“Confirmation Bias” is a tendency we all share to seek out and value information that is consistent with our pre-existing beliefs. It is probably responsible for a lot of today’s polarization because–thanks to the internet–we can find like-minded news and information sources on any topic that will tell us exactly what we want to hear and thereby deepen our commitment to it.
It’s important to be aware that we are all prone to this and to intentionally seek out information that conflicts with our beliefs. It can keep us from going off the deep end, remind us that none of us have a lock on knowledge, and that there’s a reasonable chance that we are wrong. It’s humbling…and that’s a good thing.
In previous posts, I’ve reported on my reading and research and described the lifestyle changes I’ve implemented in pursuit of long-term brain health and preservation of cognitive function. I hope I’ve done that without proselytizing. If I have gotten obnoxious or self-righteous about it, please let me know, for that is not my intention.
This week, I spent some time reading articles that conflict with my emerging approach. As I quickly discovered, The New York Times has been running a series debunking health food claims for many years. It was helpful to see a different perspective. Here are a couple of the items they reviewed:
Do you need to drink 8 glasses of water a day?
There’s water in everything we eat and there’s nothing magic about downing a ½ gallon a day. If we need water, we get thirsty. If you drink some water when you get thirsty, you will be fine. There’s no evidence that drinking more than that confers any special health benefits.
I was actually pleased to learn this. Throughout my life, various people who care about me have urged me to drink more water. Whenever I tried it, though, I felt bloated and uncomfortable. I’ve only ever experienced dehydration once and that was at the finish of a 5k run in 93 degree heat when I was 63 years old. So I’ll let my confirmation bias kick in on this one and continue to drink when I’m thirsty.
Turmeric has been a staple of Ayurvedic medicine for millennia, but there is little modern research to support its efficacy in the wide array of maladies for which it is recommended.
Although its chemical properties would suggest it has value, there seems to be a problem in actually getting it absorbed into your bloodstream.
Thinking back over my reading these past few months, it occurred to me that a fair number of recommendations for including a variety of things in one’s diet were based on laboratory trials or studies on mice. The author’s would present that as their evidence. In fact, though, that is jumping the gun a bit. The gold standard is trials on humans that have been replicated. So some food suggestions need to be taken with more than a few grains of salt.
I’m still going to add turmeric to my cooking, but I’m not going to go crazy over it.
Should you take fish oil supplements?
Probably not. Eating more fish (especially sardines, anchovies, herring, mackerel and fresh-caught salmon) is a much better way to get what you need.
Does fasting help in losing weight?
Yes…but not for the reason you might expect. You can check it out here.
My biggest take-away was to beware of exaggerated health claims. In general, they tend to be based on thin (if any) evidence. The concepts and the theories behind many recommendations seem sound, but it’s exceedingly difficult to actually prove efficacy in clinical studies.
The other pillars of brain health (exercise, cognitive challenge, social engagement and sleep/stress management) appear to have a more robust research base than many of the dietary recommendations. But even in those areas, we continue to learn about how much or how little, what types, and when is most beneficial.
So work your plan…but stay informed…and stay flexible!
Postscript: Re-reading this draft prior to publishing, I noticed something. Although I read the cited articles in an attempt to debunk myself, that isn’t at all what happened. I wound up latching on to the elements in each article that supported my preconceptions. In other words, I fell victim to the confirmation bias I warned you about in the opening paragraphs.
I guess I’ll have to try harder next time! 😀