Political science masquerades real science - June 2016

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Recently a couple of our staff members participated in a program put on by a health and wellness organization about red meat and were surprised to hear them extol the benefits of red meat. After all of the negative publicity on red meat one has to wonder how come we are seeing health companies going the other way. Apparently people are now seeing what many of us have known in that past research which linked diseases to red meat had more to do with political science than real science.

In an article on the Guardian.com, Ian Leslie goes back to almost the beginning of nutritional science and points out that in 1955 when U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower suffered a heart attack he didn't try to hide his health issues like previous presidents had done, but instead made the details public. Immediately afterward his chief physician gave a press conference where Americans were told to stop smoking and cut down on fat and cholesterol in order to avoid heart disease. This advice was predicated on research done by Ancel Keys, a nutritionist at the University of Minnesota.

Ancel Keys advanced the “diet-heart hypothesis” which condemned excess saturated fats in the diet from red meat, cheese, butter and eggs, which he said raised cholesterol. In his article, Mr. Leslie goes on to describe Mr. Keys as “brilliant, charismatic, and combative.”

The mold was set when the President's chief physician utilized Mr. Keys' hypothesis and strong personality to provide an answer American men were looking for as they were experiencing health issues from heart disease.

Now, over 60 years later the fundamental basis of the “diet-heart hypothesis” is being questioned and causality cannot be linked to the correlations used in the 1950s.   Whether this process was the start of how scientists and the news media take some correlated evidence and use it to advance careers and causes is probably a bit of a stretch, but we have been bombarded over the years with claims that this food or that beverage is bad for you. And while this may be beneficial for the scientist’s careers it has created such a credibility gap in our society today that having a scientist proclaim something, especially about nutrition, is received by the public with a huge amount of skepticism. Perhaps that is why when the International Agency for Research on Cancer put bacon into the same category as tobacco smoking and asbestos most people went “ho hum” and went on their merry way eating their bacon breakfast burrito. Of course the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington, D.C. based non-profit organization which promotes a vegan plant-based diet, didn't miss the opportunity to expound about the evils of bacon.

This type of political science isn't just limited to the field of nutrition. In an article in MIT's Technologyreviw.com Merck and Co, one of the world's 10 largest drug companies proposed that if academic discoveries turn out to be wrong, Merck should get its money back. In Merck's case, the company wants research to be reproducible; something we were taught in high school science class was part of the scientific process.

Apparently some folks in the science community have been rushing their results into publications without first checking on whether the results can be reproduced and these publications haven't been doing their due diligence before publishing. The article goes on to talk about AmGen which dropped a bomb on academic science when it said it found only six of fifty-three so called landmark cancer papers stood up to efforts to reproduce the results of promising new research. Perhaps the most interesting quote by Michael Rosenblatt, Merck's executive vice president and chief medical officer is:

“As the public, government, and private funders of research comprehend the extent of the problem, trust in the scientific enterprise erodes, and confidence in the ability of scientific community to address this problem wanes. In addition, there is considerable potential for reputational damage to scientists, universities, and entire fields (for example, cancer biology, genomics and psychology).”

 

Unfortunately when the scientific process loses its credibility, there isn't an alternative we can switch to in order to run our lives. We base many of our rules, regulations and laws on scientific criteria.

AFBF President Duvall has said that phyto-sanitary rules have to be based on science. Without that bedrock, rules can be based entirely on someone's whim. We've seen this in a lot of trade deals with foreign countries. Country A wants to prevent imports from country B and they have a trade agreement, so they trump up a phyto-sanitary issue and use that as an excuse.

Unfortunately we've seen that what masquerades as science sometimes is political science which then gets applied to a restriction. Or, in the case of red meat a recommendation which did not have the scientific background that it should have had. As the health coach on the wellness program stated, “The only con to red meat is that we were told not to eat it.”

By Ken Hamilton, Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation Executive Vice President