Pseudoscience Friday – Sweden abandons “diet dogma” (not), and sugar addiction

This entry is part 11 of 29 in the series Noakes

There are some pieces of information that one could call “zombie facts”, for two reasons – first, they are compromised in terms of their mere existence (zombies don’t exist, and these aren’t facts) and second because they are very difficult to kill.

In February 2012, we learnt that Keanu Reeves had died in a snowboarding accident, and it took myself and a few others most of the day before we managed to get South African Twitter to stop circulating this zombie fact.

When pointing out that the website in question has a footnote attesting to being 100% fake made no difference, I started tweeting that I – and many others – had died also. Go ahead and die for yourself, if you like, by editing this URL.

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Continue reading “Pseudoscience Friday – Sweden abandons “diet dogma” (not), and sugar addiction”

Tuesday miscellany – catching up with Prof Tim Noakes

This entry is part 12 of 29 in the series Noakes

I had intended to link to and comment on a range of things, but then started out writing with reference to Prof. Tim Noakes. And because it’s now time for me to satisfy my carb addiction, that’s all you’ll get (Noakes, I mean, rather than carbs. Each to their own there.)

First, the planned debate between him and Dr. Jonathan Witt will no longer be going ahead. It’s a pity, this, because at least Prof. Noakes would have had to work a little harder to rebut Dr. Witt than he did in rebutting Dr Anthony Dalby, who recently called the Noakes diet “criminal”. Continue reading “Tuesday miscellany – catching up with Prof Tim Noakes”

Religion in schools, religion on your plate

This entry is part 13 of 29 in the series Noakes

A quick update from a broadband-compromised hotel room in Botswana, on two three four matters that will no doubt be of interest to regular readers.

downloadFirst, you might have noticed that a few of us on social media had renewed cause to be exasperated at the Dawkinsian Twitter presence of Prof. Tim Noakes (for those who don’t follow that link, I’m referring to his predilection for saying outrageous things on Twitter, and then blaming the audience for reacting to those utterances).

Fresh from hinting that Robin Williams’ mental turmoil might have been due to his vegetarianism, and from misrepresenting his own words about LCHF diets and their relationship to cancer, dementia and so forth, Noakes thought to make a point about bad science and potential cover-ups of inconvenient data by posting fodder for the anti-vaccination lot.

Nathan Geffen has said enough on the tweet in question, so I’ll not go into it in detail here, except to make two points: one, Noakes’ first defence, when people (rightly) called him out for tweeting “Dishonest science. Proven link between autism and early immunisation covered up?” (with a link to a video about an alleged CDC cover-up) was to say he was “just asking questions”.

Those are weasel-words of the highest order, in that they absolve the speaker of all responsibility for what they are saying, and place the entire interpretive burden and responsibility on the audience. When you are a prominent healthcare professional, operating in full awareness of a context where pseudoscience is rife – and sometimes manifests in anti-vaxxine conspiracy theories, that kill people – your words should be chosen more carefully.

Also, some of you might remember a certain President Mbeki using the “just asking questions” defence regarding HIV/AIDS. Mbeki actually believed in the “alternative” story regarding HIV, so his weasel-words were an attempt to deflect criticism, and gain support for challenging the mainstream hypothesis.

In the case of Noakes, he seems to believe in the consensus view regarding the safety of vaccines, which is comforting. He might have wanted to say “Dishonest science, as in this CDC coverup, is never acceptable – even if the CDC reached the correct conclusion”. He could perhaps even have chosen to clarify the point on noticing how it was being read, instead of doubling-down on blaming his audience for misinterpreting him.

It’s difficult not to misinterpret him when, at the time he tweeted that video, it was mostly to be found floating around on Natural News (home of David Icke – he who thinks Maggie Thatcher was an alien lizard in human form – and other nutters) and on anti-vaxx conspiracy websites. The only non-tinfoil-hat discussion of it that I could find at the time was that of neurologist oncological surgeon David Gorski, who comprehensively debunked it – before Noakes had tweeted it. (The Gorski links are in Geffen’s piece.)

Normally, it would be far too demanding to ask that someone had found and read potential debunkings such as Gorski’s, in advance of sharing a story. But I’d argue that a higher standard applies when tweeting something of this nature, from an account such as his.

There are examples of bad science and cover-ups that don’t run the risk of reinforcing pseudoscience, which could have served as his example of the same point. If this example was to be used, it was incumbent on Noakes to make sure that he wasn’t perpetrating a hoax. Sloppy, and irresponsible, in other words – and the kind of thing that merited a retraction and an apology.

Instead, he’s now asking Geffen to apologise and retract, yesterday commenting with a link to Dr. Thompson’s (the CDC scientist) statement, which Noakes reads as vindicating his tweet. But again, the statement in question had by that time already been extensively discussed and problematised, and more to the point, the paper that exposes the “conspiracy” had already been retracted 6 days earlier.

The Noakes comment is however oblivious to all this, opening with “Looks like the cover-up is indeed real so what I wrote is correct”, going on to quote extensively from Thompson’s statement, and then closing with “Can we now expect also a retraction of your article, Mr Geffen? And an apology?”.

This is the problem with relying on your Twitter following for breaking science news, which you then retweet: it’s often late, and it’s often uninformed.

The second matter is the paper that was recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, and is purported to show that… wait, I’ll let Noakes introduce it:

By the way did you see this scientific paper that made the headlines in New York and Boston on Monday and has become something of a hit on the social media?

Incidentally this is the 24th such scientific study to show the superiority of the low carbohydrate over the low fat diet. The science is outlined in Real Meal Revolution in 20 000 words with 4 pages of references.

But it seems you have not read any of it?

The account of the paper that’s being most widely shared is the one you can read in the New York Times, which indeed shares Noakes’ enthusiastic reading. Others are not as convinced, arguing that it demonstrates nothing of the sort. Here’s Dr. Yoni Freedhoff with a more temperate analysis, and Dr David Katz makes similar points.

As always, my concern is not the diet – it’s the fact that it’s misleading to present things as certain when they are not, and to suggest to a trusting audience that things are “proven” or settled when they are nothing of the sort. It’s also disingenuous, in light of uncertainty, to sneer at your critics in the way that last quoted sentence does.

A scientist should want the lay public to understand that science is complex, and that it’s not a place for ad hominem dismissals or assuming some epistemic high ground without warrant for doing so. To quote a learned professor:

The third matter, in brief: Eusebius McKaiser and I are going to try something that might be good fun on the radio tomorrow – an argument workshop, where we discuss some critical thinking concepts you might find of interest (or at least, entertaining, in light of examples such as the above). Do tune in to PowerTalk (on PowerFM) at 11am if you’re keen to listen or call in.

Apologies, but I have to now mention a fourth thing, or else the post’s title will make no sense. My friend Hans Pietersen has recently brought a case to court, involving schools that violate the secularity provisions of South Africa’s National Policy on Religion in Education. I’ve written about the policy (and this issue) many times before, but myself and others have had little to no joy in getting schools to play ball, despite many letters and calls to principals, district offices and the like.

A lawsuit is a last resort, but unfortunately, one that seems necessary in this case. Hans’s press release regarding the case can be downloaded here, and if you want to keep up with his organisation on Facebook, their group is called OGOD. Marianne Thamm’s Daily Maverick column on this issue is also worth reading, for background as well as some early reaction.

Big Food, Big Babies: moral panics and the business of eating

This entry is part 17 of 29 in the series Noakes

Earlier this year, Owen Frisby (the chairperson of SAAFoST) invited me to give a presentation at the 25th Congress of the Nutrition Society of South Africa. While the majority of speakers at the congress were dieticians and others working in medical science, my focus – as in previous posts and columns – was on poor critical reasoning and hyperbole in science writing, and the negative consequences this might have for public understanding of science. If you care to, you can read the text of my presentation below. Continue reading “Big Food, Big Babies: moral panics and the business of eating”

Consensus guidelines are anti-science, says Noakes

This entry is part 14 of 29 in the series Noakes

Here’s an elegant lesson in salesmanship at the expense of principled communication about science. It’s from Professor Noakes™, as so many of my recent examples have been – the popularity of his lifestyle/diet message means that here in South Africa, source material is unlikely to run dry anytime soon.

Earlier this year, Noakes™ addressed a conference in Australia on the “Medical aspects of the low carbohydrate lifestyle”. Those interested in his arguments around health should watch the video below – it’s one of the better ones of his that I’ve watched, in that it’s clear, succinct, and mostly free of conspiracy and ad hominem argument.

The bit I want to focus on starts at 10:17, where he says:

And you must never trust consensus guidelines, because they are anti-science. Science is not about consensus, it’s about disproof, disbelief and skepticism. It’s not about consensus. When you’ve got consensus, you’ve got trouble.

This conflates two very different stories into one, to serve the rhetorical purpose of granting credence to the underdog-story. The two stories are first, that yes, dogma is antithetical to science. The second is that if a preponderance of evidence points in a consistent direction, consensus guidelines could be well-justified, and it would only be irrational or inattentive people who would not believe in that consensus.

In the second story, you’d have been rational to believe in the consensus account even if it later turns out to be false. I spend a lot of time talking about this at TAM2014 as well as in the paper I gave at a recent nutrition conference, so won’t repeat all that here, but the point is that denying a well-justified consensus doesn’t make you a better scientist – it makes you a conspiracy theorist (or simply wrong).

In other words, consensus guidelines that emerge out of honest engagement with the evidence, and that are open to correction, are not anti-science at all. They are the product of good science, and their later overturning (if that happens) in favour of a new consensus is also the product of good science.

You don’t measure or identify good science from its conclusions – because we don’t know that those will survive future data – but by method, and by openness to correction in light of evidence. The first kind of story mentioned above, involving dogma, is of course an example of bad science. That doesn’t mean that consensus is by definition bad.

Science is indeed about “disproof, disbelief and skepticism” – but all of these serve to challenge any existing view and replace it with a better one. They are tools, or methods, for reaching a better consensus, not for rejecting consensus in general.

The simplest way of putting the point is this: Noakes™ would like it to be the case that medical practitioners and educational programmes see the light, and teach the same message he professes. In other words, he’d like his own views to be the basis of a new consensus, because he believes that the existing consensus is wrong.

When you’ve got dogma, you’ve got trouble. And when you’ve got consensus, you might have dogma. But you might also have a bunch of responsible people agreeing that yes, that’s what the data imply, and until we learn something to overturn our view, the evidence leads us – as rational, responsible scientists – to a certain consensus.

In short, while the quote above can play as a sexy soundbite for undercutting received wisdom, it’s another instance of Noakes™ playing scorched earth with understanding of the scientific method.

Does #Banting compromise humour and understanding of metaphor?

This entry is part 15 of 29 in the series Noakes

It’s been an amusing few days for those of us who follow the social media commentary related to Prof. Tim Noakes and the Banting diet. Earlier this week, an investment strategist named Magnus Heystek posted an opinion piece titled “Is Noakes running a Ponzi scheme?“, in which Heystek uses the example of Ponzi schemes (where people get suckered into poor investments via a combination of wishful thinking and deception) to riff on the “collective delusions” that can accompany diets.

The analogy is clear, even if imperfect – in the Banting analogue, someone uncharitably disposed towards what they think of as a fad diet could argue that the flock isn’t seeing the evidence and argument objectively, but are instead being seduced by the charisma of a person or an offer into a poor investment (in their health) – just as is the case in the investment analogue.

The analogy is imperfect in the sense that – as I’ve argued in the past – Noakes seems entirely sincere, and second that he is using the proceeds of the “real” meal revolution to fund research into health, rather than for personal enrichment. But even if imperfect, it’s fair comment, and has certainly provoked debate (if not much thought).

Heystek is making a similar point to the one that I’ve repeatedly made here, which is that the evangelical fervour in support of the diet, and the casual dismissals of any opposition to it as simply uninformed, both offer little reassurance that people are thinking things through carefully, rather than being in the grip of a collective delusion (of sorts).

There’s also a sense of humour and perspective failure in the responses – from the earnest (and unfortunately snide) response of one of Noakes’s co-authors, Jonno Proudfoot, to the Twitter contingent who think Noakes should sue for defamation, the Banters need to realise that as strong as they think the evidence is for their point of view, it’s not heresy to think things aren’t as simple as all that.

By contrast, what Heystek is pointing to (and again, my main point in all these words about Noakes and Banting) is that we already know things are not simple, and that we therefore have reason to believe that evangelism is taking the place of reason when people claim they are simple.

It’s when reason is sacrificed that we encounter Noakes saying, on the one hand, that when you get personal, you’ve lost the argument; and on the other hand dismissing the arguments of critics on the grounds of their being overweight (as he’s done at least twice, with Catherine Collins and with Anthony Dalby).

His followers have learnt the lesson well, rushing to dismiss Heystek on the grounds that he, too, could lose a few kilograms (which is something Heystek himself points out in the column, but since when does the playground pay attention to details like that?).

This doesn’t mean that criticism of Noakes and Banting can’t itself sometimes be overly simplistic – nobody is immune to error. Heystek was pricking a bubble of pomposity, though, not making a scientific argument, and his column needs to be read in that context.

By contrast, this Sunday Times piece arguing that Noakes has made a u-turn on dairy is shamefully misleading (rather than simply mischievous), and really just an example of someone exploiting a popular trend to generate some traffic, with complete disregard for the evidence.

The ninth of the “10 Commandments for beginner Banting” – right there in the first edition of “Real Meal Revolution”, you are told “Control your dairy. Although dairy is good for you, it does contain carbs and can be a stumbling block for some. In your Banting beginning, perhaps avoid eating too much dairy.” (I’m leaving complexities regarding particular forms of dairy aside here – they aren’t relevant to this argument.)

Later on in the book, readers are told: “If you are not intolerant to dairy products and find they do not affect your weight loss or blood sugar levels, aim for high-fat dairy products, not skim or reduced fat, light or fat-free alternatives – they must be full-fat.”

In other words, the advice regarding dairy was always qualified advice. The authors made a mistake in compiling their green, red and orange lists of foods, though, in that greenlisted foods were described as follows: “GREEN is an all-you-can-eat list – you can choose anything you like without worrying about the carbohydrate content as all the foods will be between 0 to 5g/100g. It will be almost impossible to overdo your carbohydrate intake by sticking to this group of foods.”

That needed a “terms and conditions apply” in the case of dairy, especially because we can predict in advance that many people would go for the simple heuristic of the list (you don’t even need to read the book for the list – it’s freely available on the Real Meal Revolution website), but despite this error, there’s no evidence of any flip-flopping or change of mind for dairy, as purported by the Sunday Times.

The team simply realised that dairy being in the green list was causing people to consume more of it than was compatible with the weight-loss they were expecting, so they moved it to the orange list – in line with the qualifications above. To put it even more simply, the heuristic of the colour-coded lists wasn’t sending the right signal, so it was adapted.

And then, because people don’t pay sufficient attention to detail or relevant qualifications as they sometimes should, there was a freak-out regarding dairy suddenly being unsafe, and Noakes having “changed his mind” – so they moved it back to the green list, and re-iterated the relevant qualifications.

So, no drama there. Of course, that didn’t stop the chief lobbyist for the Banting cause (or, “science” “journalist”) Marika Sboros, from using this as an excuse to write a new piece of hyperbolic prose in defence of her hero (in which she of course links to all her old pieces, which continue being edited and added to yet carry the same permalinks as before, which seems a rather odd way to practice journalism. But I digress.).

patrick3In this new piece, much effort is directed at undermining the criticisms made by Patrick Holford in relation to Noakes. Now, contrary to how some Noakesians like to read me, I’ve never called Noakes a quack (I have said he can sound like one, though) – but I have no reservations in calling Holford a quack, and I also think he’s a mendacious one, in that he knows he’s a fraud.

There’s no need to waste time debunking Holford’s criticisms, if you are Noakes or a mouthpiece of Noakes, like Sboros. Doing so is like writing a column refuting the metaphysical views of George down at the pub, as Holford is irrelevant to science and scientific reasoning – except as an example of doing so badly.

It’s perhaps instructive, though, that even Noakes seems to think he needs to play in that market, or believes that he should – I suppose that once you become a populist, it comes with certain obligations, or at least expectations. The thing that should concern you, though, if you are a Noakes-supporter, is how defending oneself against populist criticisms can lead you to oversimplification – itself a characteristic of populism.

Sboros reports that Noakes said (it’s not an attributed quote, unfortunately) that “the clear evidence is that carbohydrate in the diet is linked to colon cancer”, in response to Dr Roger Leicester (via Holford) claiming that Banting is a risk-factor for colon cancer. Noakes also says – and I’m sure that you’ll all find this as persuasive as I do – that “that’s all unscientific twaddle”.

Except, that’s utter bullshit. It might turn out to be false – as might any hypothesis – but right now, we’ve got good evidence that high red-meat consumption is associated with increased risk of colorectal cancer. And yes, association/correlation isn’t causation, but it’s the best clue as to causation available to us in many cases – and a staple of much pro-Banting literature also (and as much as you might like to, you don’t get to cherry-pick).

Oh wait, you do get to cherry pick. Sorry, I forgot.

Is Noakes the North Korea of epistemology?

This entry is part 16 of 29 in the series Noakes

On November 25, I gave a talk with the above title at an event hosted by SAAFoST* and ADSA**. Unfortunately, the proceedings weren’t recorded, so you won’t be able to hear the superb presentation that preceded mine, by Dr. Celeste Naude, who focused on an evidence-based approach for differentiating between varying macronutrient-focused diets.

Those of you who are interested in the topic of diets, and specifically the role Prof. Noakes has played in popularising the LCHF approach to diet, might already know of the recent study by Naude and others, which found that low carb diets showed a similar reduction in weight to other diets. Noakes’ response to that study was to say that the “researchers have no clue”. I leave it to you to determine who you find more persuasive.

You won’t be able to watch my talk as presented either, but in case it’s of interest, I decided to record a version of it in any case, accompanied by the slides I showed on the day. By contrast to Dr. Naude, who focused on science, I focused on rhetoric, hyperbole, and sound scientific reasoning – or, the lack of it.

You can find that recording immediately below, followed by the approximate text of the presentation. It hasn’t been edited into essay form, so is telegraphic in places. Lastly, I’ve embedded the presentation slides at the end, for no particular reason.

*SAAFost: the South African Association of Food Science and Technology

**ADSA: the Association for Dietetics in South Africa

Is Noakes the North Korea of epistemology?

Betteridge’s Law – any headline that ends with a question mark can be answered with “no”.

Of course, “no” is part of the answer here – if we are asking the question of whether Prof Noakes is a propagandist who leads a repressive state, and is implicated in various human rights abuses, the answer is clearly no.

I’m also make no claims with regard to their relative levels of sincerity. In the case of Prof. Noakes, I’m of the view that he is utterly sincere, and desires nothing but to enhance the health and wellbeing of those he engages with. He’s received far too much abuse related to claims regarding a profit motive, for example, and I think that sort of abuse unjustified, and deplorable.

But that’s not what my title is alluding to. Instead, I’m highlighting the fact that the North Korean press machine has a habit of making hyperbolic claims, and Kim Jong Un for appearing in various baroque, grandiose, and sometimes merely perplexing situations, all to buttress his mystique and support a particular narrative.

This narrative is of him being misunderstood, a maverick, and a person who has privileged access to knowledge and opportunity that he is able to share with the enlightened or anointed. He serves as an inspiration, and in doing so, the impression created is more important than the evidence – marketing is the point, rather than content.

This is the sense in which Noakes is the North Korea of epistemology. As I will show, he displays a pattern of what philosophers and psychologists call “motivated reasoning”, which can be defined as confirmation bias turned up to 11.

You all know what confirmation bias is, I’d imagine: our predisposition to take evidence that confirms what we believe seriously, while discounting contrary evidence. What motivated reasoning adds is a substructure or foundation to this, in which the agent develops background rationalisations to justify holding the beliefs that others argue are false, or at least not settled conclusively at this point.

The motivated reasoner might see conspiracy instead of disagreement, and tends to react defensively to contrary evidence, seeing conspiracy, or dismissing it out of hand for other reasons instead of responding to it on its merits.

I ignore what I consider not to be evidence” – Noakes.

The goal of my talk today is quite simple. I want to suggest to you that regardless of any debate on the virtues of the Banting diet – which I’m not interested in discussing, and haven’t expressed any public view on – there’s a language, method, and character that we should all value in scientists and scientific enquiry.

I believe that any of us who work in fields including science, education, or journalism have a responsibility to encourage a responsible epistemic approach, rather than to aim for persuasion above all else.

By this I mean an approach that is objective as regards the evidence, where we are willing to be wrong, and where we resist attacking the character or motives of opponents when arguments are the relevant issue.

Prof. Noakes has frequently set a bad example in these regards, and my concern as an educator – particularly one active in the field of critical reasoning – is that with 50 000 Twitter followers, and as an engaging and hard-working media personality who has garnered as many accolades as just about anyone you can think of in South African science, he has a powerful influence on how people perceive scientific activity.

One of the virtuous traits I mentioned a moment ago was a willingness to be wrong. Defenders of Noakes might immediately retort that of course he’s willing to be wrong – after all, he famously changed his mind on carbohydrates! And while this is a notable change of mind, it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) reassure anyone that it’s representative of a general disposition. As you’d know, it’s a single data point, and we don’t find a pattern in a single data point.

More to the point, perhaps, is that his own language regarding that change of mind comes with significant warning flags regarding his commitment to sound reasoning. Take this example:

At a public discussion with his erstwhile supervisor, Lionel Opie, in May 2014, Noakes told the audience “I’ve said one thing, and now I’m saying the exact opposite. And they can’t both be wrong. And that’s key.”

While a statement like that plays well to a crowd – and in this case, did result in some appreciative chuckles – it’s nonsense as far as logic is concerned.

He’s presenting his change of mind as evidence that he’s right now. And there are two immediate problems here – one is that the argument only gains traction if you agree with him that he was wrong before. If you think he was right then, then you’d think that he’s just strayed into error now.

The second way in which the logic is fundamentally flawed is that he’s suggesting that the audience embrace the logical fallacy of the false dilemma. What I mean is that the truth might actually be undiscovered, and exist somewhere in the middle – it’s not the case that one of the two extremes he’s suggested at various points have to be correct. We have other options, and he’s misrepresenting the choices available to us in leaving them out.

We should all – maybe A-rated scientists, teachers, and public figures in particular – have a concern for good scientific thinking and clear reasoning in expressing the conclusions we’d like to see adopted. Science does not work in absolute truths – it’s an inductive process, whereby we chisel away at falsehoods to arrive at a clearer understanding of what’s most likely to be true. The example above recommends absolutism, despite that being manifestly incompatible with the messy world of empirical data.

At various points in today’s talk, I’ll be showing you examples of statements like these, made by Prof Noakes on public media. There are many more such examples, but it would be tedious to belabor the point through repetition.

But I mention this to offset concerns you might have that I’m indulging in cherry-picking here – the pattern is unmistakeable in itself, and more to the point, many of the examples I’ll show you are examples of Noakes responding to critics accusing him of over-simplifying. In other words, even after applying the principle of charity and seeking clarification from him, his responses validate the concerns I’ll be highlighting.

A taxonomy of trouble

For ease of reference, I’ve loosely categorized the issues into 5 groups:

  • Indiscriminate use of sources
  • Ad hominem & double-standards
  • Exaggeration and immunity to error
  • Salesmanship over science
  • Errors in scientific reasoning

INDISCRIMINATE USE OF SOURCES

Chemicals that may cause diabetes – Noakes links to Natural News.

This is the site that argues that Microsoft are developing eugenics vaccines. And that HIV doesn’t cause Aids. And Icke? The world is controlled by reptiles from outer space, who live in underground tunnels and take on human form (Thatcher, Bush)

Next they say it has been discovered before. Lastly they say they always believed it. Louis Agassiz.” – Noakes links to evolution-denier.

This from a series of tweets explaining how his conclusions will be vindicated in the end. But if you’re going to suggest that there are better and worse ways of proceeding in science, perhaps better examples than Agassiz could be chosen. He is, after all, an evolution-denier, and a proponent of scientific racism – does one want to cite him as an authority on the scientific method?

“@natachab Weston Price http://amzn.to/15c8xRz believed superior nutrition of trad societies protected against TB. Need LCHF HIV/TB trial” – and to a “holistic dentist”.

Weston Price – “holistic dentist” whose treatments included homeopathy. The site carries numerous articles arguing that vaccines cause autism. Current board member Joseph Mercola has received at least three FDA warnings for making misleading and/or unsubstantiated claims regarding the products he sells.

AD HOMINEM & DOUBLE STANDARDS

Starting on a sound note…
. @katjanechild Only you know what motivates you, Katherine. My advice: Play the ball, not the man and you will go far.”

Obese dietician from British Dietetics Assoc tells us on BBC News that @DrAseemMalhotra article is wrong. Will believe her when she loses wt

I do not understand why you pay any attention to Dr Witt, who has absolutely no qualifications in this field and is a few years out of medical school.”

On Anthony Dalby, a more recent critic: “Noakes said the doctor who said that happened to weigh 120kg.”

[email protected] @Briganto @livinlowcarbman @youmustbenuts That happens when the truth is not on your side. Yet to meet an obnoxious LCHF advocate

Prescription? A mirror.

OVERSTATING THE CASE/IMMUNITY TO ERROR

If you don’t eat carbohydrates, you don’t have to worry about cancer” – @ProfTimNoakes . Moerse gevaarlike stelling!!!

Noakes responds: “@RugbyPrinses Where and when did I say that? Or did someone else say I said that?Do you honestly think I would make such absolute statement?

Franschhoek: “If you’re insulin resistant, you do not have to get any disease whatsoever. If you eat a high-fat diet all your life, you will not develop diabetes, you will not get cancer, you will not get dementia. That I can guarantee you” – that’s where, and when (audio).

“Sweden becomes first nation to reject high fat dogma!” Noakes was making this claim in 2013, when the SBU report wasn’t even available in English, RT’ing AuthorityNutrition & Diet Doctor.

The authors of the (independent) body eventually had to step in and tell people to stop saying this. Report just on obesity, not necessarily generalisable, and:

Two mis-interpretations have, in our opinion occurred in the wake of the publication of the SBU report. One is that low carb high fat is by far better. Yes, during the first 6 months you lose weight faster on low carbohydrate diets. But after one and two years that diet has no advantage than other diets for obesity.

After having this pointed out to her, Teicholz blocks me and others. I couldn’t point it out to Noakes, because contrary voices also get blocked from being heard on his timeline. Contrary to what I think the ideal approach – of seeking out ways in which you could improve your arguments – motivated reasoning can involve simply shutting out dissent.

Then, addiction, where I fear that the LCHF movement is doing great harm to public understanding of the difference between compulsive and destructive behavior, and lifestyle choices which can be better or worse but are not intrinsically problematic.

From Real Meal Revolution:

The final blow to the gut: because carbohydrates are nutrient-deficient and often packaged with salt and sugar, you feel the need to eat more of them, thereby putting yourself into a near-perpetual cycle of weight gain.
Unless, of course, you break the addiction…

There’s plenty of “addiction” talk on his Twitter feed, as well as a partnership with Harmony Clinic in Hout Bay, that offers in and outpatient treatment for sugar addiction. Well, Harmony Clinic now liquidated, so perhaps not anymore.

The problem is – there’s no compelling evidence for sugar addiction, yet, and the case is being overstated in the service of promoting Banting.

What should we then say about so-called “addictive” foodstuffs? The first thing to remember is the point Paracelsus made in the 15th century – “the dose makes the poison”.

While there might be no safe number of cigarettes to smoke, there will be a dosage of carbohydrates, or sugar, that’s unproblematic in all but the most rare of cases.

Let’s look more closely at sugar addiction, and addiction in general. Two papers are typically cited as evidence for sugar being addictive. But what they mostly reveal is that science journalists no longer read or understand the journals, and that the public – and some professionals – are far too trusting when it comes to the sensational headlines that convey elements of those studies to us.

First, the Avena study, published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews in 2007:

“we suggest that sugar, as common as it is, nonetheless meets the criteria for a substance of abuse and may be “addictive” for some individuals when consumed in a “binge-like” manner.”

Pause there – who might be inclined to consume in a “binge-like” fashion? Perhaps someone with a pre-existing impulse control disorder, who happens to latch on to sugar – the reverse inference from the bingeing to the sugar might get the causal direction entirely back-to-front. We’ll get back to the neurochemistry later, but also, notice the scare-quotes – the author is hedging her bets, with the text only weakly supportive of any claim to sugar addiction.

One is perhaps reminded of a line from Lewis Carrol’s “Through the looking glass”, where Humpty Dumpty said: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

Then, there’s Johnson & Kenny’s paper in Nature Neuroscience (2010) on junk food and addiction, also conducted on rats.

“Notably, it is unclear whether deficits in rewards processing are constitutive and precede obesity, or whether excessive consumption of palatable food can drive reward dysfunction and thereby contribute to diet-induced obesity.”

As in the Avena study, we don’t know whether an impulse control disorder is simply being expressed – rather than discovered as an effect, resulting from the junk food – in this experiment.

Yes, if you grow to like something (or find it rewarding), you’ll seek it out. This does not mean the thing is innately addictive. In fact, Hebebrand’s recently published paper in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews concludes that if anything, “eating addiction” rather than “food addiction” best captures what’s going on when people compulsively over-eat. The food is an expression, not a cause of the impulse control disorder.

We can easily engage in a battle of link-sharing – but the point is that the truth is complex, and not settled by individual studies. In this case, there’s one clear issue with using these studies as definitive, and this is that both of these studies use brain imaging to support their conclusions.

As Sally Satel (who works as a psychiatrist in a methadone clinic) puts it, brain scanning is “a perfect storm of seduction”. The technology promises great revelations and great objectivity. More to the point of my presentation today, it offers the possibility of eliminating your responsibility for what’s wrong with you – we can say, “it wasn’t me, it was my brain!”

This image is interesting is that it neatly summarises why you can’t reach firm conclusions from fMRI data. This fish is in fact dead, yet the scanner showed signs of brain activity.

fMRI data are suggestive, and weakly so at that, in that they reflect neural correlates of various stimuli, and nothing of the perceived and subjective mental responses to those stimuli.

In slightly more detail: Increased blood flow and a boost in oxygen are treated as proxies for increased activation of neurons, and from there we induce to what those neurons are doing. We compare that data to a baseline, and subtract the one from the other, averaging out over the many data points of all participants in a study, with software filtering out background noise, and creating the seductive images.

But our experimental conditions are imperfect – think of the difficulties of creating appropriate baseline tests, for one – and large sample sizes cost a lot of money. Add to that the fact that our brains can process the same stimuli in different regions – no one specific area can reliably be said to perform the same task for all of us – and it should be clear that it’s far too soon to reach definitive conclusions from fMRI data.

The philosophical problem is one of reverse inference – we reason backward from neural activation to subjective experience. But if identified brain structures rarely perform single tasks, one-to-one mapping between activation in a region and a mental state is very speculative.

To avoid the false positive of the fish brain activity above, we need to use multiple comparison fMRI, which comes at far greater expense in terms of cost and time. But headlines don’t have space for subtleties, and furthermore, novel and exciting claims get the public’s attention. If your fMRI scans can be said to show that sugar is more addictive than cocaine, you’re guaranteed some prime media attention, and who can blame you for trying to capitalize on that? Well, perhaps nobody can blame you if you’re trying to sell newspapers. And perhaps we can blame you, or be rather concerned, if you’re presenting yourself as a responsible scientist.

We can’t tell – yet – whether fMRI scans indicate an impulse that is irresistible, or one that simply hasn’t been resisted. But it’s easier to make choices when you believe that there’s a choice to make, rather than a forced one, such that an “addiction” narrative might support. Diminished expectations of agency lead to diminished agency – if you’re not aware of your choices, it’s more difficult to make choices. So, it’s politically useful to say that carbs are addictive – but that isn’t equivalent to it being true.

But at least we have a following. The great failing in science is not to be wrong – it is to be irrelevant.” – Noakes

SALESMANSHIP OVER SCIENCE & SENSITIVITY

Robin Williams was a vegan.Vegetarians are twice as likely to suffer mental illness.Humans are designed to eat meat.” @ProfTimNoakes RT’ed, the day of Williams’ suicide.

Response when challenged:
“@theviscountess @HermanBeukes Was Mr Williams informed about association between meat-free diet and mental health? http://1.usa.gov/1t2janN”

Then when people point out how poor that paper is, he appeals to the association, even though when anyone cites associational data in favour of low fat, he rejects it.

Dr Bill Wilson wonders if the Carbohydrate Associated Reversible Brain (CARB) disorder played a role in Newtown tragedy http://bit.ly/URArgp”… Where a 20-year old fatally shot 20 kids, and gun control might be a more interesting conversation.

ERRORS IN SCIENTIFIC REASONING

What does the future hold for a pastry chef?
@PastryKeegan The public will decide. In era of social media, public will eventually discover what works for each, independent of “experts

Why are “experts” being trivialized here? Experts do exist, and the public are often misinformed. If experts disagree with you, then you defeat them in the battleground of expertise – peer reviewed journals. An army of laypeople doesn’t make the scientific case.

Why is journo Gary Taubes pushing for scientific studies into #LCHF diets (http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2014/10/07/gary-why-we-get-fat-taubes-speaks-out-on-diet-studies-including-his-own/ …) while @ProfTimNoakes focuses on populism?

[email protected] Because change will only come when public understands truth expressed in @garytaubes book. New science will not change that”

“New science” will not change the truth? And again, a scientist calling for less science?

September 2014, Australia

So, I watched it. Here’s one rather interesting bit (the text below is copied from a previous post):

And you must never trust consensus guidelines, because they are anti-science. Science is not about consensus, it’s about disproof, disbelief and skepticism. It’s not about consensus. When you’ve got consensus, you’ve got trouble.

This conflates two very different stories into one, to serve the rhetorical purpose of granting credence to the underdog-story. The two stories are first, that yes, dogma is antithetical to science. The second is that if a preponderance of evidence points in a consistent direction, consensus guidelines could be well-justified, and it would only be irrational or inattentive people who would not believe in that consensus.

In the second story, you’d have been rational to believe in the consensus account even if it later turns out to be false. The point is that denying a well-justified consensus doesn’t make you a better scientist – it makes you a conspiracy theorist, or simply wrong about the facts.

In other words, consensus guidelines that emerge out of honest engagement with the evidence, and that are open to correction, are not anti-science at all. They are the product of good science, and their later overturning (if that happens) in favour of a new consensus is also the product of good science.

You don’t measure or identify good science from its conclusions – because we don’t know that those will survive future data – but by method, and by openness to correction in light of evidence. The first kind of story mentioned above, involving dogma, is of course an example of bad science. That doesn’t mean that consensus is by definition bad.

Science is indeed about “disproof, disbelief and skepticism” – but all of these serve to challenge any existing view and replace it with a better one. They are tools, or methods, for reaching a better consensus, not for rejecting consensus in general.

The simplest way of putting the point is this: Noakes would like it to be the case that medical practitioners and educational programmes see the light, and teach the same message he professes. In other words, he’d like his own views to be the basis of a new consensus, because he believes that the existing consensus is wrong.

When you’ve got dogma, you’ve got trouble. And when you’ve got consensus, you might have dogma. But you might also have a bunch of responsible people agreeing that yes, that’s what the data imply, and until we learn something to overturn our view, the evidence leads us – as rational, responsible scientists – to a certain consensus.

In short, while the quote above can play as a sexy soundbite for undercutting received wisdom, it’s another instance of Noakes playing scorched earth with understanding of the scientific method.

He might say that the public health concerns are too significant to care about niceties like the ones I’ve been talking about today. To that, there are two immediate responses. First, sloppy thinking should arguably never be encouraged. For someone who is regarded as an inspiration by many budding scientists, and who is one of South Africa’s most decorated scientists, one might even argue that he has a moral obligation to encourage sound scientific thinking.

The second response is that even if this were true – that we should misrepresent the strength and consensus behind a certain dietary position, in order to save lives – we should be able to debate how far we’re allowed to take the misrepresentation.

But this would require agreeing that misrepresentation occurs, and Noakes insists that it’s others who are being obtuse rather than himself. More disturbing, perhaps, is that those who do disagree are ignored or blocked, or characterized as shills, or victims of “groupthink”.

In conclusion, two tweets that show the best and worst of Prof Noakes:

[email protected] @umduzu @JSDKirby @davegreenway Many of my most vocal critics think science is easy and definitive. It is nuanced and complex

Yes, it certainly is, and I wish he’d take his own counsel on these matters.

Overlooked: If I am wrong, all that suffers is my reputation. If diet-heart is wrong, billions suffer. Scary responsibility.

This is the worst, obviously, in that the consequences of him being wrong could be far more acute. The logic here is entirely circular, in that his conception of being “wrong” simply ignores all the harms that competing views say could result from a high-fat diet.

He’s assuming he’s right, even while speculating about the consequences if he were wrong.

Even Noakes’ supporters should expect more of him, for two reasons:

  1. The scientific method deserves better.
  2. If he’s right, he’s impairing the credibility his viewpoint garners. The same dietary advice could be given without the “aid” of examples like these, and that might well get the revolution taken seriously in a far more widespread fashion.

 

Professor Noakes and the Echo Chamber Made of Lard

This entry is part of 29 in the series Noakes

The 2014 “Collector’s Edition” of The Big Issue contains a number of interesting pieces, but there’s one specific piece that I’ve been looking forward to being able to share with you.

The day for doing so has finally arrived, so here is the first instalment of some thoughts on “The Digital Doctor”, contributed by Prof. Tim Noakes, and freshly uploaded to the Interwebs (thanks to @BigIssueSA on Twitter).

As a framing concept for this post, consider the “echo chamber“, which you can understand as roughly analogous to, or intersecting with, confirmation bias and the “filter bubble“.

Participants in online communities may find their own opinions constantly echoed back to them, which reinforces their individual belief systems. This can create significant barriers to critical discourse within an online medium.

Another emerging term for this echoing and homogenizing effect on the Internet within social communities is cultural tribalism.

What the extract highlights is the problem of “groupthink”: if you surround yourself with people who say the sorts of things that agree with the sorts of things you’d like to believe are true, you all end up reinforcing each others’ beliefs, and opposing views have a difficult time getting heard.

So, it seems fairly obvious – given we know that we’re prone to weighting confirmatory evidence more favourably than disconfirmatory evidence – that someone who cares about keeping their mental furniture nearly arranged would actively seek out ways in which they might be wrong.

Supporters of Prof. Tim Noakes believes that he does exactly that, and that this is why he could famously change his mind on something so fundamental as the value of an entire category of organic compounds (carbohydrates, in case you aren’t aware).

But – and yes, I have said this before – one change of mind, no matter how fundamental or (in)famous, does not indicate anything about a general disposition, and it’s perfectly possible that Noakes (again, regardless of whether his conclusions are correct or not) has adopted (and is encouraging) sloppy thinking in this regard.

Which brings me back to The Big Issue, where it wouldn’t be unfair to describe Noakes’ contribution as a love-letter to confirmation bias, or an attempt to attract companions to occupy an echo chamber made entirely out of lard.

The piece begins with a rejection of expertise, where it turns out (according to Noakes) that an “exclusive clan who have climbed the academic ladder of success” “carefully programmed” Noakes and his fellow students to believe that what the clan professed is the “absolute truth, for now and forever”.

Alien_probeTo help this conspiracy narrative along, these evil people with their degrees and academic credentials are given the sneery nickname of “The Anointed”, which helps to set up the us vs. them dichotomy, where the everyday folk are victims of an intellectual aristocracy, preserving their privilege at our expense.

At this point, some of us are perhaps thinking about how odd it seems that one of the people who has climbed the academic ladder about as high as one can in South Africa thinks he should be trusted, despite his own membership of this shadowy clan.

But by definition, Noakes cannot be part of The Anointed, for he has seen the light, and rejects their gospel. Perhaps he might be part of the New Reformed Anointed or somesuch, because he makes it quite explicit that the outdated dogma he was taught is false, and should be replaced by something else.

The something else, though, is never expressed with qualifications, or room for being wrong – it’s presented as absolute truth. And this is the problem – replacing one dogma with more (albeit different) dogma doesn’t help the argument for being critical of received wisdom. It simply asks you to replace received wisdom with an alternative version of the same.

There’s a problem in this simplistic account of dogma also, in that it’s only unthinking consensus that’s a problem (what we normally call dogma) – consensus isn’t a problem of necessity. So, if “The Anointed” happen to be wrong in this instance, we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for discarding the idea of expertise in general.

Experts do exist, and “common wisdom” is frequently very far from wise. Yes, “experts” can also be wrong – but as ever, we can assess arguments on their merits, rather than throw the epistemic baby of expertise out with the bathwater of a few bad arguments.

Then – crucially – we’re dealing with a complete misrepresentation of what “The Anointed” say. On the Noakes narrative, dieticians and these sneaky academic folk are pushing the line that fats are bad, and carbs at least not as bad as Noakes would have you believe (some might even say that some carbs can be good).

However, the truth doesn’t support these caricatures. It’s (now) common cause that we used to over-emphasise the dangers of fats in general. It’s (now) common cause that refined carbs are bad.

The point is that “The Anointed” have modified their position over the years, in light of the evidence. Noakes might say that they haven’t modified their position enough, or that they are ignoring some evidence or over-valuing other evidence.

But either way, they are not dogmatically pushing one line. Their arguments have evolved (whether rightly or wrong, time will tell), and it’s untrue and uncharitable to present them as inflexible purveyors of eternal “truths”.

There’s only one dogmatic voice in this conversation, and as far as I can tell, it’s not that of The Anointed.

P.S. Noakes’ solution to the problem of The Anointed is to rely on The Wisdom of the Crowds, and especially Twitter, which is “unquestionably the best way to acquire the most up-to-date information on my particular areas of scientific interest” (this is no joke. Well, I mean it’s an accurate quote.) But more on that another day.

Noakes, #LCHF and the Professoriate of the Twitterati

This entry is part of 29 in the series Noakes

LCHF SummitIn the conclusion of my previous post on Prof. Noakes’ Big Issue column, I mentioned that he had spoken of addressing the malignant influence of scientists via the power of crowdsourcing research findings on Twitter.

Today, I’ll conclude with my description of how much that Big Issue column gets wrong, and also provide a fresh example of shoddy thinking from the LCHF crowd, in the form of a debate topic that is being proposed for the upcoming “First International Low Carb High Fat Summit“.

(I don’t think it’s relevant here, but in case you think it is, I’ve been invited – and have accepted – to attend the LCHF summit as a guest of the organiser, Karen Thomson. So if you see me becoming all soft on LCHF in late February, you’ll know that I’ve either been bought off, lost my senses, or “seen the light”.)

Let’s first return to “The Digital Doctor” (the title of the Noakes column). One of the things he’s right about in the column is that increased availability of information via the Internet has undoubtedly given consumers and patients more power.

You’re able to shop around, whether through using Dr. Google to find out what your fellow sufferers have tried, or for crowdsourcing information about who seems to do good work in a certain area, for what price and so forth.

Patients can enter the consulting room armed with some understanding of what ails them, and I’m sure that can help (and also sometimes hinder, no doubt) the process of diagnosis and treatment. We’re no longer victims of as large an information asymmetry as we once were.

But this doesn’t mean that truth becomes something that is resolved via democratic process. The majority can be wrong, and this is especially the case when we’re dealing with a majority drawn from a select population, and where the audience does further filtering of what they think worth listening to and what worth ignoring.

In short, this is again the problem of the filter bubble, writ large.

To quote Noakes:

But the growth of social media and the internet has changed that reality irrevocably.

Today as a result of these very modern developments, patients now have access to the experiences of hundreds of millions of others producing what has been termed The Wisdom of the Crowds.

Exposing millions of people with common issues to a multitude of different interventions soon determines the relative efficacy of treatments more effectively, cheaply and swiftly than any other testing method yet invented. (Indeed, these crowd-based, uncontrolled experiments will add a new model of “scientific” research that will overcome the weakness of traditional laboratory-based research, which by its very nature is “unnatural”.)

We have access to the millions of anecdotes shared by the population that self-selects to be on Twitter, yes. But we have no way of verifying the (literal) truth of those anecdotes, and we also know that because they are uncontrolled experiments, there is no way of verifying their truth in the sense of having confidence that the right cause for the observed effect has been identified at all.

This is precisely why we have and value the scientific method: to rigorously test hypotheses, in a way that minimises errors that might result from selection bias and so forth. We’d should take care to compensate for – and not celebrate – the fact that all of our case reports come from a demographic (because they are on Twitter) that was perhaps on average wealthier, and with more leisure time, than the typical person.

Why? Because that characteristic might be associated with different dietary choices, or different levels of physical activity, both of which would be relevant to how we interpret the data. So the anecdotes can be useful, in pointing to what we should research, but they are not themselves the research we should treat as conclusive.

(Sidebar before moving to the next quote: I’m leaving the “unnatural” towards the end of that quote alone, but just to briefly note that it’s another example of the paranoid and conspiratorial talk Noakes seems partial to. Sure, lab-based research has flaws, but its lack of being “natural” – whatever that might mean – isn’t one of them.

One can say we can’t replicate some real experiences and effects in a lab, and there it becomes a potential problem, but describing this in terms of “natural” sets up an advantage for the Romantic Paleo argument, and poisons the well against anything positioned as non-natural, which might include GMOs, vaccines, etc.)

Then, we’d want to compensate for our own biases also. Later on in the column, Noakes says:

I soon learnt that Twitter is unquestionably the best way to acquire the most up-to-date information on my particular areas of scientific interest. By following a group of scientists who use Twitter to disseminate information they find interesting, I now have access to new knowledge within minutes of its first appearance in the scientific literature. The result is that acquiring new information is absolutely effortless, and dependent only on my choice of whom I follow on Twitter.

So, if I listen to the people who tell me things I like to hear, I get to hear a lot of things I like to hear. And, just to make certain that things I don’t want to hear don’t intrude on this, I’ll block people who post contrary research from my Twitter feed (he doesn’t say the latter above, but it is something he does, with me being one example of someone whose links to relevant research don’t get through).

The problem with the Big Issue article is that it takes a couple of sound points, and explodes them into such a grand narrative that they lose any sense they had.

Noakes tells us that “now it is only the advice that works that has long-term credibility”, and that is true, up to a point. You’ll get caught out on social media if you spread misinformation. But that doesn’t mean information gains credibility through being widely disseminated (on channels you’ve hand-picked) on social media. Those are separate issues.

It’s also true that professionals – in various spheres – were able to exploit the ignorance of the consumer to peddle quackery or defective goods, and that they are now less able to do so than in the past. But our easier access to information doesn’t mean that (proper) experts don’t often know better than we do. Those are also separate issues.

There’s a tendency in the LCHF narrative, at least how it’s playing out in South Africa, to continually hyperbolise the consequences of choice, and the lack of middle-ground options between one or another extreme.

To conclude, here’s a recent example of that elimination of the middle-ground (in logical terms, a false dichotomy), that comes from the Facebook page of the LCHF summit I spoke of at the top of this post. On that page, Karen Thomson says:

I am desperately trying to find medical professionals willing to debate: ‘Is the low carbohydrate diet the cause of, or the cure for the global epidemic of chronic ill-health?’ with our LCHF team.

Any thoughts? None of my invitations have been met with any success.

Here’s a thought: if a debate topic is framed so that only the pro-LCHF side have any chance of winning it, you’re unlikely to garner any interest from potential opposing speakers. The topic is itself a pithy example of the shoddy reasoning that I’ve written about so often here, in that:

  • The topic sets up a false dichotomy, because the truth might lie somewhere in the middle with LCHF being neither the cure nor the cause.
  • Second, the topic sets the non-LCHF people up for failure, in that it would be impossible to prove that LCHF is the cause of “the global epidemic of ill health”. This is true even on the simple grounds of chronology, where (leaving aside the contentious issue of what pre-social humans ate) modern humans haven’t been eating LCHF for long enough – or in large enough numbers – for LCHF to be identified as the cause of much at all except book sales, never mind a “global epidemic”. You might therefore think the topic indicates bad faith, but even if you don’t want to be uncharitable, the pro-LCHF folks have rigged the game here, by ensuring that they can amass at least some evidence for their position, while the opposition cannot.
  • Third, one can challenge the presumption of the topic that there is a “global epidemic” at all, in that despite diabetes, heart disease and the like, we somehow keep living for longer. So, simply accepting the premise of an epidemic accedes to one of the key claims made by the LCHF folk, namely that humans in the 21st Century are (in general) sick and dying, despite any appearances to the contrary.

 

Standards in science journalism – #LCHF, #Banting and @BiznewsCOM

This entry is part of 29 in the series Noakes

If you only get your news from people and places that agree with your pre-existing view, then you are living in a filter-bubble. This is not a good thing, as it means that you’re (relatively) impervious to discovering any errors in your beliefs, while simultaneously getting constant affirmation that you’re “right”.

That’s true for individuals as consumers of news, but also presents an opportunity for producers of news to reflect on their responsibilities. If you purport to be an objective – or at least balanced, seeing as objectivity is impossible – purveyor of news, then you need to take care to publish fair representations of the current state of knowledge.

One South African site that constantly abrogates its responsibility to present a balanced view is Biznews.com, and the headlong rush towards partisan propaganda is led by Marika Sboros, who seems to have taken on the position of journalistic praise-singer for the low-carb, high-fat diet, and for Professor Tim Noakes in particular.

To be clear, I don’t have a problem with self-confessed fans – rather than people who present themselves as journalists – doing praise-singing. Whether they are right or wrong about the facts, individuals have no responsibility to be fair with regard to the totality of evidence, and/or how it’s interpreted, on their personal websites or Twitter feeds.

This doesn’t mean I’d encourage that sort of epistemic irresponsibility, in the least. As I say, they have no responsibility to us to be fair – I’d say that have that responsibility to themselves, but that’s not what’s at issue here. In this case, we’re talking about a news website that isn’t set up as a promotional vehicle for LCHF, and a “journalist” who presents herself as objective.

Sboros’ most recent piece of misrepresentation arises as a result of the USA’s Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee announcing that they are set to reverse their cautionary stance on dietary cholesterol (so, the cautions against the cholesterol content of food, rather than the cholesterol content of your blood).

A second piece of new research is also described in the link above, namely a meta-analysis by Harcombe et. al. arguing that the dietary fat guidelines in 1977 and 1983 (cautioning against fat) were never justified by evidence from randomised controlled trials (RCTs).

The piece begins with nonsense, where Sboros’ italicised introductory text includes “In 2013, Sweden became the first country to ditch low-fat dietary guidelines, restoring cholesterol in eggs and bacon to its former glory”. That’s literally false, in that a Swedish advisory body, rather than “Sweden”, made certain recommendations. Second, that’s a gross misrepresentation of the recommendations they made, as even the advisory body themselves have noted.

Let’s take them one at a time, starting with the case of the USA. First, the headline Sboros chooses is “Science says Tim Noakes is right on cholesterol”. “Science” is rarely, if ever, dogmatic – pseudoscience is. Science – meaning what the totality of evidence suggests – points in one direction or another, and sometimes by very fine margins.

What I mean is, evidence in support of one particular point of view (Noakes’, for example) tips the scales in favour of their point of view, rather than “proving someone right”. And in this case, the misrepresentation is particularly bad, in that the only support for Noakes in these guidelines is for one leg of his argument, namely that cholesterol consumed has little impact on cholesterol in the blood.

As the Washington Post write-up makes clear,

The greater danger in this regard, these experts believe, lies not in products such as eggs, shrimp or lobster, which are high in cholesterol, but in too many servings of foods heavy with saturated fats, such as fatty meats, whole milk, and butter.

The new view on cholesterol in food does not reverse warnings about high levels of “bad” cholesterol in the blood, which have been linked to heart disease. Moreover, some experts warned that people with particular health problems, such as diabetes, should continue to avoid cholesterol-rich diets.

So, we see continued warnings about saturated fat, and continued warnings about blood cholesterol. Noakes says that saturated fat is fine, and that statins (to lower blood cholesterol) are bad, even toxic – he even uses the perjorative “statinators” for those who prescribe or recommend them. In other words, two key pegs of the Noakes argument are directly contradicted by this research.

Sboros, meanwhile, Tweeted a link to that same Washington Post piece, saying:

Well – if those doctors or dietitians actually read the linked piece, you’d imagine that they would carry on prescribing the statins, seeing as nothing in it recommends that they stop doing so.

Another interesting thing to note is that these guidelines seem to have been developed with the support of the Egg Nutrition Center and American Egg Board. Now, I don’t think that this automatically taints the research – as I’ve said before, “the fact that something is funded by a pharmaceutical company doesn’t guarantee bias. There’s a difference between being cognisant of potential biases, and writing something off in advance, just because of whence it came.”

I note it just to make the point that Sboros, Noakes and other LCHF supporters constantly use alleged taint via funding to dismiss research they don’t like – but then somehow seem to forget that principle when the research says things that they happen to agree with. For example:

Before moving on, read especially that second link for a contrasting view on what the revised guidelines mean, and on how they should be interpreted according to the holistic framework of knowledge related to diet. My concern here is about misrepresentation, rather than the science itself.

On the second issue (the Harcombe study), a key thing to note is that, as ever in the case of this “journalist”, only one view is being presented. The Harcombe study has already been subjected to a fair amount of criticism, some of which seems rather compelling. You might fall on either end of the contrasting views, or somewhere in the middle, but a piece of journalism, rather than praise-singing, would include relevant and plausible dissenting views at the same time.

To conclude, another recent Sboros post is worth highlighting, titled “Are you a vaccine zombie? Risks versus benefits of jabs debate goes on“. The piece expresses anti-vaccine fears, primarily the standard one amongst cranks, namely the risk of autism. The debate does not “go on”, except to the extent that those who hold fringe views pretend that it does – the scientific consensus on vaccines is clear, and long-settled.

This post embeds a video from (quoting Sboros) “one of my favourite sources of health information: Mike Adams, AKA the Health Ranger”. Mike Adams is the man behind “Natural News”, the site that argues that Microsoft are developing eugenics vaccines. And that HIV doesn’t cause Aids. It also publishes David Icke, the man who thinks the world is controlled by reptiles from outer space, who live in underground tunnels and take on human form.

This is a health journalist’s favourite source of health information?

To quote Ben Goldacre, speaking of Zoe Harcombe but with words that might apply equally well here, “you may disagree, but in a busy world, I’m not sure I see the point of a Zoe Harcombe”.