Can We Trust Science Anymore?

I’ll begin with two caveats.  This post isn’t specifically about my area of expertise and I have an axe to grind.  Still, my area of expertise – fitness from the perspective of exercise – is most definitely a field of the sciences.  Those of us who train the public to exercise rely on exercise studies to give us the knowledge we need to do our jobs well.  In addition, exercise and diet are undeniably interwoven in the realm of fitness.  While I cannot prescribe a specific diet for any individual, I rely on nutrition scientists to establish general dietary guidelines that I then recommend to my clients.  So, no, I’m not a scientist, doctor or registered dietician.  But I am an educated fitness professional and my axe to grind is specifically with the industry I depend upon to get it right in order for me to do right by my clients.

First I don’t, nor should you, expect the experts to always have the right answers.  The term exact science is, in many ways, an oxymoron.  Scientists develop hypotheses and then use the scientific method, a clearly defined protocol, to test them.  The more variables in the experiment, the trickier it is to infer definitive correlations, associations or causations with a high degree of accuracy.  From the perspective of variables, the field of nutrition is one of the more difficult to test.  Plus, compared to other fields, nutrition is still in its infancy.  Therefore, it should be expected that new theories and results will continue to come forth for the foreseeable future.  It should also be expected that some studies will contradict other studies.  But, this is how science works.  Clinical studies should be ongoing, perfected and repeated which then hones and fine tunes what we come to understand about the links between nutrition and health.  This is how we learn.  So, my beef isn’t necessarily with the studies themselves or even their outcomes.  The problem seems to be, increasingly, that terribly flawed studies and conclusions are making it into the mainstream and being passed off as “settled” science.  And, worst of all, sweeping new recommendations are made to the public even though no one really has the evidence, much less proof, that these new guidelines are healthier than the status quo.

One iteration of this phenomenon is what I call the rogue scientist.  This scientist has an agenda and will find funders with a vested interest in the same agenda.  I don’t call what this person does real science.  He manipulates the experiment, data and conclusions – in other words, completely throws away the scientific method.  This person, upon completion of his study, will by-pass peer review to go straight to the press or a publisher.  This is usually where fad diets get their genesis.

One of the more recent examples of this was “The China Study” by T. Colin Campbell, a biochemist from Cornell who conducted an epidemiological study (much less reliable than clinical studies) in China funded in part by the Chinese government.  Among his conclusions was the assertion that consumption of any food sourced from an animal (dairy, eggs, meat, fish) causes cancer.  His study was lambasted by nutritional experts who pointed to missing data, flawed data and conclusions that didn’t match Campbell’s own data.  Campbell, therefore, by-passed the peer review process and went straight to a book.  He then gained notoriety when celebrities adopted his dietary recommendations and the New York Times glowingly endorsed his book.  Despite having no endorsements from the scientific or nutrition community, many people bought into this one suspect study.

As infuriating as rogue scientists are, a non-professional can easily identify them with just a small amount of research.  (See my post on this here.)  Far more troubling is the latest bit of evidence trickling in that the peer review process itself is flawed.  If we can’t rely on the industry to mete out the sound studies from the flawed, we are left with bad science all around.

I am reading “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet” by Nina Teicholz.  (You can read excerpts from the book here.)  I’m only one-quarter of the way through the book, so I’ll save a post on the book itself for after I’m finished.  But I’ve read enough to understand that some in the nutrition community began an assault on dietary fats – beginning with animal fats, then all saturated fats including tropical oils and ending with all fats in general – nearly a century ago.  About 50 years ago, reputable agencies, such as the American Heart Association, and the U.S. government got on board and began making dietary recommendations for our entire population based on the belief there was a scientifically-proven link between dietary fat and diseases, heart disease in particular.   What’s shocking is this all happened on the assertions of one scientist in the absence of any clinical studies arriving at these conclusions.  And, the epidemiological studies used to advance this notion were inconclusive and, in some cases, completely contradicted by other similar studies.  They were challenged by a few courageous scientists along the way – who simply wanted to hold back on the wholesale alteration of an entire nation’s diet until clinical studies could be done – but these men and women were shouted down by those who now had a vested interest in protecting their own reputations and funding sources.

As I’ve been reading, I’ve counseled myself to remember that this is one author making this assertion and she, like anyone, also has an agenda.  But then I read “The Corruption of Peer Review Is Harming Scientific Credibility” by Hank Campbell in today’s Wall Street Journal.  You can read the article here.  Campbell lays out how the scientific peer review process has been watered down and corrupted making it difficult to sort bad science from good science.  We’ve had evidence of this in the study of climate as we’ve learned that NASA and NOAA fudged historical temperature data to advance the notion that the planet continued warming after global temperatures had stabilized.  So, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise to me if Ms Teicholz has stumbled upon the same dysfunction in nutrition science.

I think the important take away from all of this is that, unfortunately, there is no industry that can remain free of people who are or will become corrupt.  Corrupt scientists do real damage to the credibility of all scientists and, when talking about health, do real damage to real people.  The best we can do is take a buyer beware attitude.  When it comes to your health, don’t take one book, one doctor or one study at face value.  Be skeptical, even cynical.  And, if you’re inclined, get active.  I’ve written this post and, perhaps, I will write more on this topic.  I’m angered over the manipulation that is being foisted upon us by those we should be able to trust.  You should be too.

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