I do a lot of research. Both in my professional field – computer science – and in biology, especially digestive biology. I’m not professing to be an expert. Not even close. I’d say I’m an educated layman. A self-educated layman. I know enough to short-circuit the Dunning-Kruger effect and realize that I don’t know much.
Like William “Bill” S. Preston Esq. once paraphrased: “The only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing.”
That said, I do know enough to recognize bullshit journalism.
I read a piece of so-called “science journalism” that was infuriating. Not because it was wrong, per se. But because it was rife with bias1. I found it downright unprofessional. So much so, that I decided to write a several hundred-word blog post about it. 😂
The title of the article in question is: “The keto diet was accidentally discovered in 1862 by a funeral director who lost 52 pounds on a diet of cordial and meat.” Seriously. That’s the title.
(No, I’m not linking to it.)
Why you’d take any dietary advice from a site called Business Insider is beyond me. But this is a good example of why you must question the bias inherent in all writing. From the author’s bias, editorial bias, and other influencers such as political leaning and advertising.
Here’s an example of bias from that article:
The keto diet is designed to force the body into a state of ketosis, in which it burns fat for energy instead of carbohydrates. Carbs are our default energy source, but when you don’t consuming [sic] any, the body goes into a fat-burning state to stay alive.
Okay, so this is meant to be a quick description of what the Keto Diet is. It’s simultaneously right and wrong. Insidiously so.
What’s right about it? Yes, the Keto Diet is designed to put you into a state of ketosis. Which does, in fact, burn fat for energy instead of glucose. It bears mentioning that, ultimately, carbohydrates turn into glucose. That’s what you are actually “burning,” not the carbs themselves. But that’s just a nitpick.
What’s so wrong with that description? The notion that “carbs” are the default energy source. That’s not objectively true. It asserts a particular, subjective, dietary world-view.
By default, if you haven’t eaten anything , you go into ketosis and use fat as your energy source. However, when you eat carbs, your bloodstream is flooded with glucose. This is rather dangerous. Too much glucose in your blood and you will die. So your body goes on the offensive and releases insulin to help prevent blood sugar spikes. When you’ve burned or stored (as fat) that excess glucose, your body returns to ketosis and burns your stored energy: from fat.
You (hopefully) spend more time in a fasting state than a fed state. Therefore ketosis could easily be considered the more obvious candidate as the “default” state.
So here’s another way the description in that article could be written:
The Keto diet is designed to keep your body in its default state of ketosis as much as possible. When you eat carbs, your body converts them to glucose. It’s considered an emergency state when you have too much glucose in your bloodstream, so your pancreas secretes insulin to convert it to fat for safe storage.
Yes, this is still an over-simplification. However, my point isn’t so much about the description itself, but how it’s written. Both contain the same information, but mine makes ketosis sound like a natural, healthy state (which it is). Theirs makes it sound dangerous (only for Type I diabetics).
Is mine without bias? Ha! Not at all. Let’s try for a description that is more neutral and appropriate for a “science journalist:”
Ketosis is when your body derives energy from ketones instead of glucose. Ketones are created from your fat stores, glucose is formed from carbohydrates (and sometimes protein). The Keto Diet is designed to encourage ketosis by limiting carbs.
So is this description completely bias-free? Probably not. I’ll admit that it’s very, very difficult for humans to eliminate all bias. I think that’s why pure science is one of the hardest professions. Human’s view of everything is intrinsically subjective2.
But that’s not an excuse. If you bill yourself as a Science Journalist, you need to be rigorous in your prose. Just as rigorous as scientists must be to get published.
We are in an age where nothing can be taken at face value3. But does that mean we have to disbelieve all that we read? Is everything “fake news?”
No. We just need to be vigilant in our understanding of what we read/watch. Understand that it’s only from a single point of view, and if there are references – check them! Possibly the author didn’t thoroughly read or understand the science behind it. You might not either, of course, but at least you’re looking at the raw data instead of someone else’s interpretation.
Better to be your own kind of ignorant than boosting someone else’s stupid4.
The article that made me write this diatribe is published by Business Insider, which at least means their bias (one of them) should be clear: Business. The Keto Diet isn’t great for the profits of vast segments of the food industry.
After all this talk of ketosis, I need to clarify that I don’t think The Keto Diet is a panacea. I think it’s a tool, one of many that we can and should use in maintaining our health.
So, yes, basically I read an article on the internet. But really, don’t we have enough of that shit? It’s the science part that makes me upset. There’s a right way to write for it – but I guess everyone forgot it? ↩︎
That is probably one of the best potential uses of Artificial Intelligence: Objective science analysis. It can look at the raw data and observe connections without worry about personal or political bias… Of course, an AI would only be as objective as those designing it. And here we are, back at square one. Maybe true objectivity is impossible? ↩︎
We’ve probably always been in that age, but it’s more relevant (and essential) now than ever. ↩︎
I mean this is in a pithy/jokey way – I don’t condone willful ignorance nor stupidity boosting of any kind. Which makes these hard times to live in. ↩︎