Reality Check: You Aren’t as Objective as You Think.
When is the last time you, or someone you know, changed their stance on a strongly held belief?
If your answer is “ummm…. good question, let me think about that”, you are not alone.
As a scientist newly immersed in the nutrition world, I find its tribal nature to be both striking and alarming. Whether it’s beliefs about which diet is best (ketogenic, vegan, paleo…), the safety of GMO foods, or the superiority of organic foods, we rarely see anyone change camps. You might as well challenge a religious zealot on the existence of God.
A recent transatlantic flight afforded me the opportunity to read: Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me). The book shares insights from two prominent social psychologists, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, into why we cling so tightly to our beliefs, both in the world of nutrition and beyond.
As someone who prides herself on being objective in her pursuit of knowledge, this book was a real eye-opener.
Tavris and Aronson describe the ways in which we are hard-wired to maintain our self-concept and to minimize “cognitive dissonance”. We tend to see ourselves as good, smart, reasonable people and are extremely uncomfortable with any information that contradicts this notion (such as the possibility that we made an error in judgement).
We manage cognitive dissonance using advanced mental gymnastics. We deftly spin new data to fit our beliefs, harshly criticizing contradictory evidence and welcoming confirmatory evidence with open arms (confirmation bias). We even alter our memories to align with our beliefs about the world and ourselves.
None of us are immune to this phenomenon, including doctors, lawyers, politicians and… (sigh) scientists. Yet, most of us are blind to it — though only in ourselves.
Mea culpa — and implications for science
This book shed lights on one of the sobering realities of science — the fact that most published research findings are false (see study by Ioannidis). Epidemiological studies, a mainstay of nutritional research, are particularly problematic.
Are scientists masters in the art of deceit? No. Rather, we are masters at presenting experimental results in a way that matches our beliefs. We slice and dice our data until we find a pattern that we believe, then tell the story as if this is the only logical way to present it. We recognize this “selective storytelling” in others, but rarely in ourselves. This is why it’s so important for clinical trials to have pre-defined analyses and “go/no-go” criteria — these shut the door on selective storytelling.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we throw science out the window. With enough time and studies from diverse stakeholders, the scientific community will eventually uncover and embrace the truth. However, any given study’s findings should be viewed skeptically — especially those that report “new and exciting” results, leave any “wiggle room” for interpretation, or requires a leap of faith from the experiment to real life.
When it comes to diet and health, this means being leery of studies that are not perfectly controlled and have more than one potential interpretation (any epidemiological study), studies that lack an appropriate control group, and studies done in model systems (non-human) or non real-life settings. Small studies and those with conflicts of interest must also be interpreted with extra caution. Come to think of it, virtually all studies of diet and health fit one of my cautionary criteria!
What’s a truth-seeker to do?
Three ways to boost your objectivity
- Recognize your potential biases and self-monitor — as best you can.
Simply being aware of your potential biases is a huge step towards minimizing their impact.
While I promote a whole-foods plant-centric diet as a healthy option, I strive to be just as critical of studies that celebrate the benefits of animal products as those that vilify them. When the New York Times recently trumpeted a study that raised red flags about eggs and cholesterol, I held myself back from jumping on the bandwagon because of the study’s many shortcomings (see my commentary here).
2. Play devil’s advocate for yourself.
The next time you find yourself shaking your head at the irrational “other side”, try to find the kernel of truth in their perspective, and ask yourself what data it would take to change your mind. Then go looking for it!
When I was researching soy and health, I very much wanted it to be safe (it’s a convenient nutritious option) but I also didn’t want to blindly endorse this food if health fears were well founded. I dove into the data on both sides (soy love and soy fear) and tried hard to suspend judgement until my diligence was complete (read Soy: To Fear or Not to Fear).
3. Surround yourself with diverse opinions.
When we surround ourselves with others who share our beliefs, the chances that we will encounter evidence that challenges our beliefs is slim to none. I avoid vegan “echo chambers” in favour of discussion forums with varied perspectives (dietary faiths) and find that this is where I learn the most.
Call to Action
This article is both a call to action to be your own objectivity watchdog, as well as a call for help. If you catch me letting my beliefs get in the way of my objectiveness please call me on it!
Thank you Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson for shining a light on these critical human fallibilities. Thanks, also, to my brother (Wrestling with Philosophy) and Peter Attia, MD for the recommendation!
I am formally trained in human genetics (PhD) and spent the first decade of my career working in cancer research, drug development, and personalized medicine.
This new chapter of my career is dedicated to helping others to live healthfully and fearlessly, using an evidence-based paradigm. I strongly advocate for a plant-rich diet and love helping others to become #plantsmart.
For nutritional insights — and healthy, simple, family-friendly recipes— check out my website (Fueled by Science).