Debunk: to expose the sham or falseness of, related to “bunk” meaning nonsense (merriam-webster).
Can we stop with the “debunking” already? The diet-wars crew in the blogosphere loves to “debunk” things. But rather than going after a myth or a false idea that’s been propagated with no evidence, they go after a study, a researcher, or, recently, a documentary. And all this says to me is that these are folks with an agenda and a very rudimentary understanding of how science works. They’ve “debunked” the China Study. They’ve “debunked” Dean Ornish. Now they’re really in to debunking The Game Changers, a movie about plant-based diets as a performance enhancer for athletes.
Listen, I get the desire for a clear answer, and this is why authors tend to make bold claims when they have evidence for something. Sometimes it’s the scientist, sometimes it’s other writers or filmmakers, and sometimes it’s the news media reporting on a topic, and yes, the conclusions are sometimes a little out of proportion. Documentaries like The Game Changers are not in themselves particularly nuanced presentations of the evidence. They’re polemics. And yes, you can argue with them— they cherry-pick, they use anecdotal evidence, the studies aren’t bullet-proof. But you can’t really debunk them— they’re taking evidence that’s out there and making a point. You might not agree with the point. You might have competing evidence. You might note limitations of the evidence and question the conclusion’s solidity. But it’s not a black-white true-false vegan-carnivore world out there. Let’s go back to science— and the sort of thing one learns in a PhD program that helps one to understand scientific evidence. The sort of thing the debunkers aren’t engaging with. . . . because they aren’t really truth-seekers, they’re salesmen. Remember that no one goes into science for the money. It is NOT the path of least resistance towards wealth. The debunkers, though, are often selling supplements, meal plans, ebooks. . . so they have a reason to go after findings that conflict with their views. And they do, with gusto, if not with much substance.
Here’s the thing: there’s really no such thing as a perfect study. And when it comes to nutrition, there’s REALLY no such thing as a perfect study. Add to that that a single research study is rarely powerful and compelling enough to drive a change in practice. Each piece of scientific evidence has to be considered in the context of other existing evidence, theoretical understanding, face validity, design, and population. Studies designed to detect different effects, built on different theoretical frameworks, and including different samples may reach different conclusions, and that doesn’t mean that one of them is “right” and the other is “wrong”. Sure, there are studies that are stronger and weaker. There are studies that are fatally flawed. But each piece of scientific evidence is part of the overall body of evidence. And the body of evidence is part of what goes into having a position or opinion— or at least, it should be. So yes, it is entirely possible that two different approaches to, say, diet, can both be supported by evidence.
So, friends, if you want to debunk something, save it for something where there is really and truly no evidence— I suggest starting with debunking the link between vaccines and autism, which is really and truly bunk.