Twenty years ago, I went to the emergency room with acute diverticulitis—a malady I had never heard of and, with any luck, won’t hospitalize me again.
My physician at the time recommended that I avoid eating seeds, nuts, popcorn, and fruit skins. These were hard to digest, he explained, and could cause another attack. Given the pain I had experienced, I took his advice seriously.
About six months ago, I had an attack that was serious enough for a telehealth visit with my new physician. I had eaten a slice of heavily seeded bread and was clutching my gut in pain.
She calmly informed me that the link between seeds and diverticulosis had been debunked. She prescribed an antibiotic to treat the infection, and reassured me that I could eat whatever food I wanted, as long as I drank plenty of water and ate a high fiber diet.
You would think I’d be relieved. But I admit, my first reaction was to question her judgment. I was comfortable in my belief that seeds and nuts were linked to diverticulosis. It was a cause and effect relationship that I understood. And it gave me something to blame when flareups occurred.
My doctor was providing me with the scientific facts, but I was resisting them. Pretty ironic, considering I’m the CEO of an organization dedicated to seeking scientific truths. If I can be hesitant to accept new evidence, I can only imagine how difficult it must be for people with deep emotional connections to debunked scientific “facts” and misinformation.
Dr. Harriet Hall recently summarized why we choose to dig our heels into pre-existing beliefs, even if they are false and we are provided with evidence to the contrary. Our beliefs make us happy and comfortable. Giving that up is difficult for many of us—me included.
But we have to challenge beliefs, especially if they lead to poor public health, economic, and public policy outcomes. As Dr. Hall reminds us, “Belief offers certainty but not truth.”
Providing the scientific evidence—the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—that can help people overcome personal and shared myths is one of the most important roles the Center can play.
Now pass me that sesame seed bagel, and a large bottle of water…