Mean Face

Name Calling in the New York Times

The number one most emailed story from the New York Times this weekend is one that fell just short of name calling against three different scientists. The narrative behind this story is that funding for research and dialog about the health effects of physical activity is a key ploy by Coca Cola to persuade people that the calories you eat and drink don’t matter.

In fairness, the reporter did not call these scientists any names. He simply misrepresented their work on the subject of energy balance — paying attention to both diet and exercise — as an effort to “shift blame for obesity away from bad diets.” And he depicts them as doing it at the behest of Coca-Cola.

Applying the nonsense of polarized politics and simplistic soundbites to health and nutrition is spectacularly unhelpful. Should Michelle Obama be dismissed because Let’s Move! emphasizes physical activity?

One clever phrase that turns up in this argument is that “you can’t outrun a bad diet.” It’s true enough, but it’s equally true that you can’t diet your way out of poor health from a sedentary lifestyle.

To the extent that experts in obesity can agree on the causes of excess obesity, they will tell you that both the quality of the food supply and systematic obstacles to physical activity are important factors. With this story, the Times is promoting a false choice between good nutrition and physical activity. Both physical activity and nutrition need attention — not a finger-wagging blame game, but pragmatic problem solving.

If Coca-Cola wants to participate, they should pay attention to the business they are in: nutrition. By sticking their corporate nose into physical activity, they invite criticism. Their efforts to influence portion sizes, sugar consumption, and remove empty calories from the U.S. food supply fit squarely in the realm of good corporate citizenship. If they want to fix their image problem, that’s where they will have to focus.

Meanwhile, the New York Times should take a stab at more objective reporting. Sensational stories like this bring lots of clicks and sell lots of advertising. By injecting one-sided sensationalism and ad hominem argumentation into a complex problem like obesity, they are driving bias just as surely as any other financial conflict of interest.

Click here to read the story in the New York Times and here to read the position statement of the Obesity Society regarding ad hominem attacks on scientists based upon their funding disclosures.

Mean Face, photograph © Tony Alter / flickr

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August 11, 2015

10 Responses to “Name Calling in the New York Times”

  1. August 11, 2015 at 11:16 am, Christine Rosenbloom said:

    Thank you for this great post and helping to put the issue into perspective. The scientists involved in the global obesity program are leaders in obesity prevention and treatment and deserve better treatment than the NYT gave them.

    • August 11, 2015 at 5:37 pm, Ted said:

      Indeed they do, Christine. The bias in this report that purports to call out bias is an irony that I cannot bear.

  2. August 11, 2015 at 8:49 pm, Karl J. Kaiyala, Ph.D said:

    I would urge readers to actually read the NYT article and then contrast what was actually written there with the way Conscienhealth characterizes that article.

    In my opinion, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff’s “Rebranding Exercise…” video (embedded in the NYT piece) is a good counterpoint to the notion that exercise ought to be a major focus for public health efforts to treat or prevent obesity.

    I have long followed the literature on the role of exercise in weight management (I am also an exercise fanatic). In fact, there is a wealth of evidence indicating that exercise per-se is of little value for reducing body or fat mass in humans, although the studies on this issue overwhelmingly tend to interpret any small reductions as evidence that exercise is effective for reducing obesity. So there is definitely some bias there. Exercise may be of somewhat greater potential value for attenuating weight gain, but the evidence for this proposition is decidedly underwhelming at this point. I would argue that all this has long been something of a ‘dirty little secret’ among many in the obesity field.

    All this is not to say that exercise should not be promoted as a public health measure for reasons other than weight management — indeed there is a great deal of evidence to the contrary.

    As to the reason exercise is a disappointment for obesity treatment, I favor the concept that increases in energy expenditure via exercise are well compensated for by increased caloric intake owing to the action of negative feedback signals (e.g., leptin) that act in the brain to couple energy stores to caloric intake. In fact, a great deal of evidence indicates that a powerful biobehavioral control system operates over long time intervals to defend energy stores at or near a level that is characteristic for the individual (diet composition and hedonic / reward qualities of the diet probably play major roles in the genesis of that level).

    In fact, the concept of negative feedback control of body fat stores has such strong scientific support that one may wonder if the attempt by industry to promote exercise is a brilliant evidence-based strategy to move more product.

    • August 12, 2015 at 4:51 am, Ted said:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Karl. While it’s clear that exercise is not a great way to lose weight, it’s also clear that exercise is important for maintaining a healthy weight and preventlng weight gain. So thanks for providing further perspective, and thanks for mentioning my research (obliquely) that found relying on exercise for weight loss leads to disappointment and discouragement.

  3. August 12, 2015 at 10:40 am, Mary-Jo said:

    The way this NYT article misrepresented the scientists named here and the organization’s intentions and purpose is lousy, bordering slander and adds nothing to the fight against obesity, poor nutrition, and poor fitness. And the assumptions and assertions that all corporate funds are ‘dirty money’, thus any research backed by corporate funds must be biased, are starting to sound like a broken record just to get ‘copy’. Corporations have alot more money than universities and why not tap into them for funding? Many scientists, such as those mentioned, who have strong histories of delivering robust, unbiased research should be empowered to have the choice to use corporate funds and I fully support their decisions to accept corporate funding so that they are enabled to continue to investigate the factors and dynamics involved in helping to improve health, nutrition, and fitness. Of course, there have been instances of academics and scientists being ‘on the take’ , self-serving, and self-promoting. but not these guys and it was just wrong of the NYT to suggest they are and to have such a large readership receive the bytes is unacceptable. Shambolistic journalism at its worst.

    • August 12, 2015 at 3:24 pm, Ted said:

      Sadly though, Mary-Jo, it’s been a very popular story. Read the comments and you will come away shaking your head. Many people want to take away the medical licenses of these scientists with doctoral degrees (sheesh).

  4. August 13, 2015 at 12:23 pm, Mary-Jo said:

    I’m just gobsmacked by these comments, Ted. I also saw the letter put out by M.Jacobson and all the signatures he got. I respect the CSPI, as it’s really is and has been great watchdog of so many inappropriate practices and claims of the food, beverage, and nutrition ‘industries’W, but, sometimes, they go too far. What the supreme irony in all this is that institutions like Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, Duke, NYU — where do you think all the funding comes for research? It’s much less ‘connected’ than the GEBN is to Coca-Cola, and certainly not as transparent, but money for all academic institutions that put out any research comes from wealthy donors, philanthropists, and alumnae, many, if not all, of whom are businessmen or family dynasties connected to BigFood, BigBeverges, BigTobacco, BigPharma, BigFossilFuels, BigPropertyDevelopment, you name it! And the ‘esteemed’ academics, many of whom were on that list, who take the money for all their research, know it! What’s so sad , too, is that social media eats up a story like this and I’m now reading so many tweets of folks jumping on the anti-GEBN bandwagon. Look, be anti-Coca Cola if you want, but here’s these 3 guys trying to use some monies from companies, like Cocoa-Cola and General Mills, who are part of the problem, and trying to turn the funding around to invest it to make them responsible for part of the solution and I think it’s great — genius, even! What’s so wrong about that?!

    • August 13, 2015 at 5:23 pm, Ted said:

      Well said,Mary Jo. Thank you!

  5. August 14, 2015 at 2:14 pm, Karl J. Kaiyala, Ph.D said:

    I think that an important and perhaps under-appreciated issue faced by leading investigators who accept money from Coca Cola (or any other corporate entity) is that those investigators will likely become agents of the corporation’s marketing campaign. This phenomenon seems evident with respect to Coca Cola’s relationship with Steven Blair. I have long respected Dr. Blair for his advocacy of the need to decouple the exercise “message” from the notion that exercise is mainly for weight control, and for his position that overweight persons can be quite healthy if they adopt appropriate exercise and other lifestyle practices that ultimately have little or no effect on their adiposity (my impression is that Steven has taken a lot of heat for these positions). Dr. Blair is himself a long-term “runner of size” – I respect that a lot.

    Yet the message conveyed by the Coke-Blair partnership seems to be primarily one of “exercise is a good obesity-related public health strategy.” So it seems to me that Dr. Blair’s actual beliefs as suggested by his publication and speaking history have been subverted or at least downplayed by his relationship with Coca Cola.

    The broader point is that corporate-supported investigators run a strong risk of becoming associated with corporate-friendly data interpretations and policy recommendations that might depart substantially from their actual positions. In such cases, the history of past and the potential for future corporate monetary support create a strong incentive to adopt a very circumspect public posture as it pertains to the corporation in question. While incentives at the individual level are not destiny, incentives certainly have powerful effects on behavior among many in the groups to which they apply. Marketing professionals understand this concept very well.

    Accordingly, one may propose that a major goal of the food-industry’s increasingly generous funding of leading obesity researchers is to reduce the potential for criticism by those scientists and perhaps by their colleagues and admirers as well.

    Ultimately, it is entirely rational to believe that everything Coke does in the realm of research support is inextricably linked to an overarching goal of greater marketing success, and to do so irrespective of the actual health and obesity-related impacts of their soft drinks and other marketing efforts (such as sponsorship of youth sporting events). In fact, I would argue that Coke’s shareholders should expect nothing less.

    • August 14, 2015 at 2:53 pm, Ted said:

      Thanks for sharing. Sometimes I suspect that researchers, even in public health, market their own ideas.