Diet, Skeptics, and Getting It Wrong

This was the first essay I delivered to my patrons this past Friday. If you want to support more work like this, you can sign up here.

There’s a constant tension in skepticism between the desire to educate and the desire to tear down. This isn’t necessarily a tension between people. Both impulses exist in most of the skeptics I know. Nor does it seem to matter whether those people are connected to organized skepticism or simply proud members of the broader reality-based community.

The tension is to be expected. We need both impulses to be effective. We need to give people good information in accessible ways, and we need to limit the harm purveyors of bad information can do. Different behaviors for different goals. Simple, right? Well, no.

We frequently run into problems when we apply one of these impulses to the wrong target. This usually happens in the form of tearing down the people we want to educate for a host of reasons. The fundamental attribution error means we’re more likely to see people’s decisions as personal flaws, leading to both frustration with them as people and losing faith in our ability to educate them. The Curse of Knowledge means that we, as people educated on a topic, have a very hard time putting ourselves in the place of someone with less information. Tearing people down is approximately infinitely easier than educating them, particularly when we’re frustrated. And unfortunately, tearing people down all too often results in us feeling better about ourselves.

I’m hardly the first person to address this. Skeptics fairly regularly point to this problem. We tell each other it is both kinder and more effective to educate consumers first (though consumers who become evangelists are a tougher problem). It helps–for a while–but the behavior tends to revert after a time.

I want to take a different approach to the topic here. Altruism and efficacy are good appeals, and it’s heartening to see that they work even if they seem to require constant reinforcement. The truth is, though, that we create another problem for ourselves when we let our behavior drift this way, and it’s a problem that should hit us hard as skeptics. Going hard after consumers of pseudoscience and its products frequently results in us getting things wrong.

You can find experts in several scientific fields who will grumble about the way skeptics get those fields wrong, but I’ll focus on diet in my illustrations here for a few reasons. First of all, our society gives us an odd permission to judge other people’s diets, so I’ve seen a lot of this lately. Also, everyone makes dietary decisions, so the examples should be accessible.

Ad: Time for Shredded Wheat with strawberries and cream. Healthful. Nourishing. Try it to-day.
Originally sold to cure digestive ills. Photo via Miami University Libraries.

They’re current too. This most recent wave of skeptical judgment and denigration seems to have started with a bunch of headlines proclaiming that gluten sensitivity or intolerance isn’t real. To recap the study briefly, Peter Gibson, a researcher who previously found evidence for gluten-related digestive disorders, followed up his previous research with another study designed to test whether gluten or another component of gluten-containing grains was the likely culprit. The results suggest people who have this problem should avoid sugars called FODMAPS rather than the proteins they sometimes accompany.

You noticed, I hope, that my summary of the headlines and my summary of the research don’t match. That’s common in science reporting, but the tenor of the mismatch here set the stage for some very poor skepticism. What the study actually suggested was that a large group of people may have previously been given wrong information about the source of their pain. What many skeptics came away with was vindication for their pre-existing idea that the gluten-free trend was a bunch of bullshit.

There are several problems with this from a skeptical perspective:

  • This was one small study. The results haven’t been replicated, and other researchers have criticisms of the study that should be addressed in further research before this becomes gospel. When we work to educate others about the dangers of relying on single studies, we should model our own advice.
  • Even within the study, there was a small group that did appear to react adversely to the reintroduction of gluten. More and larger studies can tell us whether this is a statistical anomaly or a subpopulation that is truly gluten intolerant. We shouldn’t declare that this study can tell us what it can’t.
  • None of these people were wrong about the fact that foods containing gluten caused them distress. They just have more precise information about the problem now than they had before this study. People weren’t wrong to avoid “night air” when they wanted to protect themselves from what we now know to be mosquito-borne illnesses. We shouldn’t sneer at people for figuring out the right answers even if we later have to change the names.

In the year since that study was widely reported (a year after it was published), things have gotten kind of ugly on the gluten-free front in skepticism. Mockery of anything having to do with gluten seems to have become almost reflexive. This, too, results in skeptics getting some basic things wrong.

Photo of the window of a bagel shop in France advertising "Pain au Pavot" and "Pain Razowy."
“N.Y. Beigels” by Jessica Spengler, CC BY 2.0

I see more skeptics mocking people for buying gluten-free products. Why is this a problem? Well, I don’t know about you, but I can’t diagnose celiac disease by looking at someone. I can tell you that the incidence of celiac disease in the U.S. is roughly 1%. It’s higher in areas with some ethnic backgrounds, like here in Minnesota, where I live among the descendants of Vikings. Mocking people for wanting to absorb their food and avoid intestinal cancer isn’t going to teach anyone anything except that they should stop listening to you.

This is also true for those who may have gluten intolerance or FODMAP intolerance or a bad intestinal reaction to some other component of their food we haven’t identified yet. Though Australia has implemented FODMAP food labeling, we haven’t. If you mock someone for using the best information they can get on which foods are safe for them to eat, you’re telling me your first priority isn’t good decision-making.

I also see more skeptics mocking gluten-free labeling. This is, of course, a problem for that 1% who are celiacs. It also, however, shuts down inquiry in the skeptics themselves. For example, I pretty regularly see mockery of gluten-free labeling on cosmetic products. Skeptics either scoff at the idea that anyone would ever think to find gluten there or they point out that celiac disease only affects the digestive system. I happen to know several people with celiac disease and have cooked for more than one, so I know there are good reasons for both these factors. Most skeptics would too–if they allowed for the possibility and asked.

“What do you mean there’s gluten in my toothpaste/birth control pills/lip balm?!” Like these skeptics, most celiacs I know would, once upon a time, not have dreamed that they’d find wheat in weird places. They learned because they had to. They shared their tips and accidental discoveries and found that wheat appears in enough unexpected places that you always have to ask.

Wheat starch has many weird and wonderful properties, as anyone who has tried to cook with gluten-free flour can tell you. Wheat is relatively cheap due to agricultural subsidies. It’s also a food-grade material, which means it can be included in some cosmetic products without a need for animal testing, which most cosmetic companies want to avoid these days. That makes it a very attractive ingredient for lots of applications.

I can also tell you that next to no one thinks they’re going to be hurt by gluten absorbed by their own skin. The concern here is for incidental ingestion. People are concerned about that mouthful of shower water they accidentally get. They’re worried about aerosols and sprays around their face. Or they’re thinking about the various ways that skin ends up in mouths. The study of celiac disease is relatively new, and no one knows whether there’s any safe amount of gluten that people with the disease can eat. Worrying about increasing your risk of intestinal cancer while nibbling on a partner just isn’t sexy.

When skeptics mock these decisions, we tell the world that we value our mockery, our judgment, anything else over learning about these subjects where we claim some expertise.

Finally, I see more skeptics deriding people who identify themselves to others as gluten intolerant. This not only presumes that we should change everything based on one small study, as I previously mentioned. It also entirely misses the purpose of that kind of labeling.

I have a friend who describes herself as gluten intolerant. Yes, still. She’s well aware of those study results. She doesn’t dismiss them; she doesn’t give them undue weight. She knows the protein may not be her problem. However, if she’s attending a dinner, she also knows that saying, “gluten intolerant”, to her host is the key to making sure she can eat and digest the food.

Similarly, a friend with celiac disease has never said, “celiac”, to a restaurant server to the best of my knowledge. She fully understands that not all immune reactions are allergies and will happily explain the difference anywhere but a restaurant. “Wheat allergy” is the phrase that makes people take her health seriously in that industry. They understand that “allergy” means, “No, not even a tiny bit.”

Neither friend is making a mistake. They know what they’re doing, which is choosing clarity in communicating their needs over strict accuracy in the moment when their own health is on the line. When we say they shouldn’t do that, well, I’m going to hope we’re merely revealing our ignorance once again. I’d much rather believe we’ve jumped to bad, untested conclusions about why people use the labels they do than accept the alternative.

Food is hard and weird and messy and inescapable. It’s tied to culture and ethnicity and socializing and memory and mental health in convoluted ways. For every individual food item, there are a dozen or more basic ways for things to go wrong for any person who eats it. The complexity of food is reflected in the fact that we’re just in the early stages of understanding diet on a scientific basis.

All of those things should make us more humble as skeptics. They should make us more aware that any time we witness food being consumed, what we know about the situation is vastly outweighed by what we don’t. When you find yourself “going skeptical” about an act of food consumption, think about the following:

  • That person you see buying that Paleo cookbook or that keto cookbook could be a diabetic in search of recipes that don’t assume anyone diabetic needs or wants to lose weight. Those can be hard to find.
  • If you’ve never had homemade grenadine, you’re missing out on a decadent experience. Good luck making it, however, without being seen buying a bottle of pomegranate juice that splashily tells you and the world that the stuff is full of healthy, healthy* antioxidants.
  • Ketogenic diets are just one example of a relatively unknown, accepted medical treatment for which people claim overly broad health benefits.
  • Organic farming practices (as loosely defined as those are) are often paired with other practices that it’s otherwise desirable to support, like significantly reduced use of antibiotics in livestock or maintaining genetically diverse plant stocks.

All those things, along with a few you can probably come up with on your own, should tell us just how much uncertainty there is in making assumptions about the motives behind people’s food choices. As skeptics, we should pay attention to that uncertainty rather than acting as though it doesn’t exist. That uncertainty should keep us from barreling into situations we don’t understand and acting as though we know enough to pass judgment.

It’s time we end this particular cycle of skeptics slagging on consumers and push ourselves back into looking out for their interests. There are still plenty of people selling unsupported health benefits from going gluten-free. Let’s get ourselves back on the same side as consumers to fight those claims. And the next time we find ourselves drifting, let’s remind ourselves and each just how badly we can get things wrong when we forget who our targets should be.

*Maybe healthy, maybe not so healthy in juice form because juice is candy, but the studies on antioxidants are also relatively preliminary.

Diet, Skeptics, and Getting It Wrong

8 thoughts on “Diet, Skeptics, and Getting It Wrong

  1. 2

    That was a very interesting post. Diet definitely seems to be a topic where skepticism is often not applied. Do you think you could give a conference talk on this topic, perhaps at Secular Women Work in August?

  2. 5

    This is an interesting and educational piece.

    I think that people are much too nosy about other people’s personal decisions, such as what they eat. I can see criticizing someone like “the food babe,” or diet faddies who never shut up about their habits, but there’s no reason to pry into others’ dietary choices.

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