Why people still listen to Pete Evans

Celebrity chef Pete Evans has been slammed by the Australian Medical Association for "mischievously questioning medical advice", but there's a reason some people just won't be convinced by science.

"It isn't just about facts," Professor Rachel A Ankeny told news.com.au.

Professor Ankeny said her research at the University of Adelaide showed most people won't change their thinking when presented with "just the facts" - even if they were highly educated.

This is because the way people treat scientific research is also influenced by their values and experiences.

"People have values about the kinds of things they want to put in their body, what makes food healthy and their perceptions of agriculture," she said.

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"It's not just about telling people or educating people and then they'll be convinced."

The AMA recently criticised Mr Evans, saying his paleo diet was putting his fans' health at risk, after the chef appeared on Sunday Night dismissing criticism about his eating habits, feeding babies bone broth, the benefits of dairy and the use of fluoride in water.

Professor Ankeny said it was becoming more common for people to question what they were eating and to seek out products grown using organic or smaller scale farming practices.

"People are increasingly concerned that food isn't what it used to be, that modern food is making us sick and some people are not eating a whole range of foods," she said.


This is regardless of whether there is a scientific or medical basis for what they are doing. For example, increasing numbers of people who do not have coeliac disease are embracing a gluten-free diet, and saying it makes them feel better.

"If it makes someone feel better and is healthy, I don't see a problem with that," the University of Adelaide professor said.

"But to tie that into anything scientific, when there isn't a scientific basis, that gets problematic."

The individualistic approach to science means people pick or chose what they accept, sometimes without any logical basis.

They may have no problem with food safety inspections or the labelling of food with expiry dates, but other technology like genetic modification, is treated with suspicion.

It doesn't help that science itself is always changing, something that is not always acknowledged.

"Part of the issue I think, is that science sometimes oversells itself," Professor Ankeny said.

"There have been lots of changes and overthrows of received wisdom, but the debate nowadays has forgotten that recent history."

As an example, Professor Ankeny pointed to Australian research that recently showed ulcers were not caused by stress, as commonly thought, but by bacteria.

"That's what science is about," she said.


However, the fact that science can change has made the public dubious and Professor Ankeny said scientists and those making policy needed to acknowledge that science was a process.

"They need to engage with the community - not just those who are pro-science - but the whole community," she said.

"It's not about saying you're a 'whack job' and shouldn't be listened to," she said.

Professor Ankeny said a lot of people were committed to the paleo diet and Mr Evans' views, and there should be an attempt to understand why.

"They really think paleo is making their life better, so what's at stake there?"

Individual values also play a part when it comes to debates around controversial issues such as fluoridation or vaccination for example.

"Some people have less tolerance to risk," Professor Ankeny said.

"They may have a different idea about what risk they are willing to take for themselves and their families, for the benefit of the population," she said.

The fact that people had been empowered to research things for themselves on the internet, also led to misinformation and gave different sources of information equal status regardless of who was putting it forward.

But even "educating people" may not have the intended outcome.

In fact, Professor Ankeny said research had shown if you tried to educate people about things, this could actually make people more polarised, and uncomfortable, so it's not always the best way to convince them.

"A little knowledge can sometimes feel dangerous, it creates uncertainty," she said.

Rather than calling people stupid for holding certain views, Professor Ankeny said it was better to talk through why they think a certain way.

"There are a lot of reasons why people find vaccinations scary or problematic, it's about working through that," she said.

- news.com.au

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