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Myths often blossom from a seed of a fact and thrive on human desires or anxieties, such as a fear of death. But they can do harm by, for instance, driving people to pursue unnecessary treatment or spend money on unproven products. They can also derail or forestall promising research by distracting scientists or monopolizing funding. And dispelling them is tricky.
Scientists should work to discredit myths, but they also have a responsibility to try to prevent new ones from arising, says Paul Howard-Jones, who studies neuroscience and education at the University of Bristol, UK. “We need to look deeper to understand how they come about in the first place and why they’re so prevalent and persistent.”
Here, Nature looks at the origins and repercussions of some myths that refuse to die.
Myth: Antioxidants are good and free radicals are bad.
Scientists rallied around the free-radical theory of ageing, including the corollary that antioxidants, molecules that neutralize free radicals, are good for human health. By the 1990s, many people were taking antioxidant supplements, such as vitamin C and β-carotene. It is “one of the few scientific theories to have reached the public: gravity, relativity and that free radicals cause ageing, so one needs to have antioxidants”, says Siegfried Hekimi, a biologist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.
Yet in the early 2000s, scientists trying to build on the theory encountered bewildering results: mice genetically engineered to overproduce free radicals lived just as long as normal mice, and those engineered to overproduce antioxidants didn’t live any longer than normal.
Read full, original post: The science of myths that will not die