A Scathing Indictment of Federally-Funded Nutrition Research

Edward Archer of the University of South Carolina, lead author of a scathing examination of U.S. federally-funded nutrition research, has written an even more scathing editorial in The Scientist (here) (H/t Margaret Wente of the Toronto Globe and Mail here.)

Some quotes:

We may be witnessing the confluence of two inherent components of the human condition: incompetence and self-interest

And while the self-correcting nature of science necessitates failure, the vast majority of nutrition’s failures were engendered by a complete lack of familiarity with the scientific method.

Rather than training graduate students in the scientific method, and allowing their research to serve the needs of society, the field’s leaders choose to train their mentees to serve only their own professional needs—namely, to obtain grant funding and publish their research.

But by not training mentees in the basics of science and skepticism, the nutrition field has fostered the use of measures that are so profoundly dissonant with scientific principles that they will never yield a definitive conclusion. As such, we now have multiple generations of nutrition researchers who dominate federal nutrition research and the peer review of that work, but lack the critical thinking skills necessary to critique or conduct sound scientific research.

The subjective data yielded by poorly formulated nutrition studies are also the perfect vehicle to perpetuate a never-ending cycle of ambiguous findings leading to ever-more federal funding.

Archer culminates with the following allegation (going much further than any of my comparatively mild critiques of climate scientists):

Perhaps more importantly, to waste finite health research resources on pseudo-quantitative methods and then attempt to base public health policy on these anecdotal “data” is not only inane, it is willfully fraudulent… The fact that nutrition researchers have known for decades that these techniques are invalid implies that the field has been perpetrating fraud against the US taxpayers for more than 40 years—far greater than any fraud perpetrated in the private sector (e.g., the Enron and Madoff scandals).

The study was not funded by the U.S. federal government, but by an “unrestricted research grant” from Coca-Cola.

This study was funded via an unrestricted research grant from The Coca-Cola Company. The sponsor of the study had no role in the study design, data collection, data analysis, data interpretation, or writing of the report.

I wonder if federally-funded nutrition scientists will respond with attacks on the Coke Brothers.


  1. R
    Posted Nov 11, 2013 at 3:37 PM | Permalink

    “Rather than training graduate students in the scientific method, and allowing their research to serve the needs of society, the field’s leaders choose to train their mentees to serve only their own professional needs—namely, to obtain grant funding and publish their research.”

    Prevalent in many fields…

    • AntonyIndia
      Posted Nov 12, 2013 at 4:00 AM | Permalink

      If correct this has been going on for 30 years in the US “National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey Caloric Energy Intake Data”!

  2. rogerknights
    Posted Nov 11, 2013 at 3:48 PM | Permalink

    The problem is more general; see here:

    Daniel S. Greenberg is a Washington-based journalist who has recently turned to fiction after a long career writing about science policy and politics. He is the author of three non-fiction books, “The Politics of Pure Science,” “Science, Money, and Politics,” and “Science for Sale,” all published by the University of Chicago Press. His novel, “Tech Transfer: Science, Money, Love, and the Ivory Tower,” published in 2010, was described by the New York Times as “a hilarious” and “mordant satire about scientists and universities and how they do business.” (NY Times, Science section, book review, May 25, 2010).

    Greenberg has served as a reporter for the Washington Post, as news editor of Science magazine, and as a columnist for the New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet. For many years, he wrote an op-ed column that appeared in the Washington Post and other newspapers, and contributed to many publications, including the New York Times, the Economist, Harper’s, Smithsonian, Nature, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He founded and for 25 years edited Science & Government Report, an international newsletter which was acquired by John Wiley & Sons in 1997.

    Some of his books are cheap in used versions, available here:

    • Geoff Sherrington
      Posted Nov 11, 2013 at 11:25 PM | Permalink

      If you are into reading, the whole cycle of activism is diligently reported in “The Apocalyptics” by Edith Efron, Simon & Schuster 1985. The topic is the Establishment scare whipped up to claim that man-made chemicals were causing an epidemic of cancers.
      This is valuable reading because the end game and its characteristics are reported. The start of the end is the migration of advocates, to the minority opposition benches.

  3. DaveO
    Posted Nov 11, 2013 at 3:56 PM | Permalink

    I wonder if federally-funded nutrition scientists will respond with attacks on the Coke Brothers.

    No researchers in this field have ever, to our knowledge, “serve only their own professional needs—namely, to obtain grant funding and publish their research.” It is somewhat disappointing to find this specious claim (which we usually find originating from industry-funded beverage disinformation websites) appearing in this forum.

  4. ianl8888
    Posted Nov 11, 2013 at 4:18 PM | Permalink

    Argumentum ad Hominen rules, ok ?

    Recently, I showed my Irish brother-in-law (who is innocent of any scientific leanings or knowledge) the two controversial graphs from AR5 (yes, the one from the Final Draft and its’ ugly sibling from the final document). His comment was: “Who fiddled the data in the draft graph ?”

    Ad hom works. Everyone knows that CocaCola rots innocent children’s teeth out

  5. jorgekafkazar
    Posted Nov 11, 2013 at 4:28 PM | Permalink

    Those Coke brothers and their carbon-laden drinks full of hydrogen hydroxide pyrohydrate!

  6. Posted Nov 11, 2013 at 4:29 PM | Permalink

    Wente’s column is nonsense. She wrote:

    “New findings published in The Lancet say vitamin D supplements don’t seem to improve your bone density after all – or anything else.”

    The Lancet study said nothing about “anything else”. It was only about bone density. Vitamin D supplements have hundreds of possible benefits.

    Archer’s claims about the importance of his work are only slightly less exaggerated. If he thinks that nutrition scientists have failed to understand what causes obesity because of the measurement errors he points out . . . that is quite a leap.

    • MrPete
      Posted Nov 11, 2013 at 5:40 PM | Permalink

      Re: Seth Roberts (Nov 11 16:29),
      Here’s a nice graphic with links to sources demonstrating Seth’s point. Many uses of Vitamin D are apparently well supported by various studies.

      On the other hand, Archer’s claim seems not so easy to dismiss. While the data may support a general sense of what causes obesity, when there are humongous measurement errors piled on top of model errors… we’re left with very little than can be said with confidence.

  7. Posted Nov 11, 2013 at 5:10 PM | Permalink

    if this is real science, then there shoulkd be factual results…. This post is a lot too normative to enable this real information to come to light.

  8. Posted Nov 11, 2013 at 5:49 PM | Permalink

    Reblogged this on pdx transport.

  9. Ripantuck
    Posted Nov 11, 2013 at 6:01 PM | Permalink

    Agree with Seth Roberts. Wente is taking a specific study on a specific effect of vitamin D and then generalizing the conclusion to cover all benefits of vitamin D. Then she further generalizes to cover all vitamins and supplements. Utter nonsense.

    Certainly, Archer has a point. But his point seems to be that Govt funded nutrition research is very sloppy and unreliable. It does not follow that nutrition has little or no effect on health.

    • ianl8888
      Posted Nov 11, 2013 at 6:08 PM | Permalink

      But his point seems to be that Govt funded nutrition research is very sloppy and unreliable. It does not follow that nutrition has little or no effect on health

      Yes, of course. Archer’s point however is that the twain appear to have not yet met

  10. Posted Nov 11, 2013 at 6:50 PM | Permalink

    Isn’t the conclusion of the paper that “U.S. federally-funded nutrition research” has found that people are consuming less calories than they used to despite the obesity epidemic? And the underlying conclusion is that researchers have screwed up because there can’t be an obesity epidemic if people are consuming fewer calories. A calorie is a calorie is the old mantra. It doesn’t matter if that calorie is protein, carbohydrates or fat.

    However, some researchers like Gary Taubes believe that a calorie is not a calorie and that metabolically it makes a difference whether you eat carbohydrates or protein or fat.

    Isn’t the paper you are discussing just part of a turf war?

    Steve: I am merely recording a scathing opinion on statistical methods. I have no opinion on the issues in dispute.

    • AntonyIndia
      Posted Nov 12, 2013 at 3:43 AM | Permalink

      “Steve: I am merely recording a scathing opinion on statistical methods. I have no opinion on the issues in dispute.”

      Very noble but after seeing this on top of the article: “The was an error in the Competing Interests section. The correct version of the section is available below. Dr. Gregory Hand has received consultancy fees from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and grants from the NIH, and The Coca-Cola Company” a large number of (re)searchers won’t continue reading the content.
      Those @#&!$ MNCs again!

    • AntonyIndia
      Posted Nov 12, 2013 at 4:30 AM | Permalink

      “Weak statistical standards implicated in scientific irreproducibility” Nature, 11 November 2013 http://www.nature.com/news/weak-statistical-standards-implicated-in-scientific-irreproducibility-1.14131

    • Tony Mach
      Posted Nov 12, 2013 at 6:41 AM | Permalink

      I do have opinion on the issues in dispute.

      While I think Garry Taubes is somewhat wrong on these issues (an focus on macronutrients is misguided, IMHO), I think he is far far less wrong than the accepted wisdom in nutritional “sciences” (which more resembles a collection of biases). I think (as in all things biology related), one can only understand the current situation through “the light of evolution” (to quote Dobzhansky) – looking at the spectrum of what is called “Paleo Diet” is a helpful start IMHO.

      BTW: “Healthy” is scientifically undefined (unlike the term “essential”). If you think “healthy” is a scientific term, then as an exercise try to define whether drinking-water (or pure water, for that matter) is healthy.

      Explicitly I would advise anybody interested to critically examine the accepted nutritional status of the following products (“healthy” vs. unhealthy)
      – Milk/dairy (especially pasteurized milk)
      – Saturated fat
      – Polyunsaturated fat (with a special emphasis on seed oils)
      – Cereal grains (especially wheat)
      I think in these areas the established consensus is grossly wrong, and does not reflect reality with regards to human health.

      (As an not so important bonus, you could look into red meat and salt)

      IMHO, many of the perceived “healthy” foods are actually unhealthy (some more, some less), and some of the perceived healthy practices are either useless (e.g. reduction in red meat) or might even be dangerous (e.g. reduction in salt). On the other hand some the perceived unhealthy foods/nutrients (e.g. sat fat) are either neutral with regards to nutrition, or their dangers are blown hugely out of proportion (e.g. processed meat).

      As a rule of thumb, I would advise not to trust anybody who wants to scare you about the dangerous effects of something. For reference see CO2. For a dietary reference I would recommend the past scare about “dietary cholesterol”, which seems to fade into our collective memory hole… As an educated guess: Currently next up seems to be the scare about salt, which will be followed by the scare about saturated fat.

      (And if you want to *know*, you can run an scientific experiment, change your nutrition, record your changes in health. Unfortunately experiments with regards to health and nutrition are problematic, to say the least. However, in my personal opinion – which may be wrong – trying a “Paleo” type diet is far far less risky and far far less dangerous than trying the recommendations of the USDA/AHA/ADA and so.)

      • Tony Mach
        Posted Nov 12, 2013 at 7:00 AM | Permalink

        One more thing: If one is interested, I can highly recommend looking up Seth Roberts blog (I have seen him once comment on this blog some time ago, BTW).

      • Mooloo
        Posted Nov 12, 2013 at 2:10 PM | Permalink

        Tony, you say

        IMHO, many of the perceived “healthy” foods are actually unhealthy

        Followed then by

        As a rule of thumb, I would advise not to trust anybody who wants to scare you about the dangerous effects of something.

        So, which is it? Are we to follow your scary story about how bad milk, cereal grains etc are? Or are we to take your advice and not be scared by such stories about bad diets?

        I sense a dose of the “modern things are bad for us” vibe that the eco-greens are so fond of. Just you focus on diet, whereas they tend to focus on environment. I note that a huge number of most witless greens are into the whole vegan/paleo thing, which can hardly be coincidence.

  11. Speed
    Posted Nov 11, 2013 at 6:54 PM | Permalink

    There is an interesting he said/she said pair of editorials about risks of MI and stroke arising from supplemental calcium and vitamin D.

    Does Widespread Calcium Supplementation Pose Cardiovascular Risk?
    Yes: The Potential Risk Is a Concern

    Does Widespread Calcium Supplementation Pose Cardiovascular Risk?
    No: Concerns Are Unwarranted

    Ian R. Reid is a coauthor on the first study.

    What’s a mother to do?

    • JCM
      Posted Nov 12, 2013 at 10:36 AM | Permalink

      ” Moderation in all things ” – Quinton Hogg

  12. MikeS
    Posted Nov 11, 2013 at 8:12 PM | Permalink

    There is a really interesting media storm going down in Australia at the moment over a controversial documentary put to air by the ABC’s Catalyst science show. Over two episodes, the show ‘explores’ whether the link between cardio-vascular disease and cholestorol is a myth, and moves from there on to the role of drug companies in supposed over-subscription of statins. http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/heartofthematter/default.htm
    It is interesting on many levels. The relevance of this to nutrition will be clear below….

    – Since the program aired, there has been a huge jump in people questioning their doctors, and taking themselves off statin medication.
    – The medical fraternity are outraged, and say this will result in loss of life.
    – They say the mainstream scientific view is badly mis-represnted,and that the coverage is biased, unbalanced and highly favourable towards a minority view.
    – The ABC’s own MediaWatch program agrees – not on scientific grounds, but on journalistic quality – I have to agree.
    (this is a good starting point to the debate, with useful links outwards http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s3888657.htm)
    – The three ‘sceptic’ doctors who received most airplay in the documentary all retail and market their own brands of alternative health products – this clear conflict of interest was ignored.

    The comments in the MediaWatch link are very revealing – they reveal an amazingly high level of suspicion and distrust about the motives of the medical/drug industry. But an equal lack of concern with evidence or science – except for personal experiences, anecdotes and beliefs (weather vs climate??)

    It is like looking at the issues surrounding climate science/advocacy in one of those weird distorting mirror rooms.

  13. nanny_govt_sucks
    Posted Nov 11, 2013 at 11:16 PM | Permalink

    Thank goodness the problem is strictly limited to nutrition research.

  14. Geoff Sherrington
    Posted Nov 11, 2013 at 11:19 PM | Permalink

    There are many ‘foods’ or supplements that have a little-understood basis of value, but this lack of information does not stop the promotional enthusiast. I’ve written articles about the silliness of anti-oxidants, a current fad, but they have had zero impact. Readers seem to think “They should not do any harm if I swallow them and they might do some of the good that is claimed, so I’ll take the risk and hope I’ll be better off on balance.”

    While such anti-oxidants are not a clear and present danger, the same cannot be said for the element lead. Scientific friends started to publish papers contradicting the common belief that traces of lead ingested by children will impair intelligence. One colleague, Pam de Silva, did the rather elementary step of measuring how much solid matter a typical child ingested. She reported in part

    “Recent estimates of the amount of soil a small child ingests have been based on the analysis of soil tracer elements in feces and food. The best of these gave median soil ingestion estimates of 9 to 96 mg/day depending on the tracer element. This article presents a different approach to the problem using data on the blood lead levels of children living on sites heavily contaminated with lead. This approach gives a soil ingestion estimate of about 4 mg/day. de Silva, P.E.: How Much Soil Do Children Ingest—A New Approach. Appl. Occup. Environ. Hyg. 9(1):40–43; 1994.”

    Her unpublished work showed estimates that varied by more than 2 orders of magnitude. This is not a good span of error for proper decision making.

    However, in the spirit of “We know best, trust us” the decision had already been made that lead would be demonised before it was properly studied, because it was obviously a known poison for children. The subsequent banning of leaded petrol had large cost and trade consequences even though it was based on “directed”, flawed, incomplete research. For the untested minority view, see http://www.dnacih.com/SILVA.htm

    The scientific deficiency is in common with to the obesity stories above, with anti-oxidants and with many instances of so-called ‘skeptics’ challenging Establishment Science on global warming.

    There is a fever present in the conduct of much science today.

  15. EdeF
    Posted Nov 12, 2013 at 12:50 AM | Permalink

    Very hard to do nutritional controlled experiments. You would have to give similar
    foot and drink to the participants over an extended time-frame. For Vitamin D studies,
    you would have to have a good idea of the amount of natural Vit D in the diet, and
    monitor or record the amount of natural sunlight, since this influences Vit D absorption. People do not absorb nutrients to the same degree, especially if there
    is some pathology involved. Lots and lots of floating variables. Greatest experiment in nutrional history was the British Navy condensing meat broth to fight scurvy on their
    long voyages. In the developed world, we have done a fairly good job of eradicating
    the main deficiency diseases; ie, pelegra, scurvy, beri-beri by having a secure,
    year-round food supply including a wide variety of foods. Our problems are mainly
    too much of a good thing.

  16. Posted Nov 12, 2013 at 1:27 AM | Permalink

    Following the Economist’s article on what’s wrong with science two weeks ago, The Greek fellow whose name I cannot spell (Iannides?) two years ago and similar articles on biochemistry, oncology and (dare I say it) climate change over the past few years, a pattern seems to be emerging.

    More scientists and more papers do not seem to lead inevitably to more science.

    • stan
      Posted Nov 12, 2013 at 10:36 AM | Permalink

      When someone expresses surprise at my criticism of contemporary academia, I tell them to check out:

      * Amgen’s effort to replicate

      * Bayer’s effort to replicate

      * Steve Mc’s many efforts to audit

      * McKitrick and McCullough’s Fraser Inst paper

      * Transcript of the Investigation interview of Monnet re: his polar bear study

      * Matt Briggs’ takedowns of various studies

      * Ionnides paper

      * Keenan’s report on AR5 (note his commentary on radiocarbon dating)

      * Tetlock’s work on expert predictions

      Additions appreciated.

  17. Morley Sutter
    Posted Nov 12, 2013 at 3:02 AM | Permalink

    As a retired medical scientist, I agree that the grant system can influence topics for investigation and promote uniformity in what is investigated. There is another distorting factor however, lack of understanding and sloppy use of the methods of science. The reasons for this are complex but include faults with both scientists and the news media. The brief essay that follows encapsulates a common problem.

    The Curse of Correlations

    Mythology is filled with what might be called disguised or devilish curses. I suggest that in modern times we too have such a curse: seeking correlations and widely reporting them.

    An example of a devilish and disguised curse in Greek mythology involved Cassandra who could foretell the future but no one believed what she described. She was cursed by not being believed. But was it not marvelous that she could see into the future? The curse was disguised by having this super power; the devil was the result of having it.

    And then, there is the supposedly Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times. This is a disguised curse in which the word “interesting” is devilishly ambivalent.

    A very common disguised and potentially devilish curse in our society is the widespread and repeated reporting in the news media of observations that say: “X is linked to Y”. “Linked” is a euphemism for correlated and is interpreted by many as causation. This mistake leads to a great deal of confusion.

    The use of computers and computerized records allows many observational studies to be performed and widely publicized. Such studies are a potential benefit but can provide only clues but no conclusions. More importantly, the intellectual hazard of confusing correlation with causation can transform the communication of these observations into a curse.

    Correlation is when two events appear to be related to one another. The question then arises whether the event that occurred first has caused the second. A classical, simple example is when the rooster crows at sun rise. Does the crow of the rooster cause the sun to rise? Our ancestors had a Latin phrase to describe the sequence: “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc” (After this, therefore because of this). When the first event is presumed to cause the second, but does not, this logical error is called “a post-hoc fallacy”.

    Every textbook or course on reasoning, philosophy, or statistics emphasizes that: “Correlation does not equal causation” or “Correlation does not prove causation”.

    Yet equating correlation with causation permeates our daily life. It bedevils journalism and public debate. The potential consequences are confused thinking, irrational argument and wrong-headed decisions.

    Causality cannot be demonstrated by observation alone except in very special circumstances namely, when testing and verifying models. Interventional experiments otherwise are required. If the suspected causal agent is altered and the expected result no longer occurs, this is reasonable evidence that the first event was responsible for the second. On the other hand, if the rooster is killed for the pot and the sun still comes up, this is good evidence that the crow of that rooster did not cause the sun to come up. This sounds absurd but consider when sacrifices of humans or animals were made by the ancients to ensure a good harvest. Would one dare stop the practice to see whether a good harvest still ensued?

    We might laugh at our ancestors who believed that the night air was dangerous to breathe, that it caused associated illness. This is the root of our word malaria (bad air), a group of diseases that we now know are caused by a parasite transmitted by night-time mosquitoes. However, consider how many of our problems and illnesses are reported to be “linked” to something else. Current examples are: Brain tumours possibly linked to cell phone usage; Heart attacks linked to stress; Heart attacks linked to fat intake; Childhood obesity linked to watching television; Global warming linked to carbon dioxide and so on. Definitive proof of a causal relationship between any of these paired phenomena is lacking yet all are reported as if they are causally related. We do not know which ones are and which ones are not. This is a modern hidden, devilish curse – the curse of correlation, its widespread reportage, inferring causation and the inevitable ensuing confusion.

    • Beta Blocker
      Posted Nov 12, 2013 at 12:32 PM | Permalink

      Re: Morley Sutter (Nov 12 03:02),

      ….. Heart attacks linked to stress; Heart attacks linked to fat intake; Childhood obesity linked to watching television; Global warming linked to carbon dioxide and so on. ….

      Speaking as someone who spent too much time as a child watching television, and who has probably consumed too many double whoppers with bacon & cheese over the past two decades, is it scientifically appropriate to state that “Watching too much television loads the dice in favor of obesity,” or that “Eating too many of your favorite double-patty hamburgers with bacon & cheese loads the dice in favor of suffering a heart attack.”

      • krischel
        Posted Nov 12, 2013 at 2:17 PM | Permalink

        I disagree. It’s more appropriate to say “Eating too many of the buns on your favorite double-patty hamburgers loads the dice in favor of suffering a heart attack.”

        You’ve mistakenly conflated the chronic toxic effects of carbohydrates with healthy red meat, bacon, and cheese consumption. Someone following your original construction would mistakenly reduce their protein and fat intake, and actually load the dice even further as they ate whole wheat bread and sugary fruits.

  18. Posted Nov 12, 2013 at 3:15 AM | Permalink

    One thing that climate science and nutrition studies have in common is that they’re trying to establish causal patterns over long periods – decades or longer. Nobody keeps a diary of temperature records expecting to refer to it decades later, just as nobody can remember what they ate ten years ago. Objective data collection is therefore much harder than theorising.
    I see the same thing in studies of language learning. The work you put in studying a language now may bear fruit in ten or twenty years’ time. But how to quantify the differing experiences of subjects over such long periods? On the other hand, the prize of developing a better teaching system makes it worth trying, and encourages all kinds of “quick fix” charlatanism.
    Maybe scientists should take some lessons in data collection and assessment from historians, who have long learned to accept the fact that their data will always be imperfect. Before the tree ring and the ice core, temperatures were interpreted from records of grape harvests preserved in monastery archives. Difficult to gauge to a tenth of a degree, but surely a better indicator of how humans experienced the climate – which is what interests us, after all.

  19. Peter Whale
    Posted Nov 12, 2013 at 3:50 AM | Permalink

    The main reason for these wrong funded studies is the basic education that seems to close down critical thinking. How you expect independent thought when ideas and concepts are drummed into the student without the caveat of not to accept or reject without reasoning and then to hold that idea as an approximation until another concept comes along for a better approximate view. When your concepts are vigorously reinforced by tax funded peers and your own work depends on it especially in academia, it takes extraordinary willpower to hold the not accept or reject notion.
    The scientific method of the great and good like Feynman,Einstein,Newton and all the other critical thinkers in most fields of science needs to be taught. It shows them with all their foibles and prejudices and allows the right for people to be wrong and then keep searching for the next best view.

    • Mooloo
      Posted Nov 12, 2013 at 2:15 PM | Permalink

      And yet all the great advances of science in the past were in societies which had much higher levels of regard for both authority and rote learning. You idea that modern education is too restrictive is wrong-headed.

      Anyone teaching a modern 14 year old will know that the idea that you can stifle independent thought is insane. The Soviets couldn’t, and they tried harder than anyone.

  20. David L. Hagen
    Posted Nov 12, 2013 at 12:49 PM | Permalink

    To partly address such problems, Valen E. Johnson recommends increasing significance standards by 500%. Revised standards for statistical evidence PNAS doi/10.1073/pnas.1313476110 h/t WUWT

  21. timheyes
    Posted Nov 12, 2013 at 2:23 PM | Permalink

    Oh, Steve. You’re obviously in the pay of Big Mac!

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