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A SWAT for forgetting that a hypothesis is just that

Submitted by on Thursday, 30 December 2010 One Comment

So it turns out that the number of people going to emergency rooms as the result of food allergies might have been dramatically underestimated, according to new research.

Reuters reported this week that an article in this month’s edition of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology says it could be close to 200,000 a year ER trips, as opposed to the 30,000 historical cited. It really matters little, particularly since researchers aren’t sure why it’s happening.

What does matter, though: The sloppiness with which ever single article on the topic was written. But then, why rely on facts when you can trot out theories that make you sound like you know what you’re talking?

Cliches such as:

ABC News: One theory is that changes in children’s diets may be a contributor.

I have no idea what they’re talking about, though I’ve heard the “theory” that parents are causing allergies by not letting their kids have certain foods until later than kids were fed the same foods a generation go. How does that one hold up? Big Guy, exposed to peanut butter at 15 months, allergic. Boots, ate peanut butter at 2 years, not allergic.

AOL Health: Others point to the “hygiene hypothesis,” which theorizes that there isn’t as much exposure to germs in early childhood because of today’s heightened focus on “sanitization.”

The writer might have focused on “today’s heightened focus on sanitization” but the hygiene hypothesis is actually more than 20 years old, though I’ve seen it attributed to different researchers a decade later. After two decades, it’s still only a hypothesis – a theory, in other words.

There are, however, exciting new scientific findings about allergies.

Just recently researchers found a genetic link – as in, located the gene that causes, not confirmed that the condition is inherited – between eczema and asthma. What does it mean? No one’s sure yet, but it is a leap in what we know medically about two conditions that have links to allergies as well. Doctors know, for example, that allergic reactions can cause asthma or eczema attacks. They’re just not sure how it all fits together.

And doctors at respected research hospitals such as Johns Hopkins, the University of Arkansas and Duke University have made tremendous strides in treating children for peanut allergies, though they caution that children like Big Guy might be so highly sensitive that they’re not even good candidates for such programs.

So why do writers ignore this information and keep trotting out the same cliches?

It’s partly because they’re not aware of better information. Some allergists aren’t either – a Pittsburgh television station quoted one as laying the blame on the hygiene hypothesis.

It’s partly due to laziness – find a “background” paragraph and keep regurgitating it endlessly.

But it’s also because both the hygiene hypothesis and the delayed feeding notion play to a popular trend these days: Blame the parents. If something went wrong, it must be their fault. Call it a theory – except I doubt it’s one that will get picked up when the next food allergy story hits the news cycle.

And when the next time comes, writers and allergists should Stop Wasting America’s Time by trotting out unproven theories. The “what causes it” question isn’t even asked when the topic is other medical conditions. Why, then, should it be asked when writing about allergies?

Copyright 2010 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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  • Germs! Aaarrgggh! | 9to5to9 (author) said:

    [...] asthma-induced ailments.  His brother, on the other hand, seldom catches anything. So much for the hygiene hypothesis. For the rest of us, though, it's a great reminder of "you can run but you can't hide." You might [...]