Ice Cream, Ice Cream...Read All About It?
What they're not telling us about ice cream shapes our thinking.
Welcome back. It’s getting warm outside as official summer approaches, and especially this time of year, my thoughts drift to one thing: ice cream. I love ice cream. I understand others enjoy ice cream, but I love it so much.
I’ve come to enjoy Derek Thompson’s Plain English Podcast, and a recent episode caught my attention because it confirmed my biases about the world, especially about ice cream. In an episode a few weeks back, Thompson interviews David Merritt Johns about his recent article in The Atlantic that starts off like this:
Back in 2018, a Harvard doctoral student… was presenting his research on the relationship between dairy foods and chronic disease to his thesis committee. One of his studies had led him to an unusual conclusion: Among diabetics, eating half a cup of ice cream a day was associated with a lower risk of heart problems. 1
Johns went on in the article to detail how this was actually not a one-off finding; this particular association has been popping up in research for years:
“I still to this day don’t have an answer for it,” Mark A. Pereira, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, told me, speaking of the association he’d stumbled upon more than 20 years earlier. “We analyzed the hell out of the data…”
Pretty much across the board—low-fat, high-fat, milk, cheese—dairy foods appeared to help prevent overweight people from developing insulin-resistance syndrome, a precursor to diabetes…
So if this is the case, why have we never heard about this finding? Different sets of researchers time and time again were confronted with these results, and almost every time, they came to the same conclusion: this finding just didn’t look correct.
…researchers didn’t like the ice-cream finding: It seemed wrong. But the same paper had given them another result that they liked much better. The team was going all in on yogurt. With a growing reputation as a boon for microbiomes, yogurt was the anti-ice-cream—the healthy person’s dairy treat.
“Higher intake of yogurt is associated with a reduced risk” of type 2 diabetes, “whereas other dairy foods and consumption of total dairy are not,” the 2014 paper said. “The conclusions weren’t exactly accurately written,” acknowledged Dariush Mozaffarian, the dean of policy at Tufts’s nutrition school and a co-author of the paper, when he revisited the data with me in an interview. “Saying no foods were associated—ice cream was associated.”
But we shouldn’t just blame the researchers here:
There’s a thing that happens when you start writing a story about how maybe, possibly, believe it or not, ice cream might be sort of good for you and how some of the world’s top nutritionists gathered evidence supporting that hypothesis but found reasons to look past it. You begin to ask yourself: Am I high on my own ice-cream supply? I asked the experts for a gut check. Pereira, the first to hit upon the ice-cream effect, told me that it just wasn’t the kind of result that goes down well in the “closed-minded” world of elite nutrition. “They don’t want to see it. They might ponder it for a second and kind of chuckle and not believe it,” he said. “I think that’s related to how much the field of nutritional epidemiology in the modern era is steeped in dogma.”
Dogma. Now that’s an interesting word to find in an article about scientific findings. What work is dogma doing here? Johns’ elaborates in the episode of Plain English:
When you're drawing conclusions from the data, it's really always a judgment call…
There's always a judgment call, and deciding whether the data are sufficient to support some kind of conclusion is always a matter of judgment. And sometimes scientists can kind of import a lot of, like, you know, the common sense type of stuff into making that judgment and it over it. You know, it might kind of override the data in a particular study.
So I think like that's one of the broader conclusions is, like, scientists themselves cannot be objective in the way that we usually think about it. The data are not the data are not the data, right? The data are, you know, born of, you know, decisions to conduct one study versus the other, right? There's always some sorts of, like, priority setting, which is values based, that is involved in science. And so the values are always there…
We need to get away from the idea that the objectivity is located in an individual scientist who sits above, sits beyond, sits somewhere with a view from nowhere. 2
I know I’m not really used to hearing science discussed this way. We live in a technocratic society, where experts inform most of our daily decisions. I don’t think that’s such a bad thing for the most part, but this article exposes a gap. When dogma dictates the reality of what findings can be presented, the underlying idea of an expert-informed society begins to crack.
We are accustomed to accepting the findings put in front of us by experts as truth when the reality is the advice these experts give us is based on scientific findings that are never free from the biases of the people who were experimenting in the first place. Thompson continues:
It is through interpretation, sometimes, we tell stories about scientific results that aren't always a perfect encapsulation of what was discovered and your work and our conversations together, because we've talked a few times since your essay was published, it's gotten me thinking about like the pipeline between science and media representations of science. Like, scientific research happens, and then the research becomes a paper, and then that paper becomes a press release from, say, you know, the Harvard Diet Science Department.
And then that press release becomes an article in the New York Times or the Atlantic. And that article becomes a cable news chyron, a little thing at the bottom of, like a Tucker Carlson or Rachel Maddow show saying, you know, ice cream, colon, Good, right? And so now that complex piece of science has been reduced to three words, and those three words become the layperson talking point, right? It's almost like this is a factory for taking the raw material of science and using it to become the finished material of the layperson talking point. And at every single stage in that pipeline, this science is being blasted with values, values, values. [podcast episode: https://www.theringer.com/2023/5/9/23716473/a-diet-conspiracy-is-ice-cream-secretly-good-for-you-with-david-johns]
And here, we find another layer of the rub. At every stage of the scientific process, the context matters. The context of the greater scientific community at first and then the media environment are reshaping the way the “content” of the findings is presented at every step of the way. In this case, my biases predispose me to really like this headline, but there are lots of potential situations where my biases will not predispose me to like the “expert vetted” and “media filtered” versions of the story.
So today, as you are going through your news of choice, think about the context that data is being presented. Do you expose yourself to media that tell you the stories you want to hear, or are you listing to sources that give you a fuller picture of what’s happening? And if you have a job that puts you in a position to pick and choose data to present, are you honestly representing the data to the best of your ability, or are you feeling pressure to conform to the “dogma” of your industry?
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Johns, D. M. (2023, April 17). Nutrition science’s most preposterous result: Could ice cream possibly be good for you? The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2023/05/ice-cream-bad-for-you-health-study/673487/
Thompson, D. (2023, May 9). A diet conspiracy: Is ice cream secretly good for you?. The Ringer. https://www.theringer.com/2023/5/9/23716473/a-diet-conspiracy-is-ice-cream-secretly-good-for-you-with-david-johns