Follow Me, Satan

Do We Follow the Science? Or Something Else?

It’s a wildly popular catchphrase in this age of COVID-19. Follow the science. The video on the right is packed with cautionary tales by Rohin Francis. In short, he explains that when policy makers say they’re following the science, it’s often a fiction. Mangling the science might be a more apt description.

Mangling the Science on COVID-19

Francis has a litany of examples. He starts with ibuprofen. Early in the pandemic, government agencies issued warnings against using it in COVID patients. The WHO endorsed the warning. They were following the science, of course. In this case the science was a single line of speculation in a paper that was entirely hypothetical.

Pre-prints have compounded the problem. These are papers that get published without peer review for the purpose of promoting dialogue and debate. They have their place. But they cannot provide reliable science for policy makers to follow.

Likewise, journals have rushed to publish studies on COVID-19, sometimes erring. Retraction Watch has a running list of 32 COVID papers retracted to date. Two of the most notable of these retractions were made by Lancet and NEJM. So no one is immune from making mistakes when they claim to follow the science.

Follow Science or Bias?

Mistakes when following the science on COVID-19 are, of course, especially visible right now. Less visible are the innumerable examples in nutrition and obesity research where following science is used as an excuse for promoting policies that feel right. But in fact, we have no adequate science to tell us they will be effective.

We hear numerous proclamations that taxing sugar-sweetened beverages is highly effective for combating obesity. But in fact, these policies seem to be more of a holy war than a science-based strategy. In this holy war, one article of faith is that simple carbohydrates in liquids will cause more weight gain than in solid foods. It comes from a single study comparing jelly beans to soda in 15 normal weight individuals. The exposures to sodas and jelly beans were only for four weeks.

From these 15 subjects, you can find more than a thousand references in scientific literature. Those 15 people are the foundation for countless policy arguments telling us with certainty that liquid calories will make us fat – more so than calories in solid foods. It is an article of faith driving policy all over the world.

And yet, two decades of declines in soda consumption have not brought us declines in obesity.


A commitment to core principles and convictions is indeed important. But we would do well to distinguish between guiding principles and scientific facts. They are easy to conflate. So when people tell you that they are following the science, you might want to look closely at the strength of the science they are following. It might be that they are following their gut instead.

For more on following the science in our polarized world, click here.

Follow Me, Satan; painting by Ilya Repin / WikiArt

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August 31, 2020