In science we trust?

 “”Are those snakes curled around the vines?”
“Pit vipers,” I said, “One of the hotel’s claims to fame. There’s no need to worry — no one’s ever been bitten here. You can hardly see them, they’re so well camouflaged.”
“But you know they are lying in wait just above, ready to fall on you.”
“I ignore them, as does everyone else eating here.”
“The great human capacity for choosing not to see,” he said.
“It makes life easier,'” I said.
~ from The Gift of Rain, by Tan Twan Eng ~

My first response to the recent NYT article about the sugar industry’s complicity in making fat, rather than sugar the focus of our nutritional ire is duh.  My second is again? This is why people distrust science. Read the article. It’s sadly nothing new or surprising. I mean we all know sugar is toxic.  Consider the kid whirling out of control at a party all hopped up on cake and cola. And we all know the sugar industry would like us to think not only is it not bad for us, but that maybe even it’s good for us. I’d like to think that too, especially when foraging for my 3 O’clock fix, settling for caramel sauce from the jar when we are out of chocolate chips.

What the article, which tells of three Harvard scientists and a review funded by and essentially written to appease the sugar industry, brings to mind is bias. Were those Harvard scientists who provided the sugar industry with the results they wanted, a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine no less, (sugar not bad, fats bad) biased or straight-up complicit? There is no excuse if they traded on their scientific credentials. None are alive today to defend their work.  It is hard to believe, knowing what we know today, that they were inadvertently biased – though we are all human and sometimes we don’t see, or acknowledge our biases. This is difficult to acknowledge as a scientist trained in objectivity. Years ago, when applying for a job working with communities fighting desperately against industry to get their water, back yards and air cleaned up (these were communities with few funds, little legal power) I was asked about objectivity. “Do you think you can do this work objectively?” A little put-off, I answered “Yes?” confused by why anyone would even ask such a question. At the time, I was proud that all of the research I had done, evaluating the toxic effects of industrial chemicals, had been funded with federal funds or by nonprofits; never corporate money. Work that was “untainted,” and obviously, I thought, unbiased. Well, I didn’t lose the job, but I did realize as soon as I’d answered, that I was wrong. We all have some bias. And try as we might it’ll affect our work in some way. In the design of an experiment. In the writing of a paper. In the choice of articles we review. Even in the funding we accept and why we accept that funding.

So back to sugar. Here is a quote from an editorial by professor of nutrition, Marion Nestle  about the article discussed in the NYT report:

“The documents leave little doubt that the intent of the industry-funded review was to reach a foregone conclusion. The investigators knew what the funder expected, and produced it. Whether they did this deliberately, unconsciously, or because they genuinely believed saturated fat to be the greater threat is unknown. But science is not supposed to work this way. The documents make this review seem more about public relations than science.”

We rely on science for our health. To reduce our impact on the environment. To communicate with each-other. Science is integral to how we live and the impacts we have upon one another and the world. When it becomes twisted, it isn’t just a problem for those of us who love sugar and would be amenable to a diet of say, sugar, salt and fat, but it is a problem for all of us.

A little bit of guarded skepticism can be a good thing, especially when scientific reports become headline news and their interpretation spins away from science itself. Too often we choose not to see.

But we also tend to forget that science is a process. We learn about our health and environment through not just one study or review – but many, expanding our understanding bit by bit. And while one study may warrant a bit of healthy skepticism; a whole slew of studies (by a diversity of scientists) warrants our trust. We need to have some trust in the science and the scientists, otherwise we are at the mercy of those like the sugar, tobacco and oil industries with vested interests.  Which makes those scientists who appear to be in cahoots with industries that twist science to fit their needs particularly egregious. Because it gives us all a bad rap. We have to be able to trust the literature as a whole, particularly if science is to be socially useful.

butterflyMost of us scientists, I’d like to believe, are just curious, wanting to figure out what motivates a minnow, or a cancer cell, or a monarch butterfly. We want to understand how human bodies remain healthy, and how to prevent disease; likewise we want to understand what it means for a lake or a forest pcbor a coral reef to be healthy – and how to prevent their demise. We want to tease apart our gaseous atmosphere so that we can prevent catastrophic change.  Most of us.  But I am, of course, biased.









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