run on the stuff in 2003.
Over lunch at the deli, my friend Charles mourns that neither of us orders a beer: “They’re finding out alcohol is good for you,”18 he says.
On the car ride home, I hear a radio ad for eHarmony,
the dating service that promises to find me a
scientifically matched wife.19 Near my exit, there’s a billboard ad: “Is breast cancer’s most avoidable risk factor elective abortion?”20
When I get home, I turn on the radio and hear the angry voice of Roger Hedgecock, the man sitting in for Rush Limbaugh, who is in rehab for drug addiction. “No U.S. animal species are falling extinct,”21 he says.
Soon I’m off to the gym. I stop by the blood pressure reader, and notice a warning label: “Only a physician is qualified to interpret the significance of blood pressure measurements.” I am not a physician, so presumably I should note the measurements but not interpret them.
I’m offered a blood pressure machine but warned not to use the information. Science for the science-ignorant is talismanic. Roger Hedgecock hurls out claims so believers will believe. The billboard binds abortion to breast
cancer with the scientific-sounding term “risk factor,” giving an ethical argument ?concerning the right to life?the halo of science.
This is the nub of the power of science claims in advertising and in slipshod media: Science claims give permission to believe, even if the science itself, when examined, provides no such encouragement.
The Fine Print
18. Alcohol is good for you: Yes, and it’s bad for you. A landmark study that followed the drinking habits of nearly 90,000 male physicians showed that those who had one drink per day had significantly lower morbidity and mortality from diabetes, stroke and heart disease. But people who drink excessively?and the definition of that is still debated?die at high rates from liver diseases, esophageal cancer and car accidents.
19. eHarmony: Incomplete. In the hot and heavy world of Web matchmaking, eHarmony distinguishes itself as, first, a service for the traditional altar-bound and, second, scientific in its approach, taking data points on clients’ levels of obstreperousness, submissiveness and other characteristics. The company now says it has conducted an internal scientific study of its matchmaking results using a standard methodology that gives “clear indication that the eHarmony matching algorithm works.” Reviewing eHarmony’s Web site, Arthur Aron, a professor of social psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, notes that “it’s true compatibility can be measured, but what they’re measuring accounts for only a small portion of what makes a successful marriage.”
20. Abortion: False. The National Cancer Institute reviewed many studies and concluded abortions do not increase risk of breast cancer.
21. Extinct: Hogwash. Tell that to one of the three remaining Hawaiian po’ouli birds; the po’ouli is just one of several Hawaiian birds at serious risk of extinction. Plenty of U.S. animals are endangered.
CNN is on over the stationary bike at the gym. An FDA panel recommends lifting the ban on silicone breast implants.22 In the shower afterward, I note that my conditioner “contains essential nucleic acids for pH 5.5 balance.”23 I brew in my travel mug some AllGoode brand DigestibiliTea, containing fennel, which “promotes relaxation of the smooth muscles of the digestive tract.” At the bottom of the package, there’s
a little disclaimer that reads: “The Food and Drug Administration has not evaluated these statements. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”24
At the GNC store, I spot that disclaimer on almost every product. It’s even on a yellow shelf placard, underneath a pronouncement that “amino acids
are the building blocks of proteins.” Hmmm. Why the disclaimer? Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, the same way letters are the building blocks of words. The FDA certainly knows this.
Curious about a radio ad that I hear on the drive home, I call up a company called CortiSlim, whose product, it claims, reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol and thereby helps you lose weight.
Me: “So how does CortiSlim work to reduce cortisol?” Seller: “It decreases the level of cortisol in your body, just cancels it all out.”25 Me: “OK, but how does it do that?” Seller: “CortiSlim evaporates
it and absorbs it and decreases it and cuts it down. So I want to tell
you about a ?buy two get one free’ special we’re running this week.”
Eager to establish its scientific credentials, CortiSlim’s Web site features MRI images of fat deposits along with a bold motto: “The new science in weight loss.” In the site’s nether regions, however, you’ll find the FDA disclaimer. Let’s be clear: Wherever you see this disclaimer, it signals that you have no reason to believe that there will be “practical significance” to using a product. The people wearing lab coats in the promo pics? They can be actors. Reported data from scientific studies? Could have been invented by someone who failed high school biology. Claims of health benefits? Well, you get the idea.
A 1994 federal law took the teeth out of the FDA’s dietary supplement regulations, which cover products that are neither foods nor drugs, such as CortiSlim and AllGoode teas. The FDA
can yank a product off the shelves if it proves to be harmful (as it did to Ephedra) and it can prohibit companies from claiming to
cure specific diseases. AllGoode, therefore, can’t be promoted as a cure to inflammatory bowel disease. But it can be sold to promote digestion, stimulate the digestive tract, maintain immune system balance?any medical-sounding thing that stimulates sales. Sellers of so-called “herbal Viagra alternatives” can imply the
same benefits provided by heavily researched and FDA-approved pharmaceuticals?indeed, can imply the extra natural goodness of herbal drug-alternatives?without
reference to scientific research. Companies with names like Medicures can hawk “100% All Natural
Doctor-Approved” pills, with names like Virility-Rx, which are neither medical nor, by their own disclaimered admission, cures.
The Fine Print
22. Breast implants: True. The FDA panel did
recommend lifting the ban, though the agency has since decided not to follow that recommendation.
23. Conditioner: Sounds scientific! Dermatologist Jerome Litt of Case Western Reserve University doesn’t know what “essential nucleic acids for pH 5.5 balance” is supposed to mean in this phrase. “Any conditioner you like will work. They are all essentially the same.”
24. Fennel: Unproven. Fennel is a folk cure for indigestion (some folk cures, of course, have been scientifically proven to work). AllGoode did not respond to repeated requests for the science behind this claim. We searched PubMed and found one study on the subject that showed that fennel stimulated contractions of smooth muscle in guinea pigs, and another that showed that fennel relieved smooth-muscle spasms in rats.
25. Cancels out all the cortisol: Bogus. Cortisol is a stress hormone?among other things, it regulates our fight-or-flight impulse?and has been weakly linked to one form of obesity. But “canceling out all cortisol would be disastrous,” notes University of Virginia endocrinologist Mary Vance. Perusing the ingredients listed on the company’s Web site, she says: “You might as well eat tree bark.” The CortiSlim salesperson had apparently not read the Web site, which says the product helps “control cortisol levels within a healthy range.” The site recommends the product for “millions of Americans. …Anybody who leads a stressful lifestyle and wants to lose weight.” Its home page features
a strong warning to consumers?against buying bogus CortiSlim.
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
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.
The Fine Print
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.
William Speed Weed is a frequent contributor to PopSci. His most recent article, in October 2003, chronicled 18 of the worst jobs in science.