No, this post doesn’t concern Dan Brown’s best-selling mystery novel by this title nor even reference the seasonally-referenced celestial battle presaging the birth of Christ which celebration is quickly upon us. But, like the engaging plot of a quick-read novel or the enduring scriptural lessons about man’s struggle to live good lives resisting evil designs and temptations, the notion of “angels and demons” leapt to mind when I read the recent study in the International Journal of Obesity on “white hat bias.”
Coming on the heels of “Climategate” with its ethically-challenged but politically-correct data suppression and intimidation, the article by David B. Allison, director of the Nutrition and Obesity Research Center at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and former colleague Dr. Mark Cope, touches many of the same sensitivities. The two scientists reviewed studies of the effects of consuming sugar-based beverages and breastfeeding and found consistent “white hat bias (WHB).” Without regard to how one feels about the quality of research into global warming or the contributions of sugar-sweetened beverages or breastfeeding to consequent obesity, we hope we can all agree that the assault on scientific integrity in the name of assorted “white hat” do-good causes is, ultimately, self-defeating and something worthy of universal concern.
They define WHB as “bias leading to distortion of research-based information in the service of what may be perceived as righteous ends.” (The reference to “white hats” being to early Hollywood western films where the “good guys” wore white hats while outlaws wore black hats).
Allison and Cope conclude that obesity research “may be misrepresented by scientists operating with particular biases … sufficient to mislead readers.” Allison sounds “a warning bell,” stating: “White-hat bias is a slippery slope that science and medicine need to resist.” He continued: “Some researchers like to demonize certain products or defend practices with a kind of righteous zeal, but it’s wrong to stray from truthfulness in research reporting.”
The NIH-funded study noted that “this bias appeared in studies not funded by industry.”
As in Climategate, the parallels with the salt/health controversy are uncanny. Scientists have long been accorded vast public credibility owing to their systemic pursuit of truth. We all need vigilance to unmask those (hopefully, few) who would abuse this credibility and play fast-and-loose with the expected high standards of scientific inquiry. We all want medical researchers who are angels of truth who rigorously resist the corruption of white hat bias in pursuit of their personal “righteous” – but wrong – political preferences.
The latest new study from Oxford University says that traffic-light labelling on the front of food packages do not influence consumer choices. Technical Director Mort Satin provides his opinion on the traffic light label..and..the UK, where the label was invented...and the Food Standards Agency who are actively promoting it. Vlog on (x-ms-wmv 18.35 MB) ...
The recent revelation that some global warming scientists have fudged data to hide information that didn't suit their purposes is very similar to the process we are now witnessing in the Dietary Guidelined Advisory Process. Once you start tampering with data, you can be sure it will not stand the test of time. Click on the photo for a short VLOG on the issue.
The Wall Street Journal's on a roll on "climategate," and we recently pointed to the disturbing parallel of the parasitic relationship of government advocates and special interest groups on the global warming and salt reduction issues. Today's WSJ carries an opinion column by Daniel Henniger, "Climategate: Science Is Dying ," making another observation relevant to the salt and health debate: the use of junk science to prop up government policy goals -- whether by the Bush or Obama Administrations -- is creating, in Henniger's words, a "credibility bubble. If it pops, centuries of what we understand to be the role of science go with with it."
Henniger points out the corrosive effect on science of the environmentalists'-touted "precautionary principle" whereby objective standards of evidence are replaced by subjective judgments -- "this slippery and variable intellectual world has crossed into the hard sciences."
Henniger quotes an Obama Administration spokesperson on the "precautionary principle:"
The Obama administration's new head of policy at EPA, Lisa Heinzerling, is an advocate of turning precaution into standard policy. In a law-review article titled "Law and Economics for a Warming World," Ms. Heinzerling wrote, "Policy formation based on prediction and calculation of expected harm is no longer relevant; the only coherent response to a situation of chaotically worsening outcomes is a precautionary policy. . . ."
If the new ethos is that "close-enough" science is now sufficient to achieve political goals, serious scientists should be under no illusion that politicians will press-gang them into service for future agendas. Everyone working in science, no matter their politics, has an stake in cleaning up the mess revealed by the East Anglia emails.
The tie to salt, we hope, is obvious. In the absence of evidence from even a single controlled trial of whether salt reduction would improve health and in the absence of any evidence that physiological salt appetite can be modified as a "behavior" by either education of policy diktat, the government errs on the side of precaution. I use "err" purposefully since the current policy is erroneous both on the science and even on the question of precaution. Low-salt diets are risky for some people and may be risky for the entire population. So even advocates of the "precautionary principle" should favor our longstanding advocacy of a controlled trial to get the evidence right. Close isn't "close enough for government work."
A commentary by Bret Stephens in today's Wall Street Journal , "Climategate: Follow the Money," raises issues, believe it or not, that pertain directly to salt. Salt? Bear with me. Stephens explains:
Climategate, as readers of these pages know, concerns some of the world's leading climate scientists working in tandem to block freedom of information requests, blackball dissenting scientists, manipulate the peer-review process, and obscure, destroy or massage inconvenient temperature data—facts that were laid bare by last week's disclosure of thousands of emails from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit, or CRU.
We have no direct evidence that World Action on Salt and Health (WASH) and its salt reductionist members are engaged in such nefarious activities, but Stephens goes on to explain how "follow the money" makes sense when you take off the blinders that only money coming from corporate sources may be influencing a policy debate. "Money" is why we continue to see studies of salt and blood pressure when everyone accepts a relationship and why we're seeing more observational studies of the right question: salt and health outcomes. But the reluctance of the federal government to fund a controlled trial of salt and health outcomes may be linked to the tangled web of "money" as well.
Consider that thought when reading what Stephens says about the devotion of the universities and groups advocating on global warming:
(T)hey depend on an inherently corrupting premise, namely that the hypothesis on which their livelihood depends has in fact been proved. Absent that proof, everything they represent—including the thousands of jobs they provide—vanishes. This is what's known as a vested interest, and vested interests are an enemy of sound science.
Which brings us back to the climategate scientists, the keepers of the keys to the global warming cathedral. In one of the more telling disclosures from last week, a computer programmer writes of the CRU's temperature database: "I am very sorry to report that the rest of the databases seems to be in nearly as poor a state as Australia was. . . . Aarrggghhh! There truly is no end in sight. . . . We can have a proper result, but only by including a load of garbage!"
This is not the sound of settled science, but of a cracking empirical foundation. And however many billion-dollar edifices may be built on it, sooner or later it is bound to crumble.