Last Saturday I was in a deserted University of Amsterdam building for a broadcast of Dr Kelder and Co on Radio 1. There’s always something spooky about an empty education building, so as I listened to my steps echoing down the corridor, I was particularly excited to hear that we can soon teach in-person again.
I’d been invited on the programme because they wanted to hear a bit about the combination of artificial intelligence and nutrition. In the course of the preparations, it became clear that the editors were particularly interested in learning more about nutritional hypes, so the item got increasingly focussed on hypes, and in particular the – never proven (!) – relation between gluten and brain diseases. One of the most interesting questions during the interview was ‘why we in Wageningen always react so strongly to these kinds of hypes’. Apart from the amusing irony that I was invited on the programme to react to a food hype, only to be asked why we always react to them, this is an insoluble problem for me.
In the course of the preparations, it became clear that the editors were particularly interested in learning more about nutritional hypes
Science is, with a few exceptions, a complex and cumulative process that doesn’t lead up to a media moment with a lot of fanfare. Hypes, by contrast, whether food-related or not, often claim massive worldview or paradigm shifts (‘bread/milk/starch always seemed such a harmless food, but it’s the main reason you are tired/ weak/ unwell!’) A hype has a short, appealing one-liner and is easy to explain. Debunking it, on the other hand, takes effort, a sound knowledge base, and an understanding of relative risks. No wonder the media and the public are crazy about hypes. They are the tasty little snack to science’s square meal of whole grains and vegetables.
Enough to make you despair, isn’t it? Well, that’s the attitude I sometimes see among my colleagues. But my reaction is different: hypes – including hypes that are plain wrong – call for endless explanation from scientists, and they generate public interest in science. Occasionally, they even lead to a re-examination of our own assumptions. Long live hypes! And long live the debunking of hypes!
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