Armchair Experts

We have a lot of smart people on this forums with exposure to a diverse set of passions, hobbies, fields and competencies. As a layman, I’ve been looking for a place where I can ask questions about an array of nerdy, highly specific, complex, or niche things without trying to puzzle through 2000 searches on my own. Facebook is a mean cesspool, so I thought I might try this here.

Some examples of some rabbitholes I’ve fallen into as of late:

  • Various nutrition questions - see folic acid vs folate question below
  • How to restart civilization if there were an apocalypse
  • Is it possible for AI to understand poetry?
  • Is the Green New Deal really going to impact small business poorly?
  • Will the APOE4 gene mean I get alzheimers?

Naturally, that would depend on whether any of you fellow nerdy people would be up for participating in this every now and then, so if no one is, then I will go ahead and delete thread.

Rules here are:

1. Keep comments constructive or helpful.

“This is real science. It is based on many, high quality studies and accepted by most experts on the subject.”
“This is flawed science. It’s one badly designed study in a journal of ill repute. The question is interesting, but this study doesn’t answer it.”

Probably not helpful:
“This organization is a quasireligious cult that fills me with feelings and I want to throw everything they write in a dumpster fire” <-- something I would say, so a reminder to myself…

2. Appeals to authority are fine to offer breadth, but unhelpful in addressing specifics; use a source

I don’t expect an expert in a field to share every single source that leads to the nuance in their perspective; the benefit of an expert is that they are a walking summary of their field. But if saying someones claim is a poor one, and they’ve shared a specific study or statement from an association, maybe try to link them to something else as evidence to be helpful

3. This is not a debate thread.

The point of this thread is to offer nuance and perspective on an issue, not to convince everyone that something is truly wrong or right. Offer thoughts on the issue and then accept that perhaps people are going to have a higher or lower level of evidence required to determine the usefulness of that knowledge.

  1. Some of us are doctors but not your doctor, don’t take medical advice from this.

ETA: Too many edits to count. Feel free to recommend more because Meowkins is quite a mess.



I would add a suggestion that disagreements be limited in the point:counterpoint cycles to avoid spiraling tangents. Because even though science is ideally based on facts - data and people are imperfect and changing as more information and better tests and hypotheses become available. Data is always interpreted through the lens of people and context.

I haven’t been a bench scientist for over 20 years, and haven’t worked at all for over 5 years - so I am not as up-to-date on topics as I used to be.


That makes sense re: tangents – do you have some thoughts on how that would be limited?

ETA: Maybe everyone is allowed one substantive post on the issue - if you have more thoughts, you can edit the issue, but no back and forth. That way the thread stays manageable in size and all the relevant information to a question stays concise? (Posts for clarification don’t count.)

I think 2 (maybe 3) responses each side to assert an answer, and then rebut an argument / contradictory answer should suffice. The point being to stay on topic regarding the answer versus getting trapped into right fighting. People can always take the discussion elsewhere if they don’t come to an agreement

@maizeman is a active biological scientist who explains things very well, and definitely knows how to review study structure (good experimental design) and logical assertions, even outside of their immediate research focus (though that gets harder the further afield you go).


Ok that sounds fair! I will update rules.

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OKAY, I’m gonna kick things off here.

Assertion: Folic acid is bad for you and causes cancer, but folate is good.

" There are studies that suggest that synthetic folic acid from multivitamins is cancer promoting, whereas folate from food is protective.16,17 Other studies have cautioned against supplemental folic acid: A 2011 meta-analysis of six folic acid supplementation trials found that the incidence of cancers was 21 percent higher in the folic acid supplementation groups than control groups.18 Studies on multivitamin use and breast cancer have produced inconsistent findings overall, however several have reported an increase in risk, and have hypothesized that folic acid is the culprit.16,19"

So does this mean that I should avoid using my multivitamin with folic acid? This seems like a really confusing and controversial assertion that stems from the “all natural” fad. Folic acid fortification is in tons of foods… surely this would have been flagged a lot earlier?

ETA; Came back to add more detail after getting out of the million meetings destroying my soul.


I vaguely remember hearing about this, but not any final answer. I have t sat down to search out any information.

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Since no one else has answered in particular. A place to start your search is a particular genetic mutation. MTHFR.


I’d like to think that acronym stands for MotherF’R. But …:woman_shrugging:


Seems like it should :joy: but apparently it influences conversion of folic acid to folate, so I’d think they’re be the “at risk” group for adverse effects from folic acid supplementation vs methylfolate.


Yep - it’s an abbreviation of the enzyme name (methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase). But easy mnemonic to remember it.


Thank you guys for responding! I interpreted the lack of answer on this to general disinterest in such a thread and then went hunting for answers on Google (somewhere, my therapist is getting a chill).

It seems like the consensus is generally applicable to all people because of the fortification of foods and the adverse effect of too much folic acid:

I know that this isn’t an iron clad source, but it’s not healthline, so I am hoping for the best there. Seems like the best thing to do is to avoid folic acid in grains where I can and eat lots of leafy green veg (which is an always struggle). I could potentially avoid taking my multivitamin but it has lots of good stuff so maybe I’ll just take the rest of the bottles and try to balance out the fortified grain portion on my end.

According to this, there is no upper limit to how much folate we can eat. Fat chance of that OD happening anyway.


Not an expert on this topic, but I’ve looked into why nutrition studies give such wide outcomes/change their minds all the time.

Compared to more controlled studies in lab or even in real people about diseases, it’s incredibly hard to have a real control group, and to test only one variable at a time. It’s impossible to totally control everyone’s behavior when their in a study at home, and people are notoriously bad at estimating how much they eat (studies show the size of your plate, the weight of the silverware, the lighting all influence that) and potentially being non-compliant and lying about it. Unless you spend $$$$ hosting people in a controlled environment 24/7, which is hard to get volunteers for, and costs so much that your sample size is like 20 people.

Because of this and other ethical reasons, nutritionists are largely stuck doing correlation studies (in the folate case they couldn’t recruit a bunch of people, feed half of them folic acid and half folate and then see if they gave the first group cancer) which are rife with invisible correlations. For example, breastfed babies seem to have better educational outcomes than formula fed, but once you control for socioeconomic status the two groups perform the same. It’s just that rich people have better educational outcomes and are more likely to breastfeed their babies. So you’re trying to tease out a lot of things about diet and health, when those are both immediately connected to where you live and how rich you are.

Furthermore because there aren’t great control groups, a lot of the statistical analysis aren’t actually designed for the kind of experiment they’re used on. It’s a big issue in almost all fields of science that most people are bad at statistics, but when you’re doing observational studies it can be extra bad.

So no straight answer on the folate v folic acid thing, because at this point I figure eating a wide variety of fresh foods and ignoring what the latest study says is best for my mental and physical health.


Oh man! Thanks for that perspective. That must make it so hard for nutritionists… like, how do they know anything?


Thanks for this - this is what I have always believed based on my experience and background. But had not articulated.

Every statistician will tell you correlation is not causation!

Also, my personal opinion is that reductionist studies (only one variable) just are not the best approach for whole organism issues, even if it were possible. Besides the things you listed, you can’t control for individual genetic variations, differences in our microbiomes, and any unknown influences. But I think it is just not an appropriate study design. There is not just one big lever controlling these responses, but a host of tens, hundreds, thousands of factors and conditions that interact.

I don’t know enough about meta-analysis to say whether you can really pull any accurate conclusions from those approaches, rather than just narrowing down some tantalizing clues to what might be a factor.


It’s possible they don’t know that much, but like all of us, they rely on the best data they have at the time to make inferences based on their experience and judgement.

But IMO there is a lot of questionable “info” out there (hello nutriceuticals - I am looking at you), much from for-profit industries who make some awfully bold claims.


Part of how they come to the conclusions they do is correlating the observational studies with probable mechanisms. So basically, they look at the chemistry of how the cell is working, or they look at enzyme pathways in the body, stuff like that. And they say, does this match and explain with what we’re seeing? It’s really imperfect, but it kind of helps you triangulate some conclusions.


I think part of the issue here is how people in science view themselves. You get so siloed in one topic, if you’re not being asked about THAT ONE THING, you hesitate to describe yourself as an expert lol. Unless you’re asking a scientist about their dissertation, they’ll probably not consider themselves an expert, and even then it can get spotty :joy: the more you know a field, the more you realize you don’t know much!


Hmm good point. Recs on better framing for this?

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Nail on the head, and I’m a generalist with amateur interests in just about everything but not an expert on anything