A perfect storm for corruption: science research edition

It may sound familiar. The sugar conspiracy — “In 1972, a British scientist sounded the alarm that sugar – and not fat – was the greatest danger to our health. But his findings were ridiculed and his reputation ruined. How did the world’s top nutrition scientists get it so wrong for so long?” is a ‘long read’ by Ian Leslie. Change the subject and rename the prominent characters and you have climate change.

The study’s biggest limitation was inherent to its method. Epidemiological research involves the collection of data on people’s behaviour and health, and a search for patterns. Originally developed to study infection, Keys and his successors adapted it to the study of chronic diseases, which, unlike most infections, take decades to develop, and are entangled with hundreds of dietary and lifestyle factors, effectively impossible to separate.

A scientist is part of what the Polish philosopher of science Ludwik Fleck called a “thought collective”: a group of people exchanging ideas in a mutually comprehensible idiom. The group, suggested Fleck, inevitably develops a mind of its own, as the individuals in it converge on a way of communicating, thinking and feeling.

This makes scientific inquiry prone to the eternal rules of human social life: deference to the charismatic, herding towards majority opinion, punishment for deviance, and intense discomfort with admitting to error. Of course, such tendencies are precisely what the scientific method was invented to correct for, and over the long run, it does a good job of it. In the long run, however, we’re all dead, quite possibly sooner than we would be if we hadn’t been following a diet based on poor advice.

In the last 10 years, a theory that had somehow held up unsupported for nearly half a century has been rejected by several comprehensive evidence reviews, even as it staggers on, zombie-like, in our dietary guidelines and medical advice.

The nutritional establishment has proved itself, over the years, skilled at ad hominem takedowns, but it is harder for them to do to Robert Lustig or Nina Teicholz what they once did to John Yudkin. Harder, too, to deflect or smother the charge that the promotion of low-fat diets was a 40-year fad, with disastrous outcomes, conceived of, authorised, and policed by nutritionists.

This was cited by John Merline in How ‘Settled Science’ Helped Create A Massive Public Health Crisis. “Anyone who thinks it’s enough to rest an argument on “settled science” or a “scientific consensus” ought to read about John Yudkin … Still, had nutritionists listened to a “fat-denier” like Yudkin four decades ago, we might have avoided the scale of today’s obesity epidemic, which has claimed millions of lives.”

Then there is Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry who describes how Big Science is broken. “Sience is broken. That’s the thesis of a must-read article in First Things magazine, in which William A. Wilson accumulates evidence that a lot of published research is false. But that’s not even the worst part.”

The key in all of these is big money that is separated from results by government. Prestige and honor are, of course, significant motivators but it is money that is often a concrete measure. The feedback is positive: get pleasing results in research and that leads to publication and that leads to more funding. A part of being important is selling the idea that the research topic is critical for public health and safety. These factors are compounded when the research topic is complex with many variables that are difficult to separate and interact with each other in many ways. Then toss in ideological factors and base desires for simple fixes and you have a perfect storm. “This makes scientific inquiry prone to the eternal rules of human social life: deference to the charismatic, herding towards majority opinion, punishment for deviance, and intense discomfort with admitting to error.” Look for these behaviors and you can know the quality if the ideas they defend.

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