Column: Science the scapegoat

By David Solana

A successful company changes with society, changes society or does whatever else it finds necessary and effective to sell its product to consumers. The consumer, however, should be wary of advertising campaigns and keep the corporate goal in mind.

The milk industry has seen hard times come and go in waves – they reacted by going low fat and later by touting milk’s ability to fight osteoporosis and build strong bones. Now, the dairy industry says that eating dairy products is a great way to lose weight.

It’s a perfect campaign for the moment. American culture today is obsessed with losing weight. The obese don’t want to be fat anymore, the overweight would like to be “normal weight,” and even skinny folk sometimes want to get skinnier.

Greg Miller, a scientist with the National Dairy Council, told National Public Radio, “There are (sic) a natural package of nutrients in dairy products that helps your body kind of speed up its metabolism so that you burn more fat and lose more weight when you cut calories in your diet.” That the National Dairy Council hired him immediately brings what he says into suspicion, although the part about cutting calories to lose weight really does make sense.

These days, any well-funded government, company or other private entity can hire a scientist to come up with an amiable conclusion. That scientist, if backed with a good marketing campaign, can even convince people that he or she is right for long enough to make the enterprise profitable. By the time his or her work is scrutinized sufficiently to either support or dissent from the scientific community, public interest will probably have moved on with the original message still firmly planted in their minds.

    Join Our Newsletter

    The obvious seduction of any plan to get rid of those evil pounds of flab is golden. It’s impossible to escape it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – society is finally paying more attention to its health. And, if that’s not exactly the case, well, at least we are all lining up to attain that perfect body image we saw in that movie last week.

    Yeah, overweight people need help, but they don’t need it from the latest – and incidentally wonderful – findings by the dairy industry. The problem is, they base their argument on what is that more likely a coincidental correlation between factors. For example: people who are conscious milk drinkers may be so because they were raised to be health-conscious – with milk as an important part of their ideal health pyramid. But those people are not likely to view milk as the single factor in their health. They would also be likely to lead active lifestyles and take care of themselves in many different facets of health.

    This is an example – but it can be applied to many statements made by those who tarnish science’s reputation by using it for their own interest. Look at smokers: not all smokers develop lung cancer. There is a strong correlation between lung cancer and smoking, but it was also mentioned, as a sidebar, during the huge anti-tobacco campaigns we endured in elementary school that smoking didn’t have the same negative effects in Japan as it does in the United States. No one studied the cultural differences between them to account for the other factors that compound the effects of smoking to cause lung cancer. People were too busy trying to put all the blame on one obvious culprit.

    As tempting as it is to think eating more yogurt is going to rid me of my waistline, I prefer to trust what worked before America became so sedentary and keep up an active lifestyle without overindulgence in foods. Although, I have to admit, I really want to believe adding cheese to my pasta and eating a bucket of ice cream before bed will both bolster my physique and turn me into a worship-worthy human specimen.