The “study of the week” phenomenon has been a problem for the nutrition industry for a long time. If something's good for you one week and bad for you the next, it’s no wonder people shrug and assume nothing works.
“Nothing works” is not good for sales. So the phenomenon has always been frustrating. It wasn’t until Sunday night that it became hilarious.
On Sunday, comedian John Oliver devoted 19 minutes of his “Last Week Tonight” HBO program to the too-many-studies problem, taking to task everybody from the scientists and the academic system that drives them to “publish or perish” to the way the media reports the findings without looking past the press release.
A bit more kindly, he suggests consumers take a closer look at the latest “red wine is the equivalent of an hour at the gym” claim.
What this comes to at some point is a basic misunderstanding of science. Some of the study-of-the-week problem isn’t a problem at all. It’s how the system works. Conflicting studies should be expected. Knowing anything with absolute certainty is a rare thing.
It’s no wonder that nearly all of the studies Oliver calls out involve nutrition. Nutrition studies are notoriously difficult to stage. Most depend on self-reported food diaries of questionable rigor. The sample sizes are not always huge. The meta analyses that sum up scores of studies—and garner the big “Stop Wasting Your Money on Vitamins and Minerals” headlines—are by their nature subjective.
So what are consumers and the nutrition industry to do? The answer has to involve becoming comfortable with uncertainty. Uncertainty is the nature of science. Everything is subject to question. And it should be.
The focus of next month’s Nutrition Business Journal is “trust and science,” and it's already clear that part of trusting in science is knowing how science works.
Don’t ignore the study of the week, but take a close look at it before you accept or reject the findings. And certainly don’t take any study as the last word.
Somewhere between the punch lines and the right-on-target skewering, that’s what John Oliver is telling us.