Who Cares about Money?

A lot of ink and electrons are devoted to proving that money biases research. Research requires funding and funders all have criteria for what they fund. So this point is tough to dispute. The problem is that considerations of bias tend to be selective and superficial.

Marion Nestle provides a good example in discussing a recent paper in PLOS ONE about the weakness of self-reported NHANES caloric intake data. In her Food Politics blog, Nestle smells a conspiracy:

This study, then, is a classic example of why food industry sponsorship of nutrition research is so pernicious.  Coca-Cola is systematically recruiting sympathetic nutrition researchers to cast doubt on science linking soda consumption to health problems.

Nestle concedes the findings of the research, calling them so obvious that she wonders why anyone would publish it. She goes on to indict the journal and the researchers.

The researchers are guilty of overreaching conclusions as well when they write:

As such, there are no valid population-level data to support speculations regarding trends in caloric consumption and the etiology of the obesity epidemic.

Simplistic considerations of bias in research and its interpretation are all too common. Yoni Freedhoff said it well in a discussion of this subject:

None of us are free from bias. Anyone who thinks otherwise is likely either ignorant or a liar. That said, Marion’s points in her piece, in my biased view, are important ones.

On balance, it’s useful to remember that self-reports of nutrition, physical activity, and weight are imprecise and they weaken the evidence base for obesity. Many people gloss over this fact. But the lack of precision should not deter us from making the best objective judgements possible about health policy.

We need to do it with our eyes wide open to gaps in the evidence. Sometimes we have to admit we don’t have the answer.

Click here to read the study in PLOS ONE, here to read the commentary by Marion Nestle, and here to read more on obesity research funding in MedPage Today.

Lunch Money on the Table, photograph © marya / flickr

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