Saturday, August 11, 2007

When the scientists get it wrong

When I was going to school from K-12, I had faith in science. Yes, I know, the fundies are going to have my head for that line, but bear with me.

I sincerely believed that scientists were altruistic researchers who wanted to add to the body of knowledge in the world, and maybe get a little scientific glory for themselves. Once in college, I learned that I was very wrong. While there are some of those starry-eyed researchers out there who want to find real truth, many of them are primarily seeking a particular outcome, no matter what the facts say.

Data is massaged and manipulated. Studies are well-crafted to ensure a particular outcome. Experimental results that do not benefit the desired outcome are often tossed out completely. Basically, most of these guys want to be able to prove their point at all costs, often because the money's flowing from someone who says, "Give us THESE results."

There are no video cameras in the lab to ensure that the correct numbers are written down. There is no way to check and see if mice with undesirable results were quietly discarded. If I'm in a laboratory, and I count X number of bad results, I can write down Y results instead. In my last job, I was actually encouraged to alter data so as to avoid having to do something about products that were out of spec.

When you're selling an idea, the real motives are often hidden. For example, U.S. citizens were informed that Iraq was harboring weapons of mass destruction, and that Iraq was directly tied to the events of September 11, 2001. We now know that this was not the case, and the true motives behind selling the idea of invading Iraq were probably something quite different from protecting U.S. citizens from terrorism.

Those selling the idea that fat is bad and unhealthy are not motivated by an altruistic concern for people's health. If you find that a study is funded by the diet industry, you will probably find that its results are quite beneficial to the industry. This allows the industry to continue selling products and services that do not work, especially ones that work in the short term, but eventually fail. Built-in repeat customers are quite profitable, after all.

This makes me wonder how many other ways we are kept "sick" by the pharmaceutical and other industries that fund medical research. I remember when they changed a number, and suddenly a lot more people had high blood pressure. I had just gone to my (former) doctor in an extreme amount of pain from an infection, and my blood pressure of 140/90--higher than I'd ever had it since one awful night of agony in the ER*. My history of low-side-of-average readings and current stressful state didn't matter to him; he saw an opportunity to prescribe, thanks to the drug reps that pepper every available surface of doctors' offices with free gifts. I dug in my heels and refused to be put on blood pressure medication at the age of 28. Amazingly, I was fine at my next visit, since my pain was relieved, and I've been fine since. Had I been put on the medication, I would have suffered all kinds of side effects, and would have derived no benefit.

I think what aggravated me the most about it was that, instead of treating the cause, which was my pain and infection, he wanted to treat only the symptom. Artificially lowering high blood pressure is not necessarily a useful thing to do, and if a cause can be identified, it makes far more sense to fix THAT problem instead. Remember the old joke, "Doctor, it hurts when I do this"? Doctors today say, "Oh, here's some pain medication," when they should be saying, "Stop doing that!"

Of course, scientists have been getting it wrong all on their own for hundreds of years without the help of pharmaceutical grants. Every time I read about the medicine practiced even a hundred years ago, I get the feeling that they just made stuff up and declared it to be true. "Vapors", "humors", and "hysteria" are just a few of the ridiculous ideas that took way too long to overcome, and at the cost of many people's health, freedom, and lives.

People have been resisting change in scientific thinking for as long as science has existed, too. If you grew up thinking that a bat was a bird, you're going to fight pretty hard against someone who says it's actually a mammal. Add to that someone's financial stake in keeping the status quo, and you have our current situation of making sure that fat continues to be thought of as an illness. Ill people need medicine, surgery, treatment. If they realize that they can forgo these things, a lot of interested parties are going to lose a lot of revenue.

Follow the money, and remember that science is ALWAYS to be questioned. Learn to critically examine new studies--not just their abstracts, but their methods and data as well. If you're not comfortable doing these things, then at least have a look at others' interpretations of them; try to find the other side of the story. Sandy of Junkfood Science does a good job of doing this for us, and there are plenty of other authors out there doing it too.

*It turned out that my gallbladder was acute. I'd never even had an attack, so this was quite the surprise. They scheduled surgery asap, then rescheduled it even sooner after the bloodwork came back. Yikes. That was the worst physical pain of my life.


La di Da said...

To me, that constant questioning is real science. Doing one study and claiming "it is so!" isn't science at all. Most of the OMG FAT IS BAD "studies" fall all or some of the way outside of the scientific method, and yet are presented to the public as producing rigorously-checked, accurate results. But it's hard to get work as a medical research scientist if you don't produce the results your sponsor wants. Bleh.

KateHarding said...

People have been resisting change in scientific thinking for as long as science has existed, too. If you grew up thinking that a bat was a bird, you're going to fight pretty hard against someone who says it's actually a mammal.

Also, a whole lot of people in this culture have a personal stake in the status quo when it comes to "Fat is bad; weight loss is good" -- so they do the work of spreading the word about bad science for free.

When you've spent your life restricting your food and either A) feeling smugly satisfied with yourself for never "getting out of control," or B) hating your recalcitrant body for not ever staying thin, you really don't want to hear that dieting is a waste of time. 'Cause boy, would that ever make you feel dumb.

Hell, it made me feel dumb for a while. Then I got angry instead. But for a lot of people, I think it's seriously like having their faith questioned. They've invested so much of their lives in the power of this belief, when someone suggests it's false, their gut reaction is to hate that person, not to consider the evidence.

drowseymonkey said...

I enjoy reading your opinions on these subjects - very interesting. I'm wondering what you think of this study that talks about how diet foods may lead to obesity in children. Not sure if you've seen it or not, here's a link from

RioIriri said...

Growing children need fat and protein. If they are getting "low-fat" foods, their bodies are going to respond with cravings to try and get what they really need. I don't think it's so much conditioning as depriving them of what they should be eating.

If I am craving a sandwich, and I eat a rice cake instead, I am still going to be hungry for that sandwich and might go and get it anyway--or eat a dozen rice cakes to try to quell the hunger. So by not getting the sandwich in the first place, I've just eaten a bunch of other stuff in addition to (or in amounts greater than) the sandwich.

We've been trained to ignore the signals our bodies give us, told that science and doctors know best, and our bodies are flawed and mistaken, taught that hunger and eating are sins only to be tolerated as long as we "behave" ourselves with "good" foods.

I'd like to extend a nice big middle finger to those who would tell us to ignore our internal signals. Eat what you are craving, eat when you are hungry, stop when you're not. You'll feel so much better.

RioIriri said...

Oh, and I'd also like to add that the "clean plate" admonishments of yesteryear did not help us one bit. I frequently stop eating after I'm full, yet even waitresses in restaurants cluck their tongues at me for not finishing the meal.

My mother was great; she didn't force us to eat beyond what we were hungry for, but my grandmother is the "fill your plate!"/"Clean your plate!" type.

Once I stopped feeling obligated to finish a meal, I had fewer stomach upsets.

drowseymonkey said...

Thanks RioIriri, I knew you'd have good input! I'm really enjoying your blog. :-)

Azuzil said...


You rock.

"I'd like to extend a nice big middle finger to those who would tell us to ignore our internal signals."

This is actually hits on one of my core religious beliefs :) Thanks for putting it so well.

Erin said...

It makes me sad that you believe most science is like that. Some science is like that, some science done by big businesses that are in it for profit to begin with. But why the hell would you say that's what most scientists are? Speaking as a scienstist, no, we don't fiddle with the data as much as you imply we do. A lot of scientific data has to go through rigorous testing before it's even presented to the public, and you know what? If someone doesn't actually trust science, they're free not to use it. Don't get in a car, don't use prescription drugs, don't see a doctor, don't use eyeglasses, don't use pasteurized milk or water that's been treated from a tap.....the list goes on and on. Scientists make mistakes, but we're working a lot more towards the common good than a lot of people because if something doesn't meet the need for the "common good" then where's the market to begin with. We do need money, because experiments are expensive (I realized that one week of experiments ran me about $3000 in supplies once - not including time or equipment), but again, most of us are actually trying to do things that would help. Please, we're not the money grubbing bastards you think we are.

I did enjoy the second half though. I've been having constant headaches for about five months now. My doctor's been putting me on stronger and stronger pain meds, and it's only now approaching the sixth month of headaches with the pain meds not doing a damn thing that he's decided to send me for an mri and do blood work. Gee, thanks.

RioIriri said...

I am a scientist as well, and I have been encouraged to falsify data by supervisors, especially in my last job. It happens more than you think.