Contrarianism in Context

Science, technology, and life.
April 3 2008 9:46 PM

Contrarianism in Context

Impressive cluster of contrarian research in today's batch : Coffee can help prevent Alzheimer's ; trans fats can be good for you ; fat kids have fewer cavities ; and the alleged benefits of drinking lots of water are unfounded . I love reports like these. I've flagged and commented on lots of them in the previous Human Nature news roundups . Part of it is that I just enjoy contrarianism. Part of it is that discoveries like these expose our overconfidence about what we know. Biology is enormously complex. Sometimes extra weight is bad for you; sometimes, at death's door, it can save your life. We vilify and prohibit alcohol as a sin, then discover it can help your circulation.

But I don't want to let the mischievous fun of medical contrarianism obscure reality. The reason why studies like these are surprising and intriguing is that they generally run against the grain of biology. By and large, trans fats are horrible for you. Relying on coffee instead of sleep for daily energy is dangerous. And even if being fat somehow improves your kid's dental health, the damage done to the rest of his body isn't worth it.

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When you see a report about the benefits of booze or chocolate, always remember that the reason it's worth a headline is that these things, in their usual form and consumed quantity, are generally unhealthy. Not a very entertaining takeaway, I admit. But true.

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.