Pieces of Me

Resistance to Facts Pops Up in Nutrition Research

A popular meme tells us that we’re living in a post fact era. Consistent with that idea, Julia Shaw writes in Scientific American that she’s a scientist and she doesn’t believe in facts. But on the other side of the fence, we have folks like Daniel Engber telling us it’s a bogus story. Resistance to facts might pop up from time to time, but facts will always win the day.

We’re with him, but it’s still a struggle.

A Case Study in Nutrition

For a troubling case study, we turn to the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Back in February, Marlene Wewalka and colleagues published a randomized study comparing the effects of fat and sugar in enteral nutrition formulas. The question might help shed some light on current debates about the role of sugars in health.

But unfortunately, the researchers used flawed analyses. A group of distinguished researchers, led by Stephanie Dickinson, found the errors and wrote to the journal, requesting a correction.

To their credit, the original authors took the request seriously and conducted new analyses. And they found that their overall results did not reach statistical significance. Probably, the sample size was too small, they said. So far, so good.

However, rather than yield to the facts, Wewalka et al insisted that their original conclusion was correct:

Nonetheless, we are convinced that our conclusion concerning a secondary endpoint that diet-induced thermogenesis is higher in patients receiving fat-based enteral nutrition, can be drawn.

Protecting the Credibility of Science

The fact is that science does enjoy a high measure of credibility. For example, a recent study suggests that people put more trust in scientists than in government experts. So protecting that credibility really matters.

Human nature is full of bias, and confirmation bias lives at the top of the heap. We look for data to confirm what we already believe. So it’s not surprising that researchers might resist conceding an error.

In such cases a scientific journal has an obligation to act and protect its reputation for scientific integrity. Either that, or watch its credibility fade.

Click here for the study by Wewalka et al, here for the letter about its errors, and here for the response to those errors.

Pieces of Me, photograph © Janine / flickr

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July 30, 2018

3 Responses to “Resistance to Facts Pops Up in Nutrition Research”

  1. July 30, 2018 at 9:27 am, Michael said:

    Facts are notions that appear to be true at a point in time. History is full of examples of scientific facts that are now seen as silly (e.g. hysteria caused by wandering wombs). The purpose of science is to test supposed facts refine our understanding. Science is a never ending journey.

  2. July 31, 2018 at 2:29 pm, Richard said:

    It appears that Michael leans toward Julia Shaw’s interpretation of facts and science. “Wandering wombs” could never have been a scientific fact – only a hypothesis based on ignorance of the time. Scientists develop hypotheses all the time, but good scientists don’t confuse hypotheses with facts. Observations that appear to prove a hypothesis may not even be “facts” so scientists should be willing to discard even their most revered hypotheses if evidence proves them wrong.

  3. August 07, 2018 at 8:59 am, Fatima said:

    I agree with Richard – after reading Julia Shaw’s article, I think we are discussing interpretations of facts rather than facts. It’s the interpretations that change in the light of new evidence, rather than the facts themselves.