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Saturday, October 8, 2016

Corporate funding = bad science? Not really

I've long been an advocate of low-carb eating, and there are a few websites I frequent for information on the subject. But every once in a while, even the people you trust make mistakes. The researchers and physicians who promote low-carb and paleo diets usually ground their arguments in good science, though many of them, sadly, also love a good conspiracy.

News recently came to light that the sugar industry paid several researchers, Dr. Fred Stare probably being the most prominent, in the 1960s to minimize the health effects of consuming sugar, and it appears that food companies have had science talent on their payrolls ever since.

Predictable outrage from the low-carb world followed this revelation: a torrent of angry tweets, facebook comments, and blog posts from thinkers I usually respect who were just beside themselves with rage. My two favorites, from Tom Naughton and Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt: "The Harvard scientists were not only whores, they were cheap whores," and "Big Sugar was ... enticing Harvard scientists ... to sell out their independence and conduct its paid research."

This all makes for entertaining reading, but the facts are far less sexy, I'm afraid. Scientists, just like the rest of us, don't work for free, and they have bills to pay, too. So when industry offers to fund their research, they happily accept. This economic reality may be the basis for awful Russell Crowe movies, but it doesn't automatically produce corrupt science, and it often, in fact, produces good science.

"Follow the money" doesn't disqualify scientific research for a variety of reasons, but the most important one is this: science rises and falls on its merits, regardless of who paid for it and how evil they may be. The Nazis, for example. produced some of the earliest studies linking smoking to lung cancer. Yet by the same silly logic used to disqualify sugar industry-funded research, we could ignore German tobacco research from the 1940s, because it was financed by a source we dislike.

Now one could respond to this by arguing that Stare and his Harvard colleagues were ultimately wrong that sugar isn't harmful, while the Nazis were correct about smoking. But that rebuttal misses the point entirely. The quality of your research isn't necessarily an indicator of your integrity. For every widely-accepted scientific theory, there are dozens more that have been discarded. Getting things wrong is just part of science. Stare et al. were wrong, but their work didn't spring into existence when big sugar cut them a check, and we only know they were wrong because better science told us so.

Microbiologist Dr. Alex Berezow adds some weight to this argument with a very important detail. People give money to causes they already support; they don't attempt to buy compliance from people who disagree with them. This is precisely why radical environmentalists donate to left-leaning politicians and trade unions give to senators who represent their members.

 In our current context, this means that big sugar simply went and found scientists who already agreed with them. Fred Stare, for instance, had a reputation as an iconoclast before he co-authored the sugar industry-funded review article. He had it out for advocacy groups who shilled bullshit dietary advice to the public, which probably stemmed from his time working in war-torn Holland following World War II, where starvation was rampant. For my low-carb friends reading, Stare also came to the defense of eggs when mainstream nutritionists began to shriek about the dangers of cholesterol.

But there's another side to this debate that is often overlooked. Disqualifying research based on who funded it could cause you to ignore good science. I'd like to use Dr. Eenfeldt as an example, who sells dieting advice on his website, by the way. Last December he lambasted a meta-analysis which found that diet soda could help obese people lose weight because the soda industry had given grants to the authors.

The article was published in a prestigious medical journal and authored by scientists from impressive schools around the world. The researchers cataloged hundreds of studies, grouped them by study  design (animal study vs human intervention etc.) and reviewed their methods and results in excruciating detail. This would be an excellent starting place for anyone curious about the health effects of artificial sweeteners. Moreover, the article's conclusion mirrors the opinion of scientists I know don't take corporate money. But Eenfeldt's conclusion is that we should dismiss this paper out of hand, because "It’s like reading marketing material for the beverage industry."

Open and honest debate is how we make scientific progress. Heated disagreement, therefore, is a good thing and people are welcome to say that Ancel Keys and Fred Stare were bullshitters, bad scientists or egomaniacs who wouldn't admit they were wrong about heart disease. But, those kinds of comments ought to go hand-in-hand with a thorough debunking of Keys and Stares research. That's not what's happening here.

Moreover, we need to acknowledge that confirmation bias affects everyone, even the scientists who agree with us.So we shouldn't pretend that "it's only the other guy who's greedy" as economist Milton Friedman put it. We can all be greedy, dishonest and otherwise imperfect in pursuit of our goals to make the world healthier and safer. Complaining that people were paid shills after they're long dead and gone and dismissing their work doesn't advance those causes whatsoever.