August 18

Anti-fat bias of the press


In making my morning’s trip through the news sources I regularly roam, I came upon a couple of aggravating examples of speculation that are being foisted off as fact.
I read a long article in today’s New York Times this morning about the increased rates of death from heart disease in New York City and its suburbs. Apparently residents of the greater New York area succumb to heart disease at much greater rates than the rest of the US as a whole; the article explored the possible reasons for the disparity. The writer interviewed a number of authorities, and, as you might imagine, attention was focused on fat consumption.
One authority, Dr. George Howard, a researcher at the University of Alabama in Birmingham (UAB), opines:

The role of lipids is very large in heart disease.

Oh, really?
Then adds Dr. Howard:

People think we eat badly in the South, but the worst meal I ever had was at a deli in New York. I’d never heard of schmaltz before that. [schmaltz is chicken fat]

This guy is a research scientist on cardiovascular disease at a major university and he claims as fact what is really a hypothesis, the lipid hypothesis. And an hypothesis that is on the way out.
Who is this guy?
It turns out the Dr. George Howard is not really a medical scientist; he is a biostatistician. If one reads his PR blurb from UAB one discovers an interesting fact. Dr Howard “has served as a reviewer for numerous academic journals and National Institutes of Health study sections.”
Now, clearly, Dr. Howard has an anti-fat bias, and, according to UAB, Dr. Howard has reviewed numerous articles submitted to medical journals. I wonder how many papers showing that fat consumption has nothing to do with heart disease passed Dr. Howard’s sharp eye? Not many, I would imagine.
(For those who don’t know, the medical paper review process operates thusly: researchers submit papers to specific journals, the editors of these journals then forward these papers to reviewers who are usually scientists working in the same field as are the scientists submitting the paper, but not always; these reviewers let the papers stand as written, demand anything from small changes to entire rewrites, or deem the paper unworthy of publication—and do it all anonymously. The reviewers send their opinions back to the editor of the journal who then responds to the scientists submitting the paper under his—the editor’s—name. If the paper is rejected or if a major rewrite is demanded, the scientists who submitted the paper never know who it was that cratered their work.
Here’s how this all works to perpetuate faulty research. Let’s assume that you have built your career on the idea that fat in the diet causes heart disease. You have tenure at a major university, you have a lot of grant money, many graduate students eager to work for you, and reporters calling you every couple of days asking you to expound on why fat in the diet causes heart disease. You also, by virtue of your standing as a scientist working in the nutritional field, get many requests to review papers for publication. Now comes before you a paper from a researcher showing that the dietary-fat-as-cause-of-heart disease theory upon which you have built your station in life is hogwash. Are you going to allow the paper to stand as written or are you going to tear it to pieces and deem it unfit for publication? People have compared the scientific publication review process as being similar to having the situation wherein General Motors got to review Ford’s automobiles, then decide if Ford’s cars were worthy of manufacture.)
The lipid hypothesis is so ingrained (thanks in great measure to the above scientific article review protocol) that even non-scientist reporters who should be more skeptical write as did the author of the above New York Times piece:

The clearest predictors of heart disease are certain risky behaviors, like smoking and eating a high-fat diet.

An hypothesis presented as fact.
One would think that reporters, given the amount of evidence out there to the contrary, would look upon the total acceptance of the lipid hypothesis by so many who should know better as a real man-bites-dog story. But, sadly, these reporters tend to lose their skepticism when in comes to fat.
Even Reuters gets caught up in the act. In a report on an article in the International Journal of Cancer that purportedly shows a relationship between the consumption of French fries between the ages of 3 and 5 and a 27% increased risk of breast cancer later in life, Reuters sees fit to gratuitously add at the very end:

A high-fat diet has been linked with breast cancer, which affects more than 200,000 U.S. women a year and is expected to kill 40,000 this year.

The piece wasn’t even about fat, and, if anything, fries contain more carbohydrates than fat; and the sum of the evidence at this time is that there is no correlation between fat intake and breast cancer.
So much for investigative reporting.

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