Being a health nut and a creature of habit, I claim as my breakfast of champions six pieces of bacon and a large tankard of iced tea spiked with Sweet’N Low. That way, I quickly cover the essential food groups (sodium, grease, caffeine, saccharin, etc.). But in this age of the Nanny Nutritionist, I’m cognizant of the fact that the good life is a well-balanced one. So on two out of three mornings, I dutifully take up my bowl of high-fiber Special K, sweetened with a dollop of organic honey and studded with fresh blackberries. Doing so causes me to feel clean and whole and slightly accomplished, since, like most Americans, I enjoy setting unimpressive goals, then celebrating myself for achieving them.
For in choosing such healthy goodness, I am not merely fortifying, but antioxidizing. The plentiful antioxidants in the likes of honey and blackberries—as any seeker who reads omnipresent Internet health squibs knows—kill cancer-causing free radicals. What free radicals are, I can’t exactly say. Science wasn’t my primary area of emphasis in school—I had bigger fish to fry in Social Studies and Physical Education. But I’ve read enough to know that free radicals need to be killed. Preferably by antioxidants.
So imagine my puzzlement when I sat down one recent morning with my antioxidant bounty and turned to that ever-reliable source of panic, alarm, and predictable contrarianism—my Yahoo! homepage—only to find out that there might be a slight addendum to antioxidant/free radical science. It turns out that Nobel laureate James Watson, codiscoverer of the double-helix structure of DNA, now says that the time has come “to seriously ask whether antioxidant use much more likely causes than prevents cancer.”
Ten years ago, the news that I might be pumping cancer into my system with the very nutrients that I thought were preventing it would’ve rocked me. But by now, I’m so jaded I might as well have been told that ice makes you warm or water makes you dry. I’ve ceased giving much credence to any health “expert,” since the experts seem to reverse themselves every time they speak. It’s all come to resemble the hoary trope invoked by every small-market meteorologist trying to pass for Mark Twain: “If you don’t like the weather in [insert your locality here], wait five minutes. It’ll change.”
For there are now enough headline-hunting researchers making enough questionable discoveries that the four shakiest words in the English language have come to be “a new study shows.” Over the years, a short list of things touted by science as making us less healthy or even killing us would include cholesterol, red meat, eggs, vitamins, grains, estrogen, fish, alcohol, aspirin, sun, coffee, and protracted cardio. Depending on which day of the week you check, that might be the very list of things pushed by other scientists as promoting good health and longevity. Recently, new research broke that suggests it’s healthier to be a bit overweight. That’s the happiest news for our chronically indulgent nation since another study claimed that onanism—once believed to cause blindness and hairy palms—might prevent prostate cancer.
Mind you, I’m not completely against feigning certitude regarding things we will forever be uncertain about. I am, after all, a professional journalist. It’s my job to pretend I know things that I don’t. But only take such pronouncements to the bank if you enjoy the prospect of future disappointment. As Einstein said, essentially admitting he was no Einstein, “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research, would it?”
The science writer David H. Freedman, in his excellent book Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us—and How to Know When Not to Trust Them, cites the work of John Ioannidis, who studies the studies, and who has calculated that two out of three times it takes only a few years, and often only a few months, until studies published in medical journals are either fully refuted or found to be exaggerated. It’s enough to make you stand back in disbelief. Though you don’t want to stand for too long, since some studies suggest that excessive standing can cause everything from varicose veins to spontaneous abortions. (On the other hand, say other studies, sitting kills too.)
If you’re like me, you don’t know what to do with all these mixed messages. Which is why I suggest taking up smoking—preferably cigarettes with high tar content and no filters. Yes, I’m well aware that the science is as close to unanimous as science gets that smoking kills.
But wait five minutes. It’ll change.