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Getting comfortable in the gray areaGetting comfortable in the gray area

Absolutes are a rare commodity in science.

June 10, 2016

5 Min Read
Getting comfortable in the gray area

Being involved in science can be a humbling experience. For many in the supplement industry, it can even be a frustrating one. Either way, getting comfortable with the scientific aspect of our work is as necessary as with any other critical business function that requires thoughtful, sometimes hard decisions. In supplements, the really hard decisions can’t be made until we pierce the veil of that mysterious world of science so that we can make peace with it, and maybe make some profit at the same time.

So, what makes it so hard to figure out the science? Could it be that trying to get your hands around that “totality of the evidence” is so challenging? Does seeing two conflicting meta-analyses make it any easier? Why does one person tell me my one great study is enough while another advisor tells me it’s not? And what are we supposed to do when yesterday the studies said X is good and today’s new study the opposite?

The key to unraveling the conundrum is in understanding that science is empirical as opposed to absolute. Let me repeat that. Science is empirical, not absolute.

There is, in fact, an absolute truth about the way things work—X either does or does not support joint health. But we don’t get to know that truth. In reality we just convince ourselves one way or the other.

What scientists do to become convinced is to look at the question from a number of different angles. If the evidence keeps pointing to one reality more and more strongly, then we start to believe that what we’re seeing in the data is probably what’s actually happening.

Real science in the real world

Lest you think that this is all a bit obsessive compulsive, just think about ulcers. All the evidence suggested that ulcers were caused by stress, right? Then, in 1980, researcher Barry Marshall discovered it was caused by the bacterium H. pylori. Maybe that explained a few anomalies in the previous studies?

Closer to the supplement world: 15 years ago, did anybody think our gut played a big role in regulating immunity, and by microbes that aren’t even a part of our body? The microbiome revolution changed how we understand the immune and digestive systems, what we look for in studies, and what will make a difference for health (and we all know our understanding is still very much evolving).

Lesson #1: We don’t always understand everything, even with the science we’ve done (there’s the humbling part).

Lesson #2: Nothing is ever “proven” in science. We are just more (or less) strongly convinced and more (or less) far along in understanding the real picture. So please, spare me the “scientifically proven” claims when there are only a handful of recent studies. “Scientifically shown to…” is much more realistic.

Lesson #3:  Every body of scientific literature is a story that is building itself, piece by piece, to an ever stronger or weaker consensus.

Reason and results

So, when looking at the literature at any given point in time, we are only seeing a snap shot of what is understood now. And it is not always so straightforward.

Yes, there is that new study that just made it look like everything prior was “wrong.” But that study has to be analyzed closely for quality, the results and data need to be understood properly, and it all has to be fit into the overall context. Of course experts can, and do, disagree in their interpretations. The thing to remember is that it is the latest piece of the puzzle, and it may take time to figure out how it adds to the story. Don’t assume that latest piece completes the picture. The media’s reporting of each new study as if it is the last word only feeds into the erroneous “science is absolute” approach.

And yes, you may get different answers about whether your one study is “enough” or not, depending on your intended use for it, what kind of expert you ask and the depth of that expert’s experience. Science has no “enough.”

Finally, the totality of the evidence is not always clear cut. Sometimes studies were poorly done, designed or executed or reported in a way that makes them unconvincing evidence; sometimes data can be inconclusive, for many reasons; sometimes study designs are misused (like meta-analyses, which can be very powerful or very misleading, depending on what data is analyzed); sometimes a few well done studies are hard to view in aggregate because it’s comparing apples and oranges (different intake levels, different study populations, different types of ingredient processing, etc.). And sometimes it’s golden, and it all comes together.

No “last word”

In the end, we must accept living in the gray area. The trick is to do our best to pull together the strongest scientific support and learn to make educated and ethical decisions about what to launch and what to say about it. It takes a strong team and a concerted effort to get it right.

It’s a lot of effort with a lot of value. Being prudent will pan out in the long run because this is what gaining trust looks like when you’re talking about our scientific foundations. When you show that you care about the truth—the truth about whether your product actually works and how you convey that—you will come out as one of the winners in this game of increasing accountability. And the only way to do that is to turn to the science and accept that science on its terms, gray areas and all.

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