The Truth

Prevailing Bias at Odds with Scientific Integrity

The prevailing bias in nutrition, health, and obesity appears to work in cycles. Sometimes conviction about what must be true gets out ahead of the data we actually have to support our presumptions. The last cycle kept us focused on dietary fat and cholesterol for decades. In the current cycle, sugar is public enemy #1.

Sometimes in these cycles, prevailing bias comes into conflict with scientific integrity.

Unfortunately, the BMJ is expressing its zeal to pursue “the sugar industry and related companies responsible for many of the products blamed for the obesity crisis” by attacking the scientific integrity of academic nutrition researchers. They are featuring a total of four articles — all by the same journalist — that depict “a web of influence” and claim that an “evil” industry is “biasing the science.” The evidence supporting these ad hominem attacks is the funding for research by independent experts — all of which has previously been fully disclosed.

The reports provide no direct evidence of biased research. They offer only innuendo that relies on the fact of some research being industry-funded.

Susan Jebb, a distinguished Oxford professor of diet and population health, was the target of a some of these attacks. She commented:

As a scientist, my independence and personal credibility are crucial to me. Moreover, everything I do is aimed at improving public health.

If a company has genuine reason to believe their product or ingredient or programme works then it seems appropriate to me that they should fund a trial to prove it, ideally conducted by independent scientists

Lacking data to prove a point definitively sometimes leads people to mount ad hominem arguments such as the BMJ has done. People create a conflict of interest for themselves when they invest their careers and their credibility in affixing singular responsibility for obesity to sugar in foods and beverages. It’s worth considering all types of conflict and bias. More important, though, is an honest analysis of the quality of the evidence.

No doubt, excessive sugar in our food supply is a problem. But it is only one facet of the obesity problem we face. Finding solutions requires that we consider all the evidence based on its scientific merit.

Diana Garnham, Chief Executive of the UK Science Council, published a blunt response in the BMJ:

The BMJ is quite wrong to suggest that research funded through industry collaborations and professional bodies can’t be trusted. Research institutions already have in place processes to achieve transparency and robust independent review in addition to the individual code of ethics followed by the professional scientists who are either commissioning or undertaking the research.

The tax payer cannot afford to fund all the research that is needed to improve and expand our evidence base. It is absolutely right that industries should be partners in finding the solutions we need so we should be encouraging them to contribute more to the overall research activity in their fields of interest – not less.

Starting with a preconceived conclusion — and blasting away at any evidence or scientist that gets in the way — is no way to advance public health. It undermines scientific integrity.

Click here, here, here, and here for the four articles in the BMJ. Click here for a companion commentary. Click here for responses to these publications. Click here for reporting on the controversy from BBC News.

The Truth, photograph © Divine Harvester / flickr

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