Scandal Rocks Diet Research – Tips You Rely on Exposed #health #diet #nutrition #weightloss

bell shaped curveEuropean science was once so quaint. A wealthy family’s second son ensconced in a small parsonage in the country was free to classify local butterflies. Or perhaps the lord himself financed his own laboratory to study whatever he wanted. Sometimes a poorer soul might rise from employment under a Great Man (yes, mostly men!) or receive a scholarship, as Isaac Newton did at Cambridge in 1664.

Innocent days are gone. A craving for glory always created some scientific fraud, but the motivation seems to be growing. Big science is big business, requires big money, and can yield big rewards if a lab produces big results. This can be insidious, because if you receive fame and fortune for what you do, it’s easy to believe that what you do must be right. Especially in a field like nutrition, where there’s so much public interest, and lots of money to be made, sometimes, mistakes happen. Sometimes studies go “down in flames in a beefy statistics scandal.”

An internal investigation by a faculty committee found that ‘Professor Wansink committed academic misconduct in his research and scholarship, including misreporting of research data, problematic statistical techniques, failure to properly document and preserve research results, and inappropriate authorship.’

That’s a politely phrased condemnation, and may derail the careers of grad students who did the dirty work for him.

You may not recognise Wansink’s name, but if you buy 100 calorie snack packages, you’ve been fooled by his research. Ditto for using small plates to trick your brain into thinking you ate more, or hiding potato chips on the top shelf to help you lose weight. Read more truisms that have been retracted here. Maybe your favorite tip is among them.

Retraction Watch logo

Here’s a good place to keep an eye on scientific findings

Fortunately for science, you, and me, reality is a powerful force, and there are always researchers willing to challenge a famous author. As a consumer of science, avoid becoming anyone’s acolyte, don’t get too emotionally invested in someone else’s position, and keep reading, even if only in the popular press. Good consumers, like good scientists, are honestly open minded.

It often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. Carl Sagan

Let’s all make Carl proud.

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Science versus Human Nature

collecting-data.svg.medScience builds our modern world because it can overcome intuitions, gut-feels, common sense, and prejudices that happen to be wrong. The scientific method allows us – flawed and limited human beings – to grasp objective reality from the infinitesimal to the cosmic.

But human nature fights science.

NPR recently did a piece on an important problem in science – ignoring negative results. Well-known research about bilingualism, for example, exposes “a flaw in how scientific research reaches the mainstream.”

The bilingual hypothesis proposes that speaking multiple languages has benefits to your brain that improve multitasking. Positive results come from a 2009 study. But a researcher involved in the study says there were actually four studies done – one showed a positive effect and the other three showed no effect. Only one was published. Guess which one?

“In fact, one of the authors of the 2009 paper tried to replicate the experiment that found a positive benefit for bilingualism. And that replication failed to work. So in other words, there were four experiments. Three did not show benefits, and they weren’t published. One showed a benefit and was published. But it couldn’t be reproduced. And then the reproduction was not published.”

Any reasonable reading of the results says the hypothesis that bilingualism benefits the brain in this way has been, if not falsified outright, at least not supported.

A well-designed and conducted study that yields negative results – that does not prove its hypothesis – is as valid, important, and useful as a positive study. But no one likes to publish negative studies – it’s not exciting, doesn’t get you tenure, doesn’t make the news, doesn’t fill the room at a conference. Even if the original paper had been withdrawn, not everyone would get the message. It would still be cited and the popular press usually ignores retractions. You and I – interested laymen – would still have the wrong information unless we go out of your way to check in places like RetractionWatch.com.

This problem holds science back and can have a direct impact on our lives. How can medicine advance if only part of the research is published? I’ve posted about this before. There’s a group in the UK calling “for all past and present clinical trials to be registered and their full methods and summary results reported.” I hope they succeed worldwide.

What we need are prestigious journals of negative results. Every major journal should start a subsidiary that does just that.

PS: Sometimes negative results do get into the news. As fivethirtyeight.com concludes, it’s very unlikely that cell phone use increases cancer rates. That’s good to know. I feel better.

You Are a Zoo – a poem by Kate Rauner

You are home to millionsgerm-virus-md
More microbe cells than yours.
A human microbiome,
The normal flora forms.
You grow your unique garden
In skin and gut and hair.
The most obsessed collectorgerm-virus-md2
Simply can’t compare.
Ten thousand species strong,
Four pounds of life inside.
They crowd out nasty pathogens,
Even detoxify.

Fun microbe fact: the average healthy adult has 10 times as many microbial cells as human cells. There’s lots of information on harmless and symbiotic microbes that we humans are healthier for housing. Try LiveScience.com or blog.ted.com

Thanks to Clker.com for the illustrations.germ-virus-md4

Evidence-Based Medicine Needs All Trials Published

I have an analytical nature and appreciate evidence-based decisions, especially when it comes to health, wellness, and medicine. Modern medicine has made amazing strides forward, but human beings are so hard to study in the wild that, in many ways, medicine remains an art as well as a science.

medical trials Jabir_ibn_Hayyan

Jabir ibn Hayyan (aka Geber), considered the “father of chemistry” in the late 8th century, introduced a scientific and experimental approach to alchemy. Wikipedia (public domain in US)

Science needs information to progress and when information is withheld, suppressed, or ignored because it is disappointing, progress slows. When medical trials are not published, the lost information can set us back, and in medicine that can hurt people in an immediate way. That’s why I’ve been watching http://www.alltrials.net/, a European effort to require all human trials to be published, even if the results make the sponsors unhappy. Their web page says:

“It’s time all clinical trial results are reported.

Patients, researchers, pharmacists, doctors and regulators everywhere will benefit from publication of clinical trial results…

Thousands of clinical trials have not reported their results; some have not even been registered.

Information on what was done and what was found in these trials could be lost forever to doctors and researchers, leading to bad treatment decisions, missed opportunities for good medicine, and trials being repeated….

Europe voted for clinical trial transparency 2nd April 2014. It’s soon going to be the law in Europe that drug clinical trials are publicly registered and results reported.”

Especially when government funds are involved, I think this should be a requirement; but faithfulness to science should lead all trials to be published. I hope this idea will spread.

New Web Site to Check Out

Typhoon_saomai_060807

Here comes a natural disaster – image from NASA

Nate Silver’s fame spread from sports to politics during the last American presidential election when he accurately predicted the outcome despite a blizzard of conflicting public opinion polls. He edits a website at http://fivethirtyeight.com/ (owned by ESPN) that looks like a great magazine. The writers apply science and statistics, to popular topics. This gives an average reader a chance to evaluate the barrage of news, self-serving diatribe, and just plain nonsense from the media. From NCAA brackets to climate change, you’ll find interesting articles that can be of practical use.

Here’s one example: News about health seems to be full of “breakthroughs” that never arrive and contradictions that arrive frequently. What health news can you use? “Headlines are advertising. The goal is to get you to read the article, not necessarily to represent the research accurately.” But there are six criteria you can use to evaluate an article about medical studies. One is: Was the study performed on people? The more “yes” answers, the more likely the study is important to you.

Here’s another example: An article (by a writer with qualifications in the field) disputing recent claims that climate change is responsible for economic losses increasing due to natural disasters “generated a lot of comments and questions, and I thought it would be good to address some of them. Human-caused climate change is both real and important, so being careful about what claims science can support and which it can’t is imperative.” Hurray! Rational discussion of the facts and not just red team/blue team bumper stickers. FiveThirtyEight provided links to rebuttals and even plans to publish its own rebuttal to the original article.

I think reality is important, so this site looks like a great resource. Check it out.