Why I Often Trust Common Sense Over Data

Many factors restrict the validity of the research finding du jour.

Posted Oct 07, 2018

CommonSense Media, Public Domain
Source: CommonSense Media, Public Domain

To demonstrate that "grievance studies" research is subject to bias, the New York Times reported that three scholars submitted phony articles to peer-reviewed academic journals. For example, one consisted of passages from Hitler’s Mein Kampf, substituting fashionable terms such as “intersectionalism.” It was accepted for publication!  Another of the hoax articles was on dog parks as a source of "human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity.” It too was accepted!

We genuflect before findings in peer-reviewed journals, assuming that brilliant, unbiased professors have fair-mindedly examined the studies and deemed them worthy of publication. Alas, that too often isn’t the case. The examinations are often cursory because the reviewers are unpaid and reviewing articles is low-priority for them. Doing those reviews doesn't count toward promotion and tenure, let alone getting professors’ holy grail: research money. In addition, peer reviewers are often too much of a peer: The people selected to review a journal article are usually part of the small cadre who do research in that article's microniche and and often share their ideological bias (e.g., liberal vs conservative, genetic vs. environmental. They tend to thumbs-up articles in their niche also because that promotes the niche and, in turn, the perceived importance of their own research.

Atop the invalidity that accrues from peer review, there are biases within the researcher: Researchers may demonstrate conscious or unconscious bias, which subtly affect the study’s results:, for example, the wording of survey questions, the type of statistical analysis, or the chart's scale used to show results. Then there’s the bias toward reporting a positive result: Rarely do negative results get published. In addition, reporting a positive result increases the chance that the researcher will get more research money and articles published.

In light of all that, it’s no surprise that in addition to the aforementioned biases, the percentage of findings replicated by independent researchers is shockingly low. For example, in the field of psychology, in replications of 100 studies published in major journals, only 36% produced similar findings.

Then there are what may be deliberate falsifications or negligence. For example, recently, a media-darling Cornell nutritionist was forced to resign for “scientific misconduct.”

This all helps explain why so few research findings stand the test of time. Thus, if our choices are based on latest-and greatest peer-reviewed studies, which are the ones reported by journalists ever eager to promote what’s new, we’re engaging in risky behavior and, at minimum, will have a hard time trying to decide what to believe.

Let’s take diet, since it’s something that affects us all.

They said saturated fat raises blood cholesterol and, in turn, risk of heart disease. Now, Harvard Health reports that a “meta-analysis of 21 studies found insufficient evidence to conclude that saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease." Relatedly, they used to tell us to replace butter with margarine. Now, Harvard Health tells us it matters little.

Those fat opponents told us to eat more carbs. Then they said carbs are bad for you. But the most recent exhortation, reported in The Lancet, is to eat moderate carbs.

They used to say coffee is bad. Now the consensus is summarized by the Mayo Clinic: For most people, coffee is a net plus.

The advice used to be to eat small meals every few hours ("grazing") rather than big meals more hours apart. Now, Harvard Health encourages intermittent fasting: eating nothing for 14-16 hours a day, cramming all your calories into 8 to 10 hours.

They used to tell us that it’s bad to skip breakfast. Now, a recent review of the literature concludes that unless you have diabetes, it doesn’t much matter.

They used to urge us to be thin. Then they said, “slightly overweight” is better.  Now, research is back to recommending we be thin: moderately below-average BMI.

The standard recommendation for losing weight included vigorous exercise. But a recent review of the literature finds that exercise has little effect. (Perhaps in part because exercise increases appetite and entitlement.)

The standard recommendation used to be to vigorously exercise for 20 minutes, three days a week. Now, it's 30 minutes of at-least moderate exercise every day.

They used to insist that it’s important to stretch before and/or after exercising. Recent metaevaluation suggests it's not.

Until recently, supplements, for example, fish oil and vitamin E, were touted. But recent, authoritative research finds that most vitamin and mineral supplements are “useless:” 

They used to say marijuana was dangerous, the oft cited “Reefer Madness.” Then they said pot is innocuous. But as legalization has expanded, there’s been an explosion of research, and per the National Academy of Sciences review of the 100 most rigorous studies, marijuana is more dangerous to mental and physical health than previously thought.

For decades, they said a glass or two of red wine a night was salutary. Then they said it doesn’t matter if it’s red or white. Then they said beer is okay too. Now, a new study in The Lancet says that even one drink is bad.

How I deal

As a result of all the ever morphing advice, I tend to follow recommendations that have stood the test of time and especially, those that, to me at least, appear to be common sense:

I aim to eat moderately: mainly fruits and veggies, some meat, fish, and carbs, a glass of wine when I feel like it, about once a week. 

I am 10% overweight but my previous efforts to lose weight conform to the norm: whatever I lose, I gain back. I’d rather not yo-yo—Common sense suggests that cells in stasis are healthier than if yo-yoing up and down.  So I don’t go on diets—I just try to stay conscious to avoid overeating and eat just a bit fewer calories than I’d prefer. For example, if I'm at an Italian restaurant, although I love pizza, I like linguine with clams almost as much. And when I can muster the discipline, I leave enough on my plate so I can take a doggie bag home and so have a no-cost, yummy snack later. 

And in light of the growing body of research supporting intermittent fasting, unless I’d distractedly hungry, I try to elongate the time between meals, if only slightly.  Plus, I rarely eat anything within two hours of going to bed.

I weigh myself daily—If I’ve lost weight that day, I feel encouraged to stay “good.” If I’ve gained, I’m scared into being good the next day. 

It doesn’t make sense to me that it’s long-term healthy to—for 23 hours and 30 minutes of every day—have your heart beat at one rate and then for 30 minutes, beat 2 1/2 times as fast.  But it’s clear that some exercise is good. So I take a moderately vigorous 30 to 45 minute hike with my doggie, on average, six days a week.

Also, it makes sense to me that sitting too long can’t be healthy; it restricts circulation. So I stay attuned to when I feel like I should get up and take a walk, vacuum my office, whatever. I average doing that five or ten minutes an hour but sometimes I might go two hours, other times just a half hour. I believe that my body tells me more accurately when I need to get up than if I adhere to some average number that comes from a population study. Every body is different.

Caffeine makes me feel good. plus better brainpower without making me jittery. So most days, I have one or two cups of coffee or a caffeinated diet soda when I need a pick-me-up.

When I was in college, I smoked a little pot and enjoyed it. But with the plethora of the aforementioned scary recent evidence from authoritative sources, even though marijuana is legal where I live, I don’t use it. Of course, if I had an illness for which that might be a drug of choice, I’d try it. And if I had late-stage terminal disease, I’d probably try LSD or psilocybin mushrooms because recent studies, including from Johns Hopkins, reports major improvements in state of mind. Since I’d be dying soon anyway, I’d have little to lose by trying it.

Regarding improving mental health while I'm still healthy, common sense and my experience with clients and with myself suggests that revisiting past problems doesn’t help in moving forward. So after a quick look back for possible lessons learned, I opt for suppressing backward looks and use the time-honored practice of identifying and then taking the next baby steps forward.

The takeaway

Might you want to implement one of the ideas in this article?

I read this aloud on YouTube.

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