Is Scientific Objectivity a Political Statement?

What Do We Want?“Science is not a liberal conspiracy.” That theme of yesterday’s March for Science echoed in more than 600 cities around the world. Hundreds of thousands marched despite gloomy weather. Still, it was hard to deny that politics were infused into these marches. The U.S. president appears to like attention and, without a doubt, he inspired these marches.

All this activism begs a question. Is scientific objectivity a political statement?

Facts, Values, and Choices

Responding to the hubbub, the White House issued a statement that included this pearl of wisdom:

We should remember that rigorous science depends not on ideology, but on a spirit of honest inquiry and robust debate.

Honest inquiry indeed lies at the heart of scientific objectivity. The conflict comes when subjective humans make choices. Subjectivity is front and center in any decision making. Facts can inform decisions, but values take on equal importance. This is true whether the decision is personal or a public policy. Purely rational decisions are not possible. Purely emotional decisions – ignoring the facts – often lead to regrets. Even catastrophes.

Placing a Value on Scientific Objectivity

Advocating for objective scientific inquiry is indeed a political statement. And it’s one that good objective scientists of all political persuasions can make with integrity. Without strong public support for scientific pursuits, funding will wither. Attention to facts will fade.

Nutrition and obesity research could benefit from advocacy for more objective scientific inquiry. Too many policies to address obesity flow purely from bias and conjecture. Assumptions that those policies – like taxing sugar sweetened beverages – will work are never really tested.

For example, we are taking for granted that less soda consumption will mean less obesity. It’s a reasonable theory. But real outcomes must be measured. Soda sales are not a health outcome.

So let’s march for science, as hundreds of thousands of people did yesterday. And let’s remember what we’re marching for: objective scientific inquiry.

Click here for more on the intersection of science and activism and here for more on yesterday’s March for Science. For more on the need for more rigorous nutrition and obesity research, click here.

What Do We Want? Photograph by LD May / Twitter

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April 23, 2017

One Response to “Is Scientific Objectivity a Political Statement?”

  1. April 23, 2017 at 6:23 pm, David Brown said:

    “We are at a critical juncture. Science is under attack,” said Cara Santa Maria,… “The very idea of evidence and logic and reason is being threatened by individuals and interests with the power to do real harm…We’re gathered here today to fight for science. We’re gathered to fight for education. To fight for knowledge. And to fight for planet Earth.”

    Probative research refers to evidence that establishes or contributes to proof. In nutrition science, ignoring probative research, certain individuals and interests have indeed done real harm. Case in point is the Harvard School of Public Health and the American Heart Association. Excerpt: “For almost 20 years, scientists have been arguing over whether Americans and others on a typical Western diet are eating too much of omega-6s, a class of essential fatty acids. Some experts, notably ones affiliated with the American Heart Association, credit our current intake of omega-6s with lowering the incidence of cardiovascular disease. Others, which include biochemists, say the relatively high intake of omega-6 is a reason for a slew of chronic illnesses in the Western world, including asthma, various cancers, neurological disorders and cardiovascular disease itself.”

    Walter Willett says, “If you compare butter with calories from refined starch and sugar, it’s going to be pretty much a wash. They’ll both have adverse impacts on metabolic factors and on risk of heart disease and diabetes. However, if you compare butter with the liquid plant oils like soybean oil, olive oil, canola oil, pretty much all the liquid vegetable oils, those plant oils are going to be a whole lot better than butter.”

    University of British Columbia lipids researcher Sanjoy Ghosh sees things in a different light. “North Americans ingest about 10-20 times the amount of n-6 as n-3, largely in the form of refined oils. Corn oil, for example, has an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 46:1 compared to pressed oils such as olive (14:1) and flaxseed (0.3:1). The fact remains that until about 60 years ago, humans were never exposed to such high levels of n-6 PUFA in their evolutionary history.”

    Ghosh says not that long ago, heart disease was supposedly caused by saturated fats—an idea that has become increasingly controversial in recent years. This thinking instigated the intentional removal of saturated fatty acids from most food supplies in favour of MUFA and PUFA. Essentially all fats in our ‘convenience’ foods like potato chips, energy bars, crackers or burgers use cooking oils like corn, sunflower and soybean and margarine—all rich in MUFAs and PUFAs.

    So is the American Heart Association-recommended diet problematic for health. Primate obesity researcher Barbara Hansen seems to think so. “Dr. Hansen, who has been doing research on obese monkeys for four decades, prefers animals that become naturally obese with age, just as many humans do. Fat Albert, one of her monkeys who she said was at one time the world’s heaviest rhesus, at 70 pounds, ate “nothing but an American Heart Association-recommended diet,” she said.”

    The harm done by American scientists and institutions extends across the globe. “Clarified butter remained India’s culinary star for centuries till it was sidelined in the 1980s by vegetable oils because of its high saturated fat. The new oils were aggressively marketed as superior and heart-healthy. Of late, research has shown that saturated fats have no link to obesity, heart disease or early death.”

    The problem went global due to policy transfer from the United States to nations that lacked the funds to carry out scientific investigations. Ironically, the demise of the anti-saturated fat campaign, if it takes place any time soon, will end up moving in reverse with this country being the last to acknowledge the mistake. “Over the last 50 years, general nutritional wisdom has recommended a moderate consumption of fat. We have been told to dramatically lower our consumption of saturated fats (contained in butter, lard, milk, red meat, coconut oil…) and cholesterol (found in eggs, poultry, beef…). We have also been advised to increase our intake of polyunsaturated fats (contained in soybean, sunflower, corn, cottonseed oil…) and carbohydrates (found in pasta, bread, sugar…). But fat is a complex topic and these recommendations have been debated and questioned over the past 30 years. Some experts believe that these dietary recommendations – closely followed by the US population – are the main cause behind the country’s high obesity levels and the rapidly growing number of people suffering from metabolic syndrome.”

    Meanwhile, both climate science and nutrition science have this in common. “There is enormous pressure for … scientists to conform to the so-called consensus. This pressure comes not only from politicians, but from federal funding agencies, universities and professional societies, and scientists themselves who are green activists. Reinforcing this consensus are strong monetary, reputational, and authority interests…Policy advocacy, combined with understating the uncertainties, risks destroying science’s reputation for honesty and objectivity – without which scientists become regarded as merely another lobbyist group.”