Bad science writing may be unhealthy, but it still makes it into print. That’s worse.
Born To Move the New York Times online link read. The topic, physical fitness, seemed right up my ally. But when I clicked, I found out the author was a careless writer, Gretchen Reynolds.
The headline writer made it worse with click bait.
Why Bad Science Writing is Bad For You
Bad science writing is bad for your health.
We’ll get to what science tells us about lives spent sitting, but let’s tackle the terrible journalism first.
Bad science reporting is more common than good reporting. Writers forced to compete with television deliver short attention span pieces, and standards sink to feed the bottom line.
The Times has outstanding science writers in Carl Zimmer and Dennis Overbye. Both render complex ideas in ways that make them digestible. Why not hold to that standard?
And it’s not just that bad science writing is annoying. It’s dangerous. Readers make decisions based on poor and/or inaccurate information or end up distrusting science. Sloppy journalists undermine its credibility.
Neither result is excusable.
“Sitting will kill you, even if you exercise,” CNN screamed in April, 2015, an incident only partly attributable to the fact they they didn’t yet have the presidential campaign to scream about.
A year later, the Daily Mail sang, “Couch potatoes rejoice! Sitting for long periods is NOT bad for your health, study claims.”
Anyway, which contradictory headline leads to the best answer doesn’t matter. Readers are already flummoxed with antics of competing for the hottest click bait.
Were We Born To Move?
Most examples may not be as bad as these two, although both are mainstream. A good many are too sloppy for anyone but the writer and editor to rely on. And that’s for their paychecks, not the information.
Which brings us back to the should know better, but doesn’t New York Times.
“Are we fighting thousands of years of evolutionary history and the best interests of our bodies when we sit all day?” Gretchen Reynolds asks in Born to Move.
She refers to information in a “fascinating study.”
Why is it “fascinating?”
“The findings strongly suggest that we are born to be in motion, with health consequences when we are not.”
Where have we heard this before? Answer: almost everywhere.
The Times itself posted Sitting Increases the Risk of Dying Early.
But they backed off the headline in the first sentence. They don’t really know that sitting increases the risk of dying early, but they needed a snare.
Is the study Reynold’s article is based on rich with new information? Well, no, it’s just dressed in different clothes.
Another thing about this article and others like it is a single-mindedness about attributing every effect to a single cause. Why others are sidestepped is left unexplained.
Bad science writing with credible roots
The study involves the Hadza, a Tanzanian tribe of hunter-gatherers much like our common ancestors. We settled down to the joys of farming, roughly 12,500 years ago, a blink of the eye in evolutionary time, but not the Hadza’s.
Because, the argument goes, so little time separates us from our hunter-gather relatives, we hipsters, linebackers, accountants, jazz musicians and idle rich haven’t been able to adjust our bodies to the relative ease and security of agriculture and the civilization it enabled.
All that ease forced us to invent chairs, boredom and television while our bodies remain eager for action.
Physiologically, we’re still hunter-gatherers, but we spend our time as if we’re moss. We hardly move, sitting while we work, get entertained and shuttle around the planet in search of legal parking.
That, they say, explains why my waistline can’t remember what it was like before frozen yoghurt. And why your Aunt Tillie has one blood pressure prescription and another to combat diabetes.
“Whoa, Nellie!” you might exclaim, if it was a hundred years ago, and you had a horse.
“Why would cultural evolution take us in a direction that’s bad for us? Doesn’t evolution always select for, you know… better?“
Well, it didn’t, and yes, of course, evolution selects for change that makes us safer and, therefore, more worthy of making babies.
That might break the preferred narrative, and Reynolds never goes there.
Truth is in the chase…or the lack of one
The simple truth is that we’re able to sit for hours every day instead of chasing rabbits with a net improvised from twigs, and it’s all because growing things instead of catching them made life better and safer.
Now, we see the comforts our ingenuity earned us blamed for everything but the Edsel and why the Buffalo Bills lost four Super Bowls in a row.
Reynolds quotes researchers findings about lower blood pressure and less cholesterol among the Hadza.
“Some of this robust, lifelong cardiovascular health is no doubt a result of diet,” she writes.
The Hadza’s maximum availability of Big Macs is roughly none.
The Hadza diet lacks highly processed foods heavily marketed in mass media, and they get by without five hours a day in front of the television.
Worse yet, Reynolds writes, “They (the Hadza) moved a lot, the data proved, typically being active for more than two hours every day.”
The movement was rarely vigorous, as in running.
So, we’re reaching conclusions from roughly 10% of their day?
Bad science writing skips over the gaps
What did they do with the other 90? Did they play cards, debate prairie politics, chat with the neighbors or share communal food? Apart from taking for granted that up to half was spent sleeping, we don’t know.
All we know is they weren’t “moving,” as defined by the Times.
Did the other 20 plus hours have something to do with their health? Don’t look for an answer from Gretchen Reynolds. This enormous, unexplained gap seems to have sneaked by her.
“So move,” the article concludes, “and preferably often, since the need for activity seems to be built into our bones and hearts and being,” without giving us evidence for any such thing.
The cautious word “seems” is operative here. It seems like even the writer isn’t so sure.
Conclusion: What Do We Really Know About Sitting?
One thing to keep in mind when reading science reports is that what’s usually presented as universal is really only general.
As WebMD reported in a carefully worded article, “Experts say they still don’t know for sure which comes first. Does too much sitting trigger poor health, or is it the other way around?”
Not one of the other articles I found on page one of a Google search cleared that up. The truth sloppy writers don’t emphasize is that the numbers are statistics that don’t tell us anything about cause and effect.
Anyone who’s sat through a long car ride or overseas flight knows that your body is not going to feel great when you stand up again.
Learning from personal experience…
My sales job used to leave me stuck in New York City traffic, adding stress to inactivity. When I swiveled out of the driver’s seat, my body was within wobbly shouting distance of how it felt during youthful drunks.
When something feels that awful, it isn’t likely to be good for you and is probably bad. You don’t need research scientists in Tanzania to tell you what your body already bitching about.
But it’s interesting how this slices in multiple directions.
A runner for fifteen years, I was thrilled at the positive effects on my mental and emotional health, not to mention the slender body I discovered hiding under some excess flesh.
But I soon became aware that a sizable number of my friends weren’t on the same track. Some actually hated the thought of running, let alone doing it.
I learned that something around 30% don’t get the endorphin release or whatever else causes a “runners high,” a lighter than air flush of happiness. Sometimes, it even made a spontaneous curtain call later in the day.
So, converted as I was to the religion of running for fitness and joy, I knew that my passion couldn’t be shared by everyone. Some just aren’t built for it.
But my friends with whom I shared hunter-gatherer ancestors must be built for some activity.
Fitness is personal
Science that pushes a one size fits all conclusion betrays the truth-seeking embedded in the best of it.
We’re in an age of laziness, lazy literature that doesn’t challenge anyone to think, lazy entertainment that’s more about distraction than engagement and lazy politics that never goes deep enough to offend lazy voters.
We don’t need lazy science or lazy science writing.
Is sitting bad for you? Of course not.
Is inactivity bad for you? Of course, it is.
We’re born equipped for rich lives. If we pass on the chance to engage, whether it’s by accepting a virtualized life in front of a TV or killing time on meaningless work, whether sitting or standing, your health, no matter how its refracted through the prism of being, will suffer.
Look at it this way: whether you sit, stand, waltz or run isn’t nearly as important as the reason why you’re doing anything instead of nothing. Statistical associations don’t tell you much about the content of your life, no matter how many articles the mass media flings at you.
There’s more to that story.