Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Fraudulent Science Tuesday

It only took until the second Science-Link-Tuesday for me to find something to rant about. In the past, I have ranted (here and here) about how the USDA nutritional recommendations are the exact wrong thing to promote health. I often attribute it to the general malice that comes with big government, but here's another perspective.

Before I get too far down the rabbit hole, remember some context here: I'm writing this article as a scientist - I have a Ph.D. (in a real science) - I have played the science game and I opted out because I didn't like the way that science gets done. So I'm not going to play the uneducated-afraid-of-science card. I'm playing the I've-seen-how-it-really-gets-done card.

Before you write me off, I like what the idea of science is: curious individuals exploring new ideas, making lots of mistakes, wrong turns, and finally discoveries. When that happens, we learn great things, and I would argue that all of our real innovations come that way. But that slowly gets corrupted (not intentionally, but as a byproduct of human nature).

As you evolve from a curious 5-year-old to a serious college student hoping to get into a good graduate program, to a nervous grad student hoping to get a good post-doc, to an anxious post-doc looking for that tenure track professorship, to a professor trying to be department head, to a department head trying to lead social policy, the tolerance for mistakes paradoxically goes down. In fact, the science that happens at the university and higher level is more about confirming your beliefs backing up your previous findings and less like figuring out the truth.

A great study was just published in the last month or so where the researchers did an analysis of the "big data" of authors and co-authors on published research and found that the biggest innovations happened after a leader in the field died. It's often been joked that science advances one funeral at a time, but it turns out it's true!

So why is all of this relevant in the world of health and fitness - the reason (I hope) you're reading this blog? Well, let's say you're a pretty big nutrition researcher at your university and you want to move up in the world and start advising public policy. You have this theory that a high fat, maybe high saturated fat, high cholesterol diet is what is causing the rash of heart attacks that you've been seeing.

How do you prove that? Well, you could create a small questionnaire, give it out to a few people in a bunch of different countries, do some fancy regressions and show that the countries with the highest death from heart attack are the same countries that eat the most saturated fat. Is there any malice here? It's hard to say, picking only a few countries, and a small group of people isn't great, but it's probably okay to get a start. Are those countries picked randomly? Well, that's where we start to see some bias, the countries were chosen with a prori knowledge about diet and health outcomes. So we see a bit of bad science at the beginning.

So you start talking more about the results of your study and promoting it to the government as the basis for making policy. Since there's no time to waste, people are dying of heart attacks left and right, the government does their thing (I'll skip that for now, but I've ranted about this before), and we are given the USDA nutrition guidelines.

While all of that good public policy was happening, a new more detailed study comes out of your own lab. The results of this better study directly contradict what you've been saying for years. Unfortunately you can't be wrong, that would be seen as weakness and uncertainty, so what's any good public figure to do? You cover up the study and double down on your faulty recommendations - to the point of ruining the careers of anyone who dares contradict you. Here's the article and a good summary of what I'm talking about.

Basically, we've known all along that the USDA recommendations, particularly the ones about the dangers of cholesterol and high cholesterol, were unfounded, and we could have been advancing nutrition research the last 40 years. But egos and fear of publicly being wrong prevented that. That's not real science. While it is unconscionable to hide results you don't agree with, we have to look at why it was done. We live in a media-fueled, don't-admit-you-were-ever-wrong culture. You cannot be a public figure and say that new data clarified your thinking. So the only way to keep your job is to squelch anything that disagrees with you. Think about that.

Real science is always questioning, always trying to prove what you did is wrong, qualifying all of your statements with the known and potential uncertainties in your work.

Go through your Facebook feed, anytime you see a post that claims that "science figured it out", or "because science", or "scientists know", or "science says so" - there's tons of it, and I block every one that I see - know that it's all wrong. There are no black-and-white answers, there is no certainty, and anyone claiming it is working in public policy and not science - and we can see what happens when you switch from scientist to public figure.

strength - add weight from last time (more info) 

deadlift 2x5 


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run to the stop sign and back 
20 swings
10 pullups

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