Dr. Aaron Carroll is a Professor of Pediatrics and Associate Dean for Research Mentoring at the Indiana University School of Medicine, and Director of the Center for Pediatric and Adolescent Comparative Effectiveness Research. His research focuses on the study of information technology to improve pediatric care, health care policy, and health care reform.
In addition to his scholarly activities, he has written about health, research, and policy for many media outlets. He has a popular YouTube show called Healthcare Triage, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times’ The Upshot.
His newest book, The Bad Food Bible: How and Why to Eat Sinfully, focuses on the science of nutrition, how it’s often lacking and misunderstood, and why so many of the foods we demonize likely aren’t nearly as bad for us as we think.
Sullivan: Take us back to that point in time where you first got the itch to go beyond your everyday academic duties to start your blog, The Incidental Economist. What was your motivation to start doing outreach through blogging?
Carroll: I had two motivations at the time. The first was that I wanted to get better at writing, and the only way I could think to do that was to practice. I figured that if I committed to writing 800 words a day, every day, eventually I’d get good at writing 800 words. The second was that health care reform was really heating up (this was mid 2009) and I thought that as a health services researcher, I had something to say about what data and evidence could tell us about health policy. Everything else grew from that.
Sullivan: Your first three books, co-written with Dr. Rachel Vreeman (also at Indiana University School of Medicine), were a trilogy of medical mythbusting. What sort of surprises or challenges did you encounter in transitioning from blog to book?
Carroll: The biggest challenge was finding the time to do it. I enjoy so many of the things that I do I’m loathe to shed any of them. Keeping all those balls in the air while also writing a book – that’s a challenge. Writing this last book while still keeping up my usual schedule of other writing almost broke me. I’ll have to be more thoughtful if I decide to do this again.
Sullivan: In addition to blogs and books, you started the Healthcare Triage series on YouTube. Tell us how that came about. What are some of the pros and cons working with video media compared to writing about health and medicine?
Carroll: John Green (yes, that John Green) made a Vlogbrothers video back in 2013 that was on why health care costs so much in the United States. It went viral – I think it’s their fourth most viewed post ever. Our blog was one of the main sources for that video. Someone told him on Twitter that I also lived in Indianapolis, and he contacted me and invited me out for coffee. It turned out that they were interested in producing a show on health policy, and he asked me if I’d do it. I was flabbergasted, but I wasn’t going to pass up that opportunity. A few weeks later, we released our first episode, and the rest is history.
Sullivan: Most people would find their hands full in being a triple threat Professor, Associate Dean, and Center Director, but somehow you find the time to balance all of this with a robust career in medical writing and outreach activities. Could you please reveal what type of sorcery that allows you to do all of this, and do it so well?
Carroll: I always like to cite The Phantom Tollbooth, whose main theme was that nothing is impossible if you don’t know it’s impossible; the short answer is I try not to think too hard about it for fear the reality will make me stop. The longer answer is that I’ve spent years trying to get very efficient about all of this. I’m very schedule oriented. I will also say that my original goal – get very good at writing 800 words – worked. After a couple years, doing that wasn’t so daunting anymore. I also have to acknowledge that I love all of these things so much that it rarely feels like “work”. Writing for outlets like the New York Times and making YouTube videos are an absolute privilege, and the magic of getting to do it hasn’t worn off with time.
Sullivan: You have a tempting new book out November 7 called The Bad Food Bible: How and Why to Eat Sinfully. What are some of the most startling revelations that you uncovered while researching and writing material for The Bad Food Bible? If our kids see this book on the coffee table, are they going to be telling us that Dr. Carroll said it was okay to have bacon-stuffed sausage and chocolate croissants with whipped cream for breakfast?
Carroll: Maybe? I wouldn’t listen, though. The theme of The Bad Food Bible isn’t so much that you should eat “bad” foods indiscriminately. It’s that you should stop living in fear so much. Coffee isn’t a vice, and there’s really no data to show it’s harmful. In fact, the data that are out there are strikingly positive with respect to health. With bacon-stuffed sausage, I’d argue that the harms, even if they are real, are somewhat small in terms of absolute risk if you’re consuming them in moderation. Chocolate croissants are dessert, though, and should be treated as such.
All of those foods (except for the coffee) are heavily processed, though, and I’d still try and limit their consumption in favor of non-processed foods. Try some eggs with that coffee. But stop panicking about food in general. None of those things are going to kill you if you enjoy them once in a while.
Sullivan: Do you care to read us any passages from Dr. Carroll’s Bible of Science Communication? Any advice for our readers who want to become science and health communicators?
Carroll: Just do it. The only way that you’re going to get good at science communication is to practice. And don’t discount its power. Talking to the public about science, and doing it well, will do more to advance our goals than almost any research you’ll publish.
Sullivan: Since you have experimented with just about every media platform there is (I’m still waiting for an Aaron Carroll movie or TV show), do you see any forum in particular that is the best, or most versatile?
Carroll: Each of the media I use reaches a different audience. When I write for the blog, I’m reaching one. Healthcare Triage gets me to another. The NYT readership is its own world, as is the JAMA Forum’s. I use all these venues to discuss topics that are important to different groups in different ways. I don’t think there’s a “best” one, unless your goal is to reach a specific audience. I want to reach everyone.