Health & Science – Questioning What You "Know"

Imagine a recent conversation where you recommended dietary advice to someone. Or maybe you suggested how best they rid their cold. Or perhaps you were explaining climate science. Now take a step back. Reflect on the assertions you made and the “facts” you knew. Where did you learn your facts? A health magazine? CNN? Online? A family friend? Maybe they were facts you’ve simply always known.

My focus in grad school was to understand the world of chemical exposures. Before grad school, I knew a bit about chemical toxicity through word of mouth and reading. While school reinforced and expanded this knowledge, near the end of grad school there were still previously held “facts” of mine that professors failed to mention. Why was this? One such issue was surrounding the chemical Teflon™ used to coat non-stick pots and pans. Since I was a kid I had known Teflon™ was toxic, so I should be careful not to use metal cooking utensils because this would scrape off the toxic Teflon™ particles into my food. Why didn’t my professors know about this public health concern? Why didn’t they discuss it? I decided to dig on my own through the peer-reviewed scientific literature. I discovered info on the inhalation of Teflon™ fumes (still not healthy!), but nothing about consuming particles while cooking. My search yielded negative results. Why were these articles so hard to find?? I gave up my initial search for a while. It wasn’t until another year that I resumed. Still, negative results! I began to question this “fact” I had always known. Was it fact at all? 

By chance the following month a guest lecturer spoke at my class. She was an expert on Teflon™-like chemicals. Yes! Finally I could ask an expert who specialized in this stuff. But disheartened I would remain, for her response did not support my “fact.” Rather than push forward with my search, it was time to sit back and reflect. Where had I first heard this fact? Well I had always known it. This meant I must have heard it when I was a kid…so either from another kid, a grown-up, or the T.V.  Really?! Neither children nor the media are trustworthy sources of information. And most grown-ups are no better. I would not cite any of these sources if I was writing a paper! Yet this was the basis of my long-held “fact” about Teflon™. Something I was told as a kid and simply accepted into adulthood. What a disappointing realization! But it made sense. I wasn’t finding scientific support for my fact, because it wasn’t fact. This was not the finding I sought, but an important one nonetheless. And I’m glad I got to the bottom of it.

I’m sharing this story with you because it’s imperative for each of us to sit back and reflect on our sources before we propagate information forward. We all know “facts” about a variety of issues, from climate change to healthy eating. But just because we know “facts” doesn’t mean we know facts. And facts we’ve “always known” may be nothing more than well-intentioned messages that imprinted on our minds during childhood. Facts from magazines and websites are just as worthy to question. In an age where reading is becoming increasingly rare, people are relying on ever-smaller volumes of literature to establish their known beliefs; thus leading to the increased propagation of misinformation. This has been no thanks to the wealth of biased websites on the internet (discussed in a later blog)! So let us remember to think critically about the facts we hear and read, and to not cling stubbornly to previously held beliefs. Beliefs come from somewhere. Ask yourself where yours came from. Are they credible?

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                                                            Shahir Masri
                                                            Doctor of Science
                                                            Environmental Health Science

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