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Bad science 2018: 7 science and health myths that should die with 2018

If you’re a science enthusiast who has followed the news in 2018, you’ve probably noted a few moments when science got the shaft.

In 2018 alone, there was the freeze on important HIV science involving fetal cell tissue, the defunding of Planned Parenthood, White House interference in an international breastfeeding resolution for women’s health, the elimination of a science adviser’s office at the Environmental Protection Agency, and all the rollbacks of environmental protections at EPA and Interior, backed by a White House trying to downplay two major climate science reports. Plus, Goop continues to thrive, and Dr. Oz became a White House health council adviser.

At the Vox science desk, we like to close each year with a list of ideas we think should die by January 1. For posterity, here’s our 2018 hit list. (See previous versions of this year-end list here and here.)

Myth 1: fighting climate change will destroy the economy


President Donald Trump tours the wreckage of the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history.

President Donald Trump tours the wreckage of the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Climate change has been impossible to ignore this year. But rather than coming up with policies to limit greenhouse gases, some Republicans, including President Trump, have retreated to a familiar refrain to justify inaction.

“[W]hat I’m not willing to do is sacrifice the economic well-being of our country for something that nobody really knows,” Trump told the Associated Press in October.

The sentiment is wrong on both counts. First, the Trump administration’s own National Climate Assessment, a 1,600-page report with input from 13 federal agencies, clearly states that human activity is the primary factor driving climate change, and it’s already having major impacts on the United States, from declining water resources to the spread of vector-borne disease.

Second, climate change is already costing the economy. Disasters this year like Hurricane Florence led to billions of dollars in damages and were worsened by factors like rising sea levels and warmer air temperatures. Record wildfires killed dozens and leveled entire towns, fueled by extreme heat, years of drought, and dead trees. The National Climate Assessment reported that by the end of the century, climate change could suck hundred billions of dollars out the US economy.

While switching to renewable energy, electrifying vehicles, and deploying carbon capture systems won’t be cheap, the overall shift toward a cleaner economy is a huge business opportunity. Already, renewables employ more Americans than the coal industry. Globally, becoming more sustainable would save $26 trillion by 2030, economists reported in September. Add to that the lives saved via cleaner air and water, along with fatalities avoided by mitigating warming.

So not only is fighting climate change good for the economy, doing nothing to address it is our costliest option.

Myth 2: Juuling is cool


FDA Declares Teen Use Of Electronic Cigarettes An ‘Epidemic’

Electronic cigarettes and pods by Juul, now the nation’s largest maker of vaping products.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

This year, we saw the astonishing rise of nicotine vaping in youth — a trend that’s been attributed to the explosion of Juul e-cigarettes on the market. According to a December National Institutes of Health survey, which has tracked substance use among American adolescents, the number of high school seniors who say they vaped nicotine in the past 30 days doubled since 2017 — from 11 percent to nearly 21 percent.

That’s the largest increase ever recorded in any substance in the survey’s 43-year history. It means a quarter of 12th-grade students are now using, at least occasionally, a nicotine device that’s so new, we have no idea what the long-term health impact of using it will be.

Juul’s stated mission is “improving the lives of the one billion adult smokers.” Created by two former smokers and Stanford design graduates (one of whom also worked as a design engineer at Apple), the duo wanted to make a device that looked sleek and attractive.

So they designed an e-cigarette that could easily be mistaken for a USB flash drive — and can fit in the palm of the hand. And instead of helping smokers quit, Juul captured the nonsmoking teen market.

What’s concerning about Juul is that each pod pack contains as much nicotine as one to two packs of cigarettes. Juul also contains three times the nicotine levels permitted in the European Union, which is why Juul can’t be sold there.

The “nicotine in these products can rewire an adolescent’s brain, leading to years of addiction,” said Scott Gottlieb, the head of the Food and Drug Administration, last April. And there’s strong evidence of a potential long-term impact: that vaping may encourage young people to try cigarettes.

So Juuling, while popular at the moment, is not cool.

Myth 3: Neanderthals were more savage than us


Getty Images/Canopy

When scientists first recognized Neanderthals as a species slightly different from our own, the species was demonized. The first Neanderthal skeleton, reconstructed in 1911, was nicknamed the “Old Man of La Chapelle” and described as a wretched creature: hunched over, brutish, dimwitted, and primitive.

But more recent research has been changing the narrative on Neanderthals, our evolutionary cousins.

We’ve learned about how Neanderthals built tools. That they made jewelry. That they, at times, buried their dead. We learned they were possibly stronger than us, and maybe just as smart. There’s evidence that they had tools to create fire. It’s very plausible that they had a spoken language (though it’d be near impossible to prove they did). What’s more, we learned that humans had sex with them on occasion. Most people not of African ancestry have a little Neanderthal DNA. Who knows? A few ancient humans might even have fallen in love with Neanderthals.

And this year, a new study presented evidence that dispels the notion that Neanderthals were big into skull cracking. The study compared 295 Neanderthal skull pieces, from individuals who lived between 20,000 and 80,000 years ago, to 541 contemporaneous humans (i.e., people like you and me) living in Eurasia. And lo and behold, both groups had roughly the same amount of head trauma.

Which is to say: Human lives were no more or less brutal — as measured by head injuries — than Neanderthals during this time.

Myth 4: the marshmallow test is a key test of future success and well-being


Getty Images

Here’s some good news: Your fate cannot be determined solely by a test of your ability at age 5 to resist the temptation of one marshmallow for 15 minutes to get two marshmallows.

This relieving bit of insight comes to us from a paper published this past year in the journal Psychological Science. The study revisited one of the most famous studies in social science, known as “the marshmallow test.”

In the 1990s, psychologists found that the longer kids were able to hold off on eating a marshmallow at a young age, the more likely they were to have higher SAT scores and fewer behavioral problems when they grew up. The results were taken to mean that if only we could teach kids to be more patient, to have greater self-control, perhaps they’d achieve these benefits as well.

The new paper, with a larger, more diverse sample and more rigorous methods found this: Delaying gratification at age 5 doesn’t say much about your future.

In the new study, while successes at the marshmallow test at age 4 did predict achievement at age 15, the size of the correlation was half that of the original paper. And the correlation almost vanished when the study authors controlled for factors like family background and intelligence.

That means “if you have two kids who have the same background environment, they get the same kind of parenting, they are the same ethnicity, same gender, they have a similar home environment, they have similar early cognitive ability,” Tyler Watts, the NYU professor who co-authored the new study, says. “Then if one of them is able to delay gratification, and the other one isn’t, does that matter? Our study says, ‘Eh, probably not.’”

Myth 5: immigrants pose a disease risk to the US


Thousands Of Hondurans In Migrant Caravan Continue March Through Mexico

Members of the Central American migrant caravan move to the next town at dawn on November 2, 2018 in Matias Romero, Mexico.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Smallpox is a horrendous disease that killed more than 300 million people in the 20th century alone, and millions more before that. But it’s a scourge of the past — the only human virus to have been eradicated.

Knowing that, you can appreciate the stupidity of the statement on Fox News in October — by an ex-Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent — that the migrant caravan of 4,000 men, women, and children mainly from Central America was going to bring smallpox to America.

There is no smallpox in circulation anymore. That’s been true since 1980, when a major global vaccine effort wiped the virus from the planet. The risk of leprosy — now called Hansen’s disease — being imported from Latin America is similarly remote. And while some foreign-born people do have higher rates of tuberculosis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) screens for TB in people moving to the US.

But this particular kind of xenophobic fearmongering, which Donald Trump spread as a presidential candidate, started surfacing again ahead of the midterms, and it’ll likely continue to pop up as we hurtle toward the 2020 election.

The bottom line on public health: Travelers and visitors do spark outbreaks in the US from time to time. And they tend not to be refugees from Honduras, but Americans who get sick overseas and then come back to the US and infect people in their communities who have refused vaccines for themselves or their kids.

Myth 6: mere exposure to other points of view reduces partisanship


Javier Zarracina/Vox

The answer to polarization and political division is not simply exposing people to another point of view.

Recently, researchers at Duke, NYU, and Princeton ran an experiment where they paid a large sample of Democratic and Republican Twitter users to read more opinions from the other side. “We found no evidence that inter-group contact on social media reduces political polarization,” the authors wrote. Republicans in the experiment actually grew more conservative over the course of the test. Liberals in the experiment grew very slightly more liberal.

It’s an example of another important fact: The arguments that, we, as individuals, find convincing will often fall on deaf ears to political opponents.

A psychological theory called “moral foundations” can help explain why our arguments often fail spectacularly at changing minds.

Moral foundations is the idea that people have stable, gut-level morals that influence their worldview. The liberal moral foundations include equality, fairness, and protection of the vulnerable. Conservative moral foundations favor in-group loyalty, moral purity, and respect for authority.

Moral foundations explain why messages highlighting equality and fairness resonate with liberals and why more patriotic messages like “make America great again” get some conservative hearts pumping.

Consider the unending gun control debate. Liberals make their arguments for restricting access in terms of protecting the vulnerable and in terms of injustice (it’s not right that so many Americans have to live in fear of gun violence). Conservatives, meanwhile, ground their case in self-determination (I ought to be able to protect myself).

The thing is, we often don’t realize that people have moral foundations that differ from our own. When we engage in political debates, we all tend to overrate the power of arguments we find personally convincing — and wrongly think the other side will be swayed.

Myth 7: the Stanford Prison Experiment shows how environments can bring out evil in people


Wikimedia Commons

The Stanford Prison Experiment, one of the most famous and compelling psychological studies of all time, told us a tantalizingly simple story about human nature.

The study took paid participants and assigned them to be “inmates” or “guards” in a mock prison at Stanford University. Soon after the experiment began, the “guards” began mistreating the “prisoners,” implying evil is brought out by circumstance. In a scientific paper describing the experiment, the authors suggested that innocent people, thrown into a situation where they have power over others, will begin to abuse that power. And people who are put into a situation where they are powerless will be driven to submission, even madness.

The experiment has been included in many, many introductory psychology textbooks and is often cited uncritically. It’s the subject of movies, documentaries, books, television shows, and congressional testimony.

But some of its findings were wrong. Very wrong. And not just due to its questionable ethics or lack of concrete data — but because of critical information that has been left out of the narrative.

In a thoroughly reported June exposé on Medium, journalist Ben Blum found compelling evidence that the experiment wasn’t as naturalistic and unmanipulated by the experimenters as we’ve been told.

A recording from the experiment reveals that the “warden,” a research assistant, told a reluctant guard that “the guards have to know that every guard is going to be what we call a ‘tough guard.’” The warden implored the guard to act tough because “we hope what will come out of the study is a very serious recommendation for [criminal justice] reform.” The implication was that if the guard didn’t play the part, the study would fail.

Additionally, one of the “prisoners” in the study told Blum that he was “acting” during what was observed to be a mental breakdown.

These new findings don’t mean that everything that happened in the experiment was theater. The “prisoners” really did rebel at one point, and the “guards” were cruel. But the new evidence suggests that the main conclusion of the experiment — the one that has been republished in psychology textbooks for years — doesn’t necessarily hold up. Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist who ran the experiment, stated over and over that the behavior observed was the result of the participants’ minds conforming to a situation. The new evidence suggests there was a lot more experimenter manipulation going on.

Further reading: Philip Zimbardo defends the Stanford Prison Experiment, his most famous work