A new study says you can’t trust most studies. Well, that is one way to make sure your study is believed… If the study is wrong, it proves the study is right! It’s like when someone tells you they are a liar… should you believe them?
The food studies appear to be particularly subpar.
One study showed that 40 out of 50 food ingredients studied had links to cancer.
Chocolate, red wine, salt, and eggs have bounced back and forth throughout the years, from being considered healthy, then deadly.
And then there was the classic study which reviewed the literature on the harms of sugar. This one was paid for by the sugar industry, and one of the scientists went on to help create the food pyramid. More on that later…
“The majority of papers that get published, even in serious journals, are pretty sloppy,” said John Ioannidis, professor of medicine at Stanford University, who specializes in the study of scientific studies…
Only a third of the 100 studies published in three top psychology journals could be successfully replicated in a large 2015 test.
Medicine, epidemiology, population science and nutritional studies fare no better, Ioannidis said, when attempts are made to replicate them…
Ioannidis recommends asking the following questions: is this something that has been seen just once, or in multiple studies? Is it a small or a large study? Is this a randomized experiment? Who funded it? Are the researchers transparent?
These are sound recommendations. It is impossible for us to replicate all these studies ourselves. At some point, it is necessary to trust experts. But each individual should be equipt to assess the information coming from the experts.
We are trained to blindly follow the doctor’s orders. Doctors can be wrong, even when they are not being openly or subtly manipulated by the pharmaceutical industry.
But like any other humans, scientists and doctors are, well, human. They can be misguided, confused, corrupt, and stubbornly opinionated. That is why it is important to ask questions and really dig deep when your doctor recommends medications, surgery, or treatment. If this upsets your doctor, it is all the more important to press further.
In their book “Ending Medical Reversal,” Vinayak Prasad and Adam Cifu offer terrifying examples of practices adopted on the basis of studies that went on to be invalidated, such as opening a brain artery with stents to reduce the risk of a new stroke.
It was only after 10 years that a robust, randomized study showed that the practice actually increased the risk of stroke.
As many as 20,000 doctors once recommended smoking cigarettes to aid digestion. In the 1940’s Camel ran an ad campaign that claimed “More Doctors Smoke Camels.” They even handed out packs of Camels to doctors at a medical convention and then polled the doctors on their way out the door, asking what their favorite cigarette brand was, or what kind they had in their pocket at that moment.
Unfortunately, money has corrupted industries like big pharma that pay doctors and scientists to take a position or prescribe particular drugs and treatment. Many peer-reviewed studies have predetermined outcomes which basically find the facts to fit their narrative. It is more a marketing ploy to publish in scientific and medical journals than proof of the actual findings.
Sugar Versus Fat
Sugar was long considered fine to dump down children’s throats because in the 1960’s a handful of scientists were paid off.
The documents show that a trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation, known today as the Sugar Association, paid three Harvard scientists the equivalent of about $50,000 in today’s dollars to publish a 1967 review of research on sugar, fat and heart disease. The studies used in the review were handpicked by the sugar group, and the article, which was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, minimized the link between sugar and heart health and cast aspersions on the role of saturated fat.
Mark Hegstad was one of these scientists. And he went on to help the USDA come up with dietary advice that would eventually become the food pyramid. As a result, if you look to the government for dietary advice, you are probably fat and sick.
It is a tangled web, but basically involves the same old revolving door of government and big business interests. Lobbying money from the sugar industry, or the big agriculture flows in, subsidies flow out. The excess produce from government incentives to grow corn gets made into high fructose corn syrup. These products can be purchased using government welfare programs like SNAP and WIC. And round and round it goes.
Mistakes and Exaggerations
But even absent actual corruption, basic mistakes are being made in scientific conclusions.
Correlation is not causation. This is a basic foundational tenet of science. Two things may be very strongly correlated, but that does not prove that one causes the other.
According to Reason Magazine:
When it comes to separating the wheat from the chaff of studies that are mediocre or just plain bad, Albert Einstein College of Medicine epidemiologist Geoffrey Kabat is a national treasure. “Most research findings are false or exaggerated, and the more dramatic the result, the less likely it is to be true,” he declares in his excellent new book Getting Risk Right.
Kabat discusses how “the dose makes the poison,” in that saying something doubles your risk of a disease could actually be statistically irrelevant.
For example, you may have heard that eating bacon increases the risk of colorectal cancer. Technically, this is true. If you eat two slices of bacon every day of your life the risk of colorectal cancer increases from 5 to 6 percent. That is not exactly the same risk as smoking cigarettes, which increases the risk of lung cancer by 20 to 50 times over.
And then, of course, you must consider the editorial bias. You’re Risking Your Life Eating Bacon is more likely to get a click than Everyday Bacon Eating Increases Cancer Risk by 1%.
Kabat suggests that the precautionary principle–“better safe than sorry”–is largely an ideological ploy to alarm the public into supporting advocates’ policy preferences. He also decries “the simplistic notion that ‘consensus among scientists’ is always correct.” He notes that scientific consensus once held that ulcers were caused by spicy foods and stress instead of bacteria…
Here’s the thing, I like to be healthy, and I personally often follow the better safe than sorry principle. But it is a huge abuse of authority to push this view on others through fear. It is the idea of I know better than these silly peasants that unfortunately seems to permeate the scientific and medical communities.
Are GMOs, pesticides, and chemicals like BPA really as bad as they say? I personally avoid them, but I honestly haven’t done enough of my own research to know for sure.
People look to doctors and scientists for guidance and too often are brainwashed by those individuals’ own biases and unsubstantiated opinions.
If an expert cannot or will not answer questions about their work, that is a red flag. When people talk about consensus among experts instead of the actual facts, that is another red flag.
There have been too many times in recent history when the experts, the scientists, and the doctors were willfully or mistakenly wrong.
Sometimes, yes, we must defer to experts, since it is simply impossible to research it all on our own. But that doesn’t mean we should forgo the due diligence in critical thinking that goes along with it.
Fear sells. We are used to it in the media but don’t usually expect it from doctors and scientists. But they are humans too, and just as likely to push their agenda instead of the truth.
*The article has been updated from the original version published on July 17, 2017.