Magic bullets

Photo by Gualberto107. Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
Photo by Gualberto107. Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

We have health problems. And we want science to fix them. At best, we just want clear and unambiguous information upon which to base our decisions: So is it OK to eat eggs or not?

At worst, though, we want researchers to give us the magic bullet: the one simple solution that solves the problem, the pill for what’s ill.

Unfortunately, it’s almost never that simple.  Scientists know that, and good scientists are careful to couch their conclusions in terms that say, “This finding may only apply to this group of people in these situations.” But then the media get hold of the story. Headlines conspire with commercialism to stoke our desire for the next magic bullet, and a new craze is born.

For me at least, the example that immediately comes to mind is the oat bran craze of the 1980s. Prior to the craze, oatmeal was hardly glamorous. But studies began to show that people who ate oats had lower cholesterol. These findings, coupled with new federal dietary guidelines, produced a media sensation. Entrepreneurs and marketers, of course, were quick to jump on the bandwagon.

Suddenly, oatmeal was back on the menu, and oat bran began making appearances in every imaginable form — including oat bran beer. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in itself: subsequent research suggests that oatmeal and oat bran can indeed be beneficial in reducing cholesterol. But the hope for a magic bullet is the kind of wishful thinking that often leads us down some pretty strange roads. People happily began loading up on oat bran cookies, oat bran muffins, even oat bran doughnuts.

Who knows, maybe the oat bran did them some good. But probably not enough to undo the added adverse effects of the beer and doughnuts.

The craze ended when new and well-publicized studies questioned the benefits. But don’t fault the science. I don’t even fault the news media — at least the ones that take the time to get their facts straight, and report scientific findings with the proper qualifications. The point is that it’s worth our while to understand how science works, and to be thoughtful in the decisions we make before jumping into the next big fad.

Life’s too complex for magic bullets. Let’s face it: there’s still no substitute for wisdom and self-discipline.