The Good and Evil Angels

Him Bad, Me Good, Listen to Me

“Him bad, me good, listen to me” is a crude form of argument that surfaces with distressing frequency. Theological discussions about good and evil are hard enough. But when this sort of argumentation creeps into science, nutrition, and obesity, the quality of decision making plummets.

To our great disappointment, this is the type of argument that Robert Lustig and Michael Goran have advanced on the editorial page of the Sacramento Bee this week. In the midst of a heated debate about requiring a health warning for sugar-sweetened beverages, they put forth a simple thesis in headline form:

Don’t Believe Industry-Paid “Experts” on Soda and Diabetes

Hyperbole in this debate is plentiful on both sides. And we see a lot of ad hominem attacks aimed at isolating people who engage in dialogue with the food and beverage industry. Claiming moral high ground for themselves, Lustig and Goran dismiss independent scientific advisers as “shills” who are “parroting industry talking points” and “spread disproven claims.”

Anyone who claims exclusive ownership of the truth hurts their own credibility.

Some of the most egregious bias comes in the form of “white hat” bias from people who believe so deeply in their righteous cause that they distort their analyses for free. Such bias is often hidden, whereas financial conflicts are more often disclosed — as they should be. The documented tendency to pay more attention to the funding of a study than the quality of its data, documented here in NEJM, also compromises evidence-based decision making.

To its credit the Obesity Society has staked out a sound position on the need for dialogue with industry, which says:

Scientists and industry should be encouraged to collaborate in the interest of scientific discovery and public health, without fear of reprisal based solely on the collaboration. In itself, a transparent relationship between scientists and industry with full disclosure should not be used to insinuate compromised integrity of a researcher. Attempting to discredit scientific opinions or individuals solely on the basis of collaborative relationships and/or funding sources has no place in the scientific process.

Nutrition labeling has real value, but it’s a tricky business. Decisions need to be based on objective consideration of all available evidence. And the impact of labeling decisions needs to be studied to guard against unintended consequences.

Ad hominem attacks and hyperbolic rhetoric don’t help.

Click here to read the commentary by Lustig and Goran. Click here to read an opposing view from Liz Applegate. Click here to read the full position statement of the Obesity Society on scientific collaborations with industry.

The Good and Evil Angels, ink and watercolor by William Blake

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