Flawed Search, Fraud Research
“The road to Hell was paved with good intentions.”
You should always be skeptical of any dietary studies that are reported in the news that seem illogical or contrary to common sense. For instance, a study may be published that claims that eating a particular food is bad and seemingly provides convincing reasoning and statistics to back up its claim. The medical community, the government and the media may proclaim the item to be unhealthy and recommend avoidance at all costs. Law makers may even make policy decisions and design educational programs based on this flawed research.
Then newer studies may show that the earlier study was wrong and instead of being harmful, the particular food ends up being harmless or even a nutritious food that should be included in our diet. However, once someone believes in something, they resist change and controversy brews and conflicts of interest arise. This is the story of eggs and coconut oil, among others.
Frequently researchers are influenced by political correctness and medical/nutritional dogma. This leads to studies seeking to find fault with a certain type of food. Since their approach is biased and flawed, their conclusions are equally unreliable. Data can be manipulated in order to arrive at a conclusion that supports the flawed logic. Statistics, one of the most useful tools of the researcher, will often be incorporated into the calculations.
Playing with Numbers: Manipulating Opinions
You should always be wary of statistics. Although very useful, they can be misused. Statistics can be used to prove just about anything.
Statistician Donald Berry, chairman of the department of biostatistics at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center states,
“Extrapolations are dangerous. Especially dangerous is to assume that trends are linear. Otherwise we’d conclude that Olympic swimmers will one day have negative times, there will be more Internet users than people, and more people on Earth than molecules in the universe.”
Another way researchers add bias into studies is to combine several variables, but attribute all or most of the effects of the study to only one variable. This variable, however, in reality could have absolutely no influence on the results. This is all too common and can be seem in many studies that are presented to induce F.E.A.R. (False Evidence Appearing Real). Examples include research related to the saturated fat-heart disease connection, sun exposure-skin cancer connection, etc.
As a hypothetical example, let’s assume XX Aluminum Company wants to find a cheaper way to dispose of fluoride, a toxic waste product of aluminum manufacturing. If they could find a way to create a demand for fluoride, they would not have to pay the high cost of having it disposed. They could sell it instead and make a profit. They commission a study to show that fluoride can cure scurvy, and thus prove it is an important nutrient that should be added to our diet. The method used to prove fluoride cures scurvy is simple. You give test subjects (animals or humans) a dietary supplement that contains fluoride, plus some vitamin C and perhaps a few other vitamins for good measure. Well, it comes as no surprise that the new dietary supplement is successful in curing scurvy. Therefore, the study has demonstrated the nutritional need for fluoride in order to have a well balanced diet. We all know that vitamin C by itself can cure scurvy, so the fluoride really had little or nothing at all to do with the positive results of the study. Believe it or not, his type of research is done all the time. We may not recognize it because we don’t always know how the variables used individually affect the outcome.
Another important factor is the dilution of what is considered acceptable science. Post-Normal Science (PNS) is a concept developed to characterise a method of inquiry that is appropriate for cases where “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent.” It is primarily applied in the context of the debate over global warming but is applied in other complex, long-term health issues where there is less available information than is desirable. The promoters of PNS claim that, “Conventional methods of inquiry, based on determining all relevant information before proceeding, are too slow and uncertain to deal with an issue too complex to be fully understood and too important to wait for confirmatory results.” These quotes by advocates of PNS show a clear lack of patience and emotional restraint in the face of adversity: two characteristics that have shown to inhibit critical reasoning, problem solving and smart decision-making.
Post-Normal Science is a method of jumping to conclusions and trying to argue for a given set of actions despite a lack of evidence for them. Furthermore, it serves as a method of rushing to achieve quick fixes in the name of urgency and lack of time to wait for proper evidence. It follows the pattern of modern society where everyone is looking for a quick fix instead of a permanent fix. However, history has taught us that band-aid fixes can sometimes provide temporary relief but rarely help in the long-run. Think financial bailouts, wars, and other monumental errors that turned out to be emotional, impulsive reactions that could have been prevented with more patience, responsibility and rational analysis.
Many consider post-normal science as an attempt to ignore proper scientific methods in an attempt to substitute inferior methodology to service political goals. Practitioners advocating post normal science methods defend their methods, suggesting that “Their methodologies are not to be considered replacements for dealing with those situations in which normal science works sufficiently well,” which is just about all of the time. It’s been proven time and time again that properly applied statistics and analysis always beats random guessing without proper evidence. This attempt to bring unscientific, unproven theories under the umbrella of scientific research and analysis is perverting the honest work and reputations of researchers, scientists and statisticians around the world.
Shenanigans like this in medical and nutritional research along with statistical manipulations and other “tricks of the trade” make the results of many studies suspect. Combine that with the increased amount of dollars on the line for the companies that are funding the research raises serious conflicts of interest issues that need to be resolved. Accountability and empirical evidence appears to have taken a back seat to profits and lobbying. Darrel Huff, author of How To Lie With Statistics, the best selling statistics book ever and a must read, says,
“The crooks already know these tricks; honest men must learn them in self-defense.”
Fifty-six years after the message was first printed, the message is perhaps more pertinent now than ever. In the age of information technology, being able to filter through the mountains of garbage and finding order among chaos is essential for good decision-making. It will prevent you from being deceived by misleading information and save your valuable time and money.
For more information on how science can be abused, check the article Do Vitamins Work?