Today we’re talking about what happens when something sounds awesome and scientific, but isn’t really true. And bananas!
News source: uh, not news – a Facebook picture
Image text: Full ripe banana with full dark patches on yellow skin produces a substance called TNF (Tumor Necrosis Factor) which has the ability to combat abnormal cells. The more darker patches it has the higher will be its immunity enhancement quality: Hence, the riper the banana the better the anti-cancer quality. Yellow skin banana with dark spots on it. Please pass/share and stay healthy.
The original science:
Guess what? Someone else already wrote an interesting blog post on this! Checking for pseudoscience in real science news (updated)
I first saw this: on Facebook
Tumor necrosis factor (TNF) – TNF is a protein that is made by animal cells that lets them talk to each other, and it’s mostly made by cells that are part of the immune system based on information from NCBI
Fun fact: the names of genes and proteins sometimes suggest meanings to non-specialists that…have nothing to do with what the genes or proteins *do.* Otherwise Sonic hedgehog would be a much, much weirder thing than it is! (My developmental biology professor said it really was named for THAT Sonic.)
Why this is news: How about why I am sharing this, instead of why it’s news? I am sharing this because it led me to other people who are writing about how things that sound like science but aren’t science get to be really popular. And because bananas will not miraculously cure cancer, lovely as that would be, given how uncomfortable current treatments are. (Bananas are delicious, however.)
What I want to clear up: Sometimes good science, bad science, and fake science look the same. It can be hard to figure out which is which! So…how can you do it? Unfortunately (or fortunately!), you have to make a judgment call.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help make a decision about whether to trust a scientific-sounding claim:
– Does the person telling me this story have some reason to want me to believe it? Like, will they make a ton of cash if I believe them? Sometimes people have a secret reason for convincing you something is science.
– Does the story make sense, using logic? This applies both to the actual findings and to what it could mean. (Do you think that if bananas could cure cancer they’d be available for as little as $0.20 each, given how current American drug companies seem to work? Or that they’d not all be bought up by hospitals to treat patients without drugs or surgery?)
– Do other people agree with this story? If they do, are they experts? Beware of the logical fallacy of Appeal to Authority or the logical fallacy of Appeal to Popularity. Just because a lot of people think something’s true, or someone you trust or think is smart thinks something is true, doesn’t mean it’s true. But also, sometimes people who have spent years learning about something can really help you know if a science story is real.
Dr. Brainiac’s scientific two cents:
The way I casually talk about food and what the body does with stuff you eat when I talk to scientist friends is to try to puzzle out what going through the mouth and stomach means for that stuff. The stomach is really acidic, when you measure its pH. To try to translate some slightly subtle science to more plain language, acids help create a situation where chemicals can get changed really easily: great for breaking food into chemical bits, and bad if you need a drug to get into the body without being changed. That’s what got my attention about this image in the first place: even if TNF were in bananas, the odds of it making it into the right part of your body after going through your saliva and maybe your stomach (and maybe your intestines!) seemed really not good.
Plus, as someone who enjoys cooking, I grew up with the “cooking urban legend” that banana spots were due to sugars in the fruit.
Scientific questions I would ask next:
– Are there foods that we eat that have stuff in them that doesn’t get digested that can help fight cancer?
– If a banana turns brown on the outside, is that a reliable indicator of what’s going on chemically on the inside?
Final thoughts: It may sometimes be discouraging to think that there’s bad science or fake science floating around out there that looks like good science, but you have the ability to figure out if it is good science! And you’re not alone in trying to do that: scientists like me are on your side.
You should also know that very smart, well-educated folks can have questions just like these. Yes, even about bananas!
Oh, and here’s a recipe I like for bananas that are starting to turn brown: Sugar Spot Banana Muffins Enjoy!