Force and Reason

Academic Bullying Doesn’t Belong in Public Health

Back in 2005, new obesity research from CDC produced an unexpected finding. JAMA, a first-rate journal, carefully peer-reviewed and published it. But Harvard’s Walter Willett didn’t like what the data showed. So he mounted an offensive to discredit the researcher and her work. We would call this academic bullying. He called it necessary because his cause was righteous:

“I could just write a letter to the editor, as one usually would in scientific discourse, but it would come out months later and nobody would see it. I was quite conscious that there might be people unhappy, but I think it was important to do this. If we had not made a visible statement here, I think the public would continue to be confused about whether it’s really good to be gaining weight into the overweight range.”

Will Being Overweight Kill You?

The finding that Willett and his Harvard School of Public Health colleagues did not like was all about having overweight that falls short of outright obesity. The study, by Katherine Flegal and colleagues at the CDC, found that this does not predict a premature death.

Diana Thomas, a Professor of Mathematics at the U.S. Military Academy,  said of Flegal’s work:

“She laid it out very carefully — her 2013 meta-analysis was the gold standard.”

But Willett wanted to bury this study. He told NPR at the time:

“This study is really a pile of rubbish and no one should waste their time reading it.”

His wish did not come true. Flegal’s 2005 study has been cited in scientific publications 3,709 times. Her 2013 systematic review and meta-analysis has earned 3,801 citations.

Complaining to the Director

Nonetheless, Willett kept going with his campaign. He went so far as to call the Director of the CDC to complain – evoking the entitled mindset of I demand to speak to the manager. Willett told NPR, “Kathy Flegal just doesn’t get it.” [Her name is Katherine, she notes.]

Former students at Harvard’s School of Public Health even recall professors disparaging Flegal’s weight [“a little bit plump”] as a reason to dismiss her findings.

A Decade of Disparagement

Flegal described more than a decade when she was a target of disparagement by Willett and some of his colleagues at Harvard. But Willett has no regrets. Regarding Flegal’s account of his campaign to discredit her, Willett told Amy Crawford, a writer for the Boston Globe:

“Her description is mostly correct, and she shouldn’t have been surprised. I did describe her paper as rubbish, and I do stand by it.”

Abhorrent Behavior

Academic bullying has no place in scientific inquiry. But it occurs with dismaying frequency. Dean David Allison of the Indiana University School of Public Health says:

“The behaviors that Dr. Flegal reports receiving would have been surprising to me early in my career where I did not understand how vicious, malicious, and nonscientific are the tactics that many fellow academics and scientists are willing to use to combat ideas and data they do not like. Today, such reports sadden but do not surprise me.”

To Alice Dreger, author of Galileo’s Middle Finger, this is all very familiar. Big egos in science get tangled up with the ideas they promote. They become convinced that they are righteous and that people who see things differently are evil.

Public Health Credibility Suffers

So as it can happen in politics, the facts become inconvenient. Scientific discourse is cumbersome. Rushing to the microphone with an ad hominem becomes an attractive option.

In the process, the credibility of public health suffers. People can recognize academic bullying when they see it. It’s not OK.

Click here for Flegal’s paper describing this experience. For excellent reporting on this from Amy Crawford, click here. Finally, you can find further perspective here and here from ConscienHealth.

Force and Reason, painting by John Duncan / WikiArt

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July 17, 2021

2 Responses to “Academic Bullying Doesn’t Belong in Public Health”

  1. July 17, 2021 at 11:41 am, Todd I Stark said:

    Thanks for your reporting on this. I think it’s important to hold prominent researchers accountable for respecting and upholding the ethical norms of science. Willett is far too influential to let his bad behavior go without attention. If he truly thinks peer reviewed and widely cited work is “rubbish” his duty is to dig into it and show how exactly it goes wrong, not to merely try delegitimize the work in sweeping terms. Taking a moralistic posture about conclusions he thinks are wrong and then attacking the authors, as so far seems to be happening is simply not acceptable behavior in my opinion. Personally I think it also reflects badly on his character as well as his scientific ethos.

    I’d be interested in seeing a review of the data that was used to define the classes originally, and the rationale for defining “overweight.” My assumption has so far been that it came originally from mortality and morbidity statistics, perhaps actuarial data? I’m sure there are other lines of argument though.

  2. July 18, 2021 at 3:48 am, John Dixon said:

    It’s so sad to hear that Katherine Flegal has been subject to such bullying. When quality data runs against our beliefs we should recognize the work. Look at the spectrum of data in the area understand the nuances and move on.
    You see Katherine has rigorously defended the data. And her appraisal is identical to that of life data from the US that accompanied the introduction of BMI as metric. No the data has not changed but was never interpreted properly in the first place.
    The concept that a BMI of 18.5 to 25 is normal and best for health from age 18 years has been a belief but runs counter to a vast array of evidence.
    I applaud Katherine for her work and defense scientific evidence that runs counter to commonly held beliefs.

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