This latest article from the New York Times should surprise absolutely no one who even pays half attention to the food industry. To paraphrase Captain Renault, I am shocked, SHOCKED that there is bias going on in Food Industry studies. From the article:
Of 24 studies of soft drinks, milk and juices financed by the industry, 21 had results favorable or neutral to the industry, and 3 were unfavorable, according to the research led by Dr. David S. Ludwig, director of the Optimal Weight for Life Program at Children’s Hospital Boston and an associate professor at the Harvard Medical School.
Of 52 studies with no industry financing, 32 were favorable or neutral to the industry and 20 were unfavorable. The biases are similar to findings for pharmaceuticals.
Bias in nutrition studies, Dr. Ludwig said, may be more damaging than bias in drug studies because food affects everyone.
“These conflicts could produce a very large bias in the scientific literature, influence the government’s dietary guidelines which are science based,ˮ he said in an interview. “They also influence the advice health care providers give their patients and F.D.A. regulations of food claims. That’s a top-order threat to public health.ˮ
But the funniest quote comes from in the following paragraphs.
The American Beverage Association, which sponsored at least one study in the article, said the authors had their own biases.
“This is yet another attack on the industry by activists who demonstrate their own biases in their review by looking only at the funding sources and not judging the research on its merits,ˮ the president of the trade group, Susan K. Neely, said in a statement.
It seems that Ms. Neely either doesn’t understand the basis of the Scientific Method, or wishes to spin the negative press her industry just received by saying, in essence, “Yeah, but this report has bias too!” What’s missing from her assertion of bias? Oh yeah, a simple thing called evidence.
What we’re seeing here is the age-old battle between scientists and public relations. Let’s see how this battle plays out.
Step One: Scientists create a hypothesis. For example “Food studies sponsored by food companies are biased”.
Step Two: Scientists seek evidence that will either prove or disprove their hypothesis. In this example, scientists used statistical analysis that found that Food Industry sponsored studies have a 12% chance of being unfavorable to the food industry.
Step Three: Scientists then compare this data against a control group. In this example – Food studies not sponsored by the Food Industry, where it is found that it is likely that such a study will have a 38% chance of being unfavorable to the food industry.
Step Four: As a 26% deviation between the study and control group is noteworthy, the scientists then note said deviation by writing up a study.
Step Five: News organizations also believe that the deviation is noteworthy, and create a news article based on the aforementioned study. In order to give the appearance that the story is also free of bias, the writer of the article searches for contrary opinions.
Step Six: Instead of contacting a scientist (or anyone else who uses an approximation of the scientific method), the journalist contacts a president of a food industry trade group. This president is unlikely to advocate against the food industry because their job is specifically designed to advocate for the food industry. It should be noted that having a job that entails advocating for the good of an industry is very nearly the definition of bias.
Step Seven: The very biased president of the food industry trade group calls “Bias” against the scientist who used the unbiased scientific method.
The evidence provided by the president? Bias exists in the scientist’s report because…wait for it…the president of the trade group said so.
Step Eight: I repeatedly slam my forehead against my desk.
See also Derrick’s post yesterday for a more in depth look at Cordelia’s Dilemma, something which may be pervasive in food-industry sponsored studies.