All you really need to know about Pete Evans’ new documentary, The Magic Pill, comes up on your screen 18 seconds in, where a disclaimer tells you that “the personal stories portrayed in this film are anecdotal, and we make no claims that these experiences are typical”.
One good thing about the just-released “Lore of Nutrition“, documenting the campaign (allegedly) orchestrated by myself and others against an A-rated Professor with thousand of citations, hundreds of articles, many books, regular international speaking gigs, and constant (fawning) media coverage is that it leaves you in no doubt as to who the victim is (spoiler alert: it’s the celebrity scientist).
In news that came as a surprise to some us who are here, myself included (thanks to the generosity of the organiser, Karen Thomson), critics of Noakes and the low carbohydrate, high fat diet are apparently “boycotting” the Old Mutual Health Convention, that wraps up today.
The convention took place over 4 days – the first 3 operating as a professional event, with healthcare practitioners earning continuing professional development (CPD) points for attending, and the last day defined as a public event.
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).
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”.
To 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.
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.
First, 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:
— Tim Noakes (@ProfTimNoakes) September 1, 2014
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.
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.
That title, because I do think it an implausible and potentially unreachable goal to convey (relatively) subtle points about epistemology when the points in question relate to an emotive topic, namely our health and diet.
According to a few folk on Twitter, my blog posts on the topic have amounted to “rabid attacks”, which I find distinctly odd, seeing as the only ad hominem – and emotionally animated rather than merely critical – engagements I’ve seen have been directed at those of us who dare to challenge anything related to the LCHF diet and its proponents.
So, in bulleted points to try to minimise confusion, here are my concerns and positions. These are the same concerns and positions I’ve expressed from the start, contrary to what some “rabid” comments have claimed in response to my posts and columns on the topic.
- Regardless of the efficacy of the LCHF diet in treating various conditions, and regardless of the truth or falsity of hypotheses assumed by the LCHF diet, we should all 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.
- That project of triangulating on the truth is harmed by expressing scientific claims in absolutist language, and by creating movements akin to cults, where people are more likely to forget that anecdotes aren’t data, that being wrong in the past doesn’t guarantee you’re right now, that emotional commitment leads to confirmation bias, and so forth.
- My criticisms of Noakes have mostly been that – whether or not he’s right – he doesn’t present his case in a way which demonstrates sound scientific reasoning. We reveal ourselves when we “show our working”, and it’s not reassuring to see anti-vaccine quacks and evolution-deniers quoted approvingly when arguing for LCHF. It demonstrates a desperation to make a case, and a lack of sound judgement.
Likewise, not focusing on the details, or the evidence, is a bad sign. Take this tweet as example:
— Tim Noakes (@ProfTimNoakes) March 16, 2014
- It references the UCT Health Sciences Centenary Debate between Dr. Jacques Rossouw (my father) and Noakes. But notice how it references it – by dismissing me as a latecomer who somehow rushes in to defend my father’s cause. However, the evidence shows that I was writing about this 9 months before that debate, and that Rossouw père hasn’t been engaged with Noakes at all for around 20 years, and only got involved in this debate on an invitation from the Medical School when an ex-colleague had learnt that he was coming here on holiday. It misrepresents (a truly rabid critic might even say “lies”) to further a particular narrative.
- Likewise, it’s misrepresentation to tweet (as Prof. Noakes regularly does) links to Noakes’ SAMJ article criticising the WHI study that Rossouw directed without acknowledging that there were at least two responses to the Noakes article, arguing that his criticisms are misguided.
- A summary of the problem might be this: Noakes’ audience is primed to believe, and primed to think that critics are deluded, because of the narrative they’ve been told, and because their anecdotal experience (in the short-term, at least) confirms that narrative. And then, the way in which Noakes responds to critics (e.g. “I ignore what I consider not to be evidence“) seems to do little to help them think critically about science, because criticism starts – and sadly, also ends – with the charge that traditional views of diet are deluded.
- It’s entirely possible that the long-term harms of high meat or fat consumption are overstated, and therefore that Noakes is right. But I can’t imagine him saying that it’s entirely possible that we don’t yet know if there are long-term harms from following his advice, or that it’s entirely possible that a moderate diet, involving a focus shift away from any single or particular macronutrients, might be best for most people. Nothing seems possible, except that he’s right.
- Then, the LCHF crowd get relationships and potential taint utterly wrong in any case – just because someone works for “Big Food”, the FDA, the South African Heart Foundation or whatever – or is someone’s father/son – doesn’t absolve you of the need to make and respond to arguments. Sure, the connections can lead to the increased probability of some sort of bias, but you still need to show the bias, and not simply evade challenges by asserting it.
I’ve written at length about logic, epistemology, scientific reasoning, anecdotes and their irrelevance, and other issues to do with Noakes’ warrant for presenting his case with the degree of certainty that he does. I’ve said very little about the diet itself, because that is not my focus – and it doesn’t need to be my focus.
The retort that there is “bad science” on the other side is not compelling, in that it’s a) bad science (if it is) mostly because the LCHF people think it reaches entirely the wrong conclusions; and/or b) because it uses poor data. My accusations of “bad science” are premised on the selective quotations, dubious authorities cited and so forth as demonstrated in social media, rather than being about “bad science” in the sense described in (a) and (b) above.
To capture the essence of the only things I have ever said about diet specifically
- I’m concerned about the affordability of the LCHF diet for poorer populations.
- I can see how people might be concerned about animal welfare and an increase in the farming and killing of animals. I eat meat, but think it’s a moral failing that I do – and furthermore, I think that the immorality of meat-eating will be the subject of a moral consensus in my lifetime.
- Independent groups like the Harvard School of Public Health continue to caution against excessive consumption of saturated fat.
- I’m not at all persuaded by what LCHF folks assert as evidence of the failure of the so-called “prudent diet” – first, because it’s not at all clear that people have ever been eating that way (in general); and second because it caricatures dieticians as having recommended a diet that they claim they aren’t recommending at all. A series of blog posts at Nutritional Solutions are worth reading in this regard.
- In short, the increase in obesity and the like still seems mostly explicable by the advent of television, increased access to motorised transport, desk-bound lifestyles, and excess consumption of food.
- Yes, it certainly seems true that fats (in general) have been demonised far more than they should have, and that some of us might have started eating too much of other things (including carbohydrates, especially in the form of sugars) to compensate for a flavour-deficit after shunning fat.
This doesn’t, however, automatically lead to the conclusion that carbohydrates are in general bad, nor to the conclusion that we need no longer be at all concerned about the long-term effects of a diet with significant levels of saturated fat. “Real food” is good, sure – and refined carbs are “bad”. And what that means is, when you carry on eating your modest portions of a balanced diet (which is surely what you eat, right?), you should continue to be wary of including too many processed and refined foods.
That’s what I’ve always been told. What’s “new” is that fats aren’t as bad as we thought, and I (along with many of you, no doubt) were misinformed when we were told that they were rather evil. The truth is probably in the middle somewhere – and why replace one exaggerated position (“fats will stop your heart!”) with another (“carbs will give you diabetes!”).
As Oscar Wilde had it, “the truth is rarely pure and never simple”.
Three pieces related to diet and the low-carb high-fat fad are worthy of highlighting this week, because all of them are a counterpoint to the “sugar is addictive and you’re a victim of a conspiracy” seam that continues to be mined by the likes of Professor Tim Noakes. The first is by Gary Taubes, who Noakes cites as being responsible for removing the scales from his own eyes, and the second is a response to Taubes by Dr David Katz, who says that Taubes is asking the wrong questions.
You can read those pieces yourself – the only aspect I want to highlight here is how moderate Taubes’ tone is. He acknowledges that the science isn’t settled, but that he’s biased in favour of “sugars and refined grains” being the problem. He even includes the rider that “we all have our biases”. Indeed we do. But on that minimal (and yes, selective) quote, Taubes could be saying the same thing that mainstream nutrition science is – which is at a significant remove from the claims made by Noakes, who speaks as if there’s no doubt that carbohydrates are the cause of most of our ills, and that most of our ills can be eliminated (or at least managed) by eliminating the majority of carbs from our diets.
In other words, Taubes at least speaks as if he acknowledges the possibility of being wrong. Noakes, by contrast, leaps straight to rather humorous epithets when people disagree with him, calling them victims of “Group Think”, “statinators”, or “The Anointed”. Alternatively, he’ll poison the well by making very generalised aspersions about funding, as if to pre-emptively taint any claims that are being made. It’s tinfoil-hat territory, and in short, in no way confidence-inspiring, at least not for those of us who want to resist signing up to a cult.
And it’s the third piece that merits your careful attention, if you care for holding science and scientists up to rigorous and principled scrutiny. Not because it says anything new, but because it quite clearly articulates a very essential, and simple, principle of scientific reasoning. Namely: what question is being asked, and what sort of an answer will we be willing to accept as legitimate? The key passage for me – at least in terms of highlighting how Noakes is compromising critical thinking – is this one:
It seems likely that we were seduced by the early successes of epidemiology with point-causes with large effects — infectious diseases — and we were similarly seduced by Mendel’s carefully engineered successes with similar point causes — single genes — for carefully chosen traits, but these are paradigms that don’t fit the complex world we’re now in. What Mendel showed was that causal elements were inherited with some specifiable probability, and he did that in a well-posed setting (selective choice of traits and highly systematized breeding experiments). But Mendel’s ideas rested on the notion that while the causal elements (we now call them alleles) were transmitted in a probabilistic way, once inherited they acted deterministically. Every pea plant with the same genotype had the same color peas, etc. We now know that that’s an approximation for some simple situations, but not really applicable generally.
This passage reminds me of the dispute between Humean accounts of causation and what I’ll call the “causal powers” account, described very usefully in Harre and Madden’s 1975 book, Causal Powers: A Theory of Natural Necessity. In short, the distinction could be captured in discriminating between the fact that high carbs typically mean high quantities of refined foods, sugars, a sedentary lifestyle etc. and the fact that neither does it need to mean that, nor that those causal factors exist in isolation.
By way of example: To say that aspirins relieve headaches is to say that, because of its nature, an aspirin can relieve a headache while a laxative cannot. The means by which it achieves this are neither occult nor unfathomable – it does not have this power in spite of its nature; it is rather because of its nature that this is possible.
In cases like these, scientists are able to investigate the chemical composition of an aspirin, and then to figure out why it has the effect it has on the body, describable in terms of chemical reactions within the body. An aspirin’s power to relieve headaches is furthermore something which exists even when the tablet is not being used to relieve a headache. When we say that aspirins relieve headaches, we are saying that in a particular situation (essentially, a person having a headache), aspirins will be more effective than other things, because they by nature have the power to relieve headaches.
When we open the medicine cupboard, looking for something to relieve our headache, we choose aspirin over a laxative because we think or indeed know that it currently has such and such powers. The difference between a placebo and an aspirin is not that the aspirin will relieve the headache and the placebo will not, as there will be situations in which the aspirin is ineffective or the placebo effective, the difference is in the natures of the two substances, and that, by nature, aspirins generally behave in such a way as to exhibit the power to relieve headaches.
Harre and Madden go on to draw a distinction between enabling conditions and stimulus conditions, where enabling conditions are those that ensure that a thing is in a state of readiness to create a certain effect, and stimulus conditions which actually bring about an effect, assuming that the enabling conditions have been fulfilled. In other words, we’re talking about potential causal factors rather than absolute causes.
Enabling conditions for an aspirin would be that the aspirin is in a state whereby it could possibly alleviate pain – if an aspirin is consumed after its sell-by date, the possibility exists that certain changes have taken place in its chemical structure, resulting in that aspirin not being able to relieve pains. So, assuming that the aspirin is enabled in this way (this is not to say that this is the sole enabling condition), what are the stimulus conditions which actually bring about the response from the aspirin that causes the headache to be relieved?
To relate that to diet, what are the conditions under which carbohydrates cause obesity, or type 2 diabetes, or whatever? Noakes would respond to say that the conditions are quite clear – namely that they obtain when one is insulin-resistant. But he only mentions this qualification when challenged to do so. Page 22 of the Real Meal Revolution states quite plainly – without any qualifications – that “fat does not make you fat. Carbs do”.
The very next page introduced insulin, but without any suggestion that we might have variable insulin reactions to carbohydrates. And the page ends with a generalised warning of a “near-perpetual cycle of weight gain. Unless, of course, you break the addiction…”. Never mind, of course, that the word and concept of “addiction” is being used in a rather quackish sense here.
In other words, the qualification that this only applies to some is introduced grudgingly, under duress, whereas his generalised opposition to what he dubs the ‘prudent diet’ recommendations gives the clear signal that he’d prefer for dietary guidelines to suggest a low-carb high-fat approach, for everyone. As he says in an interview in early February 2014, he’s calling for a “return to your dietary roots, bringing you back to the way humans are meant to eat and returning your body and mind back to the trim, happy, energised state our ancestors experienced thousands of years ago. They didn’t get fat or suffer from obesity, diabetes or other lifestyle illnesses” – and as he’s pointed out in every talk I’ve heard and read, those dietary roots (allegedly) involved high fat diets and low carbohydrate intake.
Yes, he does allow for wiggle-room, with some of us allowed to eat “a maximum of 200 grams of carbohydrates a day, depending on your insulin resistance”. But he’s also claimed that 60% or more of us would benefit from the LCHF diet, so it seems clear that – unless you prove yourself carb-worthy by whatever standard he sets – the presumption is that you, like him, should avoid carbs.
Here’s the thing: dieticians already know that excessive consumption of carbs is a bad thing, especially when they come in super-refined forms, and especially in the form of sugar. If that were all Noakes were saying, nobody would care. He’s saying something more, which is that we don’t need to fear saturated fat, and that the proportions of proteins and saturated fat we consume should increase, at the expense of the proportions of carbs.
When making these sorts of claims, he cites sources like the Harvard School of Public Health, even though they include the (standard) cautions against saturated fats. Just as he and his followers have been claiming that Sweden has “officially” adopted LCHF, even though they’ve done no such thing. And when faced with challenge, the retort is that you’re indulging in “Group Think”, as though conspiracy theory isn’t a perfect example of exactly that.
@james_lennox Sure you know that 50% of people with heart attacks eating "balanced normal diet" have "normal" cholesterol concentrations.
— Tim Noakes (@ProfTimNoakes) February 11, 2014
Take the example of that tweet, pasted above. In Noakes-science, that’s evidence (or so it seems). For the rest of us, we might say a) that’s a post-hoc (ergo fallacious) argument; or b) that it seems fairly straightforward to intuit that high cholesterol is sometimes a potential causal factor, but never a necessary one, in causing heart attacks; and c) what about the other 50% – does their elevated cholesterol not mean anything, on this model?
As I’ve said before, I really hope he’s right (leaving aside the fact that non-human animals will be killed in even higher numbers if his diet takes off). But damn, I wish he could try sounding like a scientist for a change.
In the paper that brought the idea of evidence-based medicine (EBM) to prominence, Professor David Sackett et. al. wrote that
Evidence based medicine is the conscientious, explicit, and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients. The practice of evidence based medicine means integrating individual clinical expertise with the best available external clinical evidence from systematic research. By individual clinical expertise we mean the proficiency and judgment that individual clinicians acquire through clinical experience and clinical practice. … By best available external clinical evidence we mean clinically relevant research, often from the basic sciences of medicine, but especially from patient centred clinical research into the accuracy and precision of diagnostic tests (including the clinical examination), the power of prognostic markers, and the efficacy and safety of therapeutic, rehabilitative, and preventive regimens.
In short, EBM is about integrating the best available research knowledge with the expertise of clinicians, who might – and often do – spot something that a model or a manual might not recognise as significant. As much of a naturalist as you might be – and I’m a very committed one – raw data exists in a context, and the context might often be a significant clue in telling you what data are relevant, and how they should be interpreted.
So I share some of Dr. Malcolm Kendrick’s concerns, when he writes that “EBM is now almost completely broken as a tool to help treat patients” thanks to the “evidence” being susceptible to corruption by vested interests, and pharmaceutical companies in particular. If you fund enough research, and suppress results that you don’t like, it’s certainly possible to end up with all the “evidence” pointing in a favourable direction. Favourable for you, that is, but not for the patient.
But 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. That sort of pre-emptive dismissal is a logical error called “the genetic fallacy“, and you can tell when it’s being committed if someone stops paying attention to the evidence at all, or starts claiming that they don’t need to even bother doing so. Like this, perhaps (from Kendrick’s post):
Some years ago I stated that I no longer believe in many research papers that I read. All I tend to do is look at the authors, look at the conflicts of interest, look at the companies who sponsored the study, and I know exactly what the research is going to say – before I have even read the paper.
I have also virtually given up on references. What is the point, when you can find a reference to support any point of view that you want to promote? Frankly, I do not know where the truth resides any more. I wish to use evidence, and the results of clinical studies, but I always fear that I am standing on quicksand when I do so.
We are at a crisis point. Medical research today (in areas where there is money to be made) is almost beyond redemption. If I had my way I would close down pubmed, burn all the journals, and start again, building up a solid database of facts that we can actually rely on – free from commercial bias. But this is never, ever, going to happen.
It’s rather alarming to see the person responsible for writing The Great Cholesterol Con – and for encouraging most of us to stop taking statins to lower cholesterol – professing “I do not know where the truth resides any more”. (If he really means that, a career in anthropology rather than medicine might suit him better, I’d suggest, in that he’s already learnt a key mantra of the field.)
Another peculiar thing you’ll find on his website represents quite a cunning stratagem. You see, he’s talked himself into a bit of a bind with this “don’t trust The Man” stuff – if he ever wants to sell you something like a drug, how could he offer you “evidence” in support of it’s efficacy, assuming that he or someone else with a vested interest was involved in that research?
Easy – by redefining what conflict of interest means. For him only, mind you – not for others, where it means that you can’t trust them, and don’t even have to read them to know that you can’t trust them. In his “Disclosure of Interest” page, he notes “I have become the medical director for a company making a heart health supplement called ProKardia”, for whom he does paid consultancy work. And here’s the cunning bit:
If I do write about ProKardia or any of the ingredients in ProKardia, in a positive light, you need to know that I have a financial interest. I did not use the word conflict of interest in this statement, as I do not believe I have a conflict. I have become involved in developing, and using, a product that I entirely believe to be a good thing.
Got that? He has a financial interest alone, but no conflict. Authors of papers with connections to something he doesn’t trust, or research sponsored by pharmaceutical companies, always represent a conflict – and you don’t even have to read the paper in question to know this. (Which, amusingly, means that even if they were to try to insert the same Humpty Dumpty clause into their papers, Kendrick would never read that either.)
I say “Humpty Dumpty clause”, because the book Alice in Wonderland contains this fabulous line: “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'”
It’s the same causal relationship to what words – and evidence – means that allows for claims that sugar is addictive (as addictive as cocaine, according to some), or that Harvard have endorsed low-carb high-fat diets. They haven’t – they’ve just said that carbs can sometimes be worse than fats, particularly the “bad”, saturated fats – yet the LCHF proponents cherry-pick this as support, even though the same group are explicit that the type of fat matters, and that animal fats remain something to be cautious about.
Or, it’s this casual relationship that allows for claims that Sweden has officially adopted the LCHF diet, even though the report – now finally available in English (the summary, at least), though that didn’t stop English speakers like Tim Noakes from relying on blog sources as authoritative on what it said – actually says (my emphasis):
in the short term (six months), advice on strict or moderate low carbohydrate diets is a more effective means of achieving weight loss than advice on low fat diets. In the long term, there are no differences in the effect on weight loss between advice on strict and moderate low carbohydrate diets, low fat diets, high protein diets.
I realise that this is just one element of the debate, which includes diabetes, heart disease and so forth. But these are two examples of scientists cherry-picking data that happens to support something they want to argue for – or that can be made to appear to support it, so long as you whip up enough hysteria, or persuade them that there’s some conspiracy afoot.
As Mark Wallace points out in piece for The Guardian on “addictive” sugar, “if the issue is people failing to act responsibly, then it won’t be rectified by treating them like children”. To that, we can add “treating them like fools”.
And when the same people doing the cherry-picking are giving themselves licence to simply ignore research they don’t like, and to dismiss conflict of interest issues (in their case, but not for you) with a regal wave, they stop being scientists, and start becoming shills.
Some of you might have noticed that recent blog posts here have earned me some antagonism from defenders of the low-carb, high fat (LCHF) diet. In their defence, they of course think that I’m being needlessly antagonistic, especially towards someone (Prof. Tim Noakes) who they think of as doing pioneering – and very important – work in nutrition.
I’d like to try and approach the topic from a slightly different angle here, in the hopes of illustrating what I mean when I say that my criticisms are premised on a concern for exaggerating the quality and consequences of data, in a context of great uncertainty. In the same way as my language and arguments around religion have tempered significantly over the past 3 or so years, in science I’m equally concerned with the example we set as to how to think, where the claims we make should be proportional to the quality and amount of evidence we have.
A comment on one of my previous posts led me to this blog post by Prof. Grant Schofield, in which he responds to a press release from health professionals in New Zealand, decrying low-carb high-fat advocacy. Schofield’s post seems happy to embrace nuance and to acknowledge the limitations in what we can know right now about the long-term effects of LCHF diets, and is to me a great example of how to argue for an outlier position in a way that lures people into serious consideration of your case, rather than giving the impression that you’re being asked to join a religious cult.
As I wrote earlier in the week, the language of science should embrace uncertainty. We should not offer people dogma, both because it dumbs down the process of scientific reasoning, and second (an extension of the first, though) because it encourages people to think in terms of false dichotomies or other poorly defined and crude categories. What’s right is often about nuance, and doesn’t fit in a tweet or headline – and those of us who know better should not encourage a simplistic “X is right/wrong/healthy/good/bad”, especially when we know that’s what the market wants to hear.
The Doctor just tweeted a link to a great piece about “food fearmongering” that makes this point via examples of diet advice and promotions for books and movies about diet that are almost comical in their hyperbole. Food, basically, is trying to kill you – and unfortunately, you’re also addicted to it.
Until fairly recently, I was involved with a multi-disciplinary research team working in the field of pathological gambling, and as a result got to spend five years working with leading international addiction scholars, neuropsychologists, clinicians in the field of addiction, and so forth. In national prevalence studies and other research, I also got to spend a fair bit of time with people who describe themselves as addicts.
The simple takeaway, if I were to distill five years into one sentence, is that addiction is complex, and not a word to be used glibly. Today, anything we happen to like is often described as addictive, and people will talk about “brain scans show that area X lights up” when you eat a Snickers bar, while not thinking that perhaps area X happens to light up when you do stuff you enjoy. Or, that people who are inclined to addiction will find things to get addicted to, but that this doesn’t always mean that the thing in question is intrinsically addictive.
Today, people are variously addicted to sex, love, the Internet, cocaine, carbohydrates, sugar, crystal meth and so forth. But using the same word to describe all these things is profoundly misleading, and is also potentially insulting to people who suffer from the sort of unambiguous addiction that costs you your savings, your family, your health and so forth. To put a mild lack of self-control alongside heroin seems somewhat glib.
Cocaine, for example, often has no physical withdrawal effects. Psychotherapist Marty Klein says that, in 31 years of practice in the field, he’s never seen “sex addiction”, and describes it as a myth. Internet addiction was invented as a hoax in 1995, when Dr Ivan Goldberg took the diagnostic criteria for pathological gambling and adapted them to the Internet.
Internet addiction wasn’t included in the 2013 revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) – not even in the “Conditions for Further Study” chapter, that highlights things thought worthy of continued attention. “Internet gaming disorder” can be found in “Conditions for Further Study”, and “gambling disorder” does appear, in a new category for “behavioral addictions”. As I say, it’s complex.
Then, as I’ve written in the past, we might even want to be wary of treating the DSM as authoritative, perhaps especially with regard to the class of behavioural addictions, accused of making a “mental disorder of everything we like to do a lot”. My point is simply that this one word, “addiction”, is being made to do a lot of work – and a term that broad can sometimes appear rather meaningless in consequence.
It’s of course not meaningless for people who do suffer with an addiction of their own. The question I’m asking here: if we start speaking of anything that people struggle with as an “addiction”, what are the consequences of that? I fear that we’re not only encouraging shoddy thinking about addiction (and science, in general), but we’re also encouraging victimhood in that my lack of self-control can now simply be ascribed to the fact that I’ve been snared by the evil Internet, or the seductive candy bar.
And finally, there’s the danger of insensitivity – almost insult – to people who struggle with addictions that destroy lives. While being badgered by a LCHF devotee on Twitter, I was asked “do you have ANY experience with addiction that is not related to some scientific study? So much more to it than that.” In other words, I was being asked if I was an addict.
Now, this was Twitter, so you might say that this sort of thing comes with the territory. But what if I was an addict, really struggling with something, perhaps have just lost a job, or a spouse, or somesuch? Might one not think the question rude, crude, inappropriate – even indefensible? (Regardless, of course, of whether it was relevant or not, in that I was being asked “never mind the data, but do you have an anecdote?”)
I’d certainly think it inappropriate, perhaps even “triggering“, in the contemporary language of social justice. When it comes from someone who works at an addiction clinic, of all places, I’d be even more convinced.
And in this case, that’s exactly where it came from – a person offering treatment for “sugar and carbohydrate addiction”. The field of addiction – and addicts themselves – could do with us being a little more careful about the language we employ, and the categories we use to describe the things we enjoy.