Inconvenient Data, Untellable Stories

From last year’s “Nutrition Science’s Most Preposterous Result” by David Merritt Johns in The Atlantic (“Studies show a mysterious health benefit to ice cream. Scientists don’t want to talk about it.”):

In 2004, the English epidemiologist Michael Marmot wrote, “Scientific findings do not fall on blank minds that get made up as a result. Science engages with busy minds that have strong views about how things are and ought to be.” Marmot was writing about how politicians deal with scientific evidence—always concluding that the latest data supported their existing views—but he acknowledged that scientists weren’t so different.

The ice-cream saga shows how this plays out in practice. Many stories can be told about any given scientific inquiry, and choosing one is a messy, value-laden process. A scientist may worry over how their story fits with common sense, and whether they have sufficient evidence to back it up. They may also worry that it poses a threat to public health, or to their credibility. If there’s a lesson to be drawn from the parable of the diet world’s most inconvenient truth, it’s that scientific knowledge is itself a packaged good. The data, whatever they show, are just ingredients.

The data are just ingredients.

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