Truth Stolen Away

Truth, Bias, and Conflict

Truth, bias, and conflict come together in the field of obesity and nutrition research with astounding intensity. Food and beverage regulation, industry funding for nutrition professionals, and breastfeeding are three examples that come to mind from recent news stories. But we have an abundant supply of other examples.

Sugar-sweetened beverages, fast food, and processed foods are almost constantly in the middle of hot public debate around obesity. Many food policy experts are certain we cannot bring obesity under control without tight regulations for foods linked to obesity. Equally certain are those who say such approaches are all “technically ineffective, politically impossible, or both,” as did food policy professor Jack Winkler at a recent conference on the subject.

Industry funding for nutrition professionals has been the focus of sharp debate since EatDrinkPolitics published a report condemning the credibility of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for accepting corporate sponsorship money. The supreme irony of this dust-up is that the source of the report (EatDrinkPolitics) is a private consulting firm that does not fully disclose its funding sources. 

When a recent New England Journal of Medicine article labeled it a myth that breastfeeding prevents obesity, some took exception. And then the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study that showed no obesity prevention benefit for more breastfeeding. Commenting on the study, Ruth Lawrence, professor of gynecology and pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center, said it was very well designed and conducted. But she expected the investigators to be criticized because of funding they have received, saying, “Formula companies are known to be aggressive.”

Martin Binks has published some excellent commentaries on this subject, calling for discourse that focuses on the merits of the science, not the scientist. He also points out that everyone — researchers and critics — should be held to a similar standard of transparency.

David Allison and Mark Cope brought us the idea that we need to bear in mind that “White Hat Bias” can be a problem as great or greater than financial bias when righteous zeal or indignation gets in the way of objectivity.

And finally, Richard Saver recently published a thoughtful call to rethink our exclusive focus on financial interests in medical research, advocating a more integrated, balanced, and proportionate approach to considering all sources of bias.

Bias is everywhere and hidden bias is the most dangerous. Voltaire suggests we “cherish those who seek the truth, but beware of those who find it.” A word to the wise.

Click here to to read more about food policy and obesity in the JAMA Forum, click here to read more about industry funding for nutrition professionals in the New York Times, click here to read more about breastfeeding and obesity in the Huffington Post.

Truth Stolen Away by Time Beyond the Reach of Envy and Discord, Nicolas Poussin / WikiPaintings

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