Meet the Debunkist

Should we really drink a gallon of water a day, and does sugar make children hyperactive?  I meet the man who knows.

I recently met a gentleman who called himself a “debunkist”.  It was not a title I had ever come across before, so I naturally asked him what exactly a “debunkist” did.

It turns out that he specialises in finding advice that is propagated through the popular media and which is total bunkum. He then writes articles and appears on TV and radio programmes telling people not just that it is rubbish advice but also why it is rubbish.

He takes the whole process very seriously, and indeed I found that he considered himself a modern day equivalent of those great luminaries of the past, such as Galileo and Copernicus, who overthrew the notion that the Earth was the centre not just of the solar system but of the entire universe.

Naturally I asked for an example of the modern bunkum that he debunks.

Settling in his chair he looked me in the eye and said, “Drink eight glasses of water a day.”

I was taken aback. “Is that bunkum that needs debunking or are you giving me advice?” I asked as I carefully removed my plastic cup of coffee from the table and placed it in the bin.  I could see where this was going.

But I was wrong.  “Total bunkum,” he said.  “Everyone now believes they need to drink more water, and thus bottled water has become the most popular drink in many countries including our own, but the eight glasses a day stuff is silly.

“It comes from a leaflet in America in the 1940s that said we should drink a certain amount of water for each calorie of food we take in – but it omits the fact that virtually all food is made up of mostly water.

“Added to which the liquid we need doesn’t have to be pure water.  Tea and coffee contain lots of water.”

“But I thought coffee dehydrates people and makes you lose more water than you drink,” I said, bringing my mug of the liquid back to the table and taking a sip.

“Rubbish!” he announced.  “Even the occasional glass of beer – but no more than one mind – will hydrate you, rather than dehydrate.  And don’t start telling me water is better for you.  As long as you are drinking enough tea, milk, juice, etc, taking lots of extra water just makes you go to the loo more often.

“What’s more there is another myth that says that you are really thirsty long before your body tells you that you are in need of water.  That’s bunkum too.  How would our species have ever survived if the “drink now” mechanism was so laggardy in its delivery of such a vital message? It is the reverse – of course. We get thirsty long before there is a need to replenish our liquids, so that we have time to go searching for the nearest stream to stick our head into.

“Worst of all, drinking lots of water that you don’t need can actually be bad for you.  If you are dehydrated you will get a headache.  If you are getting headaches try drinking more water. That’s it.”

I nodded feeling that this was indeed profound advice. Looking at my watch I realised I had to move on in a moment, but felt I probably had time to hear one more gem from the debunkist.

Upon hearing my request the self-styled debunkist solemnly announced, “Sugar makes children hyperactive.”

“Does it?” I asked naively.

“No of course it doesn’t,” he replied impatiently. “There have been lots of studies in which hundreds of children are given something that might or might not contain sugar and then their behaviour is watched, and no one can ever tell the difference in terms of which ones have had the sugar.

“Even children who are registered by their parents as “sugar sensitive” can’t be found in that sort of test – it is all in their parents’ minds. Parents who think their children are sugar sensitive then watch their children’s behaviour and claim they are being hyper-active, while in fact they are just being… children.”

“So does sugar not affect children?” I asked.

“Obviously it makes their teeth rot, and the level of extractions for children is quadrupling each year because of excess intake of sugar.  And it affects their brains.”

That sounded pretty horrifying so I asked why and how, carefully picking up the sugar bowl from the table and dropping it into the bin.

“In the serious studies done on schoolchildren, it was found that after having a glucose drink most children were able to concentrate better and got better scores in memory tests.”

Carefully picking the sugar bowl out of the bin I said, “so that is the opposite of hyperactivity, isn’t it? It means my memory improves with more sugar.”  I edged my spoon closer to the bowl.

“Not really. The sugar boost from glucose doesn’t last very long.  Better to lay off the sugar and have a well-rounded diet. Fruit is a good place to get sugar.”

I noticed an apple in my bag left over from yesterday’s packed lunch and carefully dusted it down and began munching, nodding all the while in what I thought might be a sage-like manner.

“Perhaps you could give me some more advice next time, once I have taken these notions on board,” I suggested.  As he got up and left he nodded and waved in a manner that I took to suggest that yes, indeed, he might deliver some more debunkificationalism the next time we met.


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