Fake Science

News journalism is a mess. "Alternative facts" render truth-seeking almost impossible. But journalists have compounded the problems by abandoning their educational roots. As my Medill School of Journalism educated wife reminds me, the news should be all about the "5 Ws": Who, What, When, Where, and Why. Instead, today’s news is an opinion piece on every page and on every screen. Thank goodness we can rely on scientific journals for their veracity. Or can we?

In late March, Polish scientists published in Nature the results of a sting operation with 360 scientific journals. After categorizing the journals by their standard of vetting, the authors submitted the credentials of a fictitious scientist seeking a position on the journal’s editorial staff. Seven percent of the middle tier grouping and 33% of the lowest tier accepted the fake scientist’s invitation to join a critical editorial position. As open access journals have flourished, so has fake science.

But is that anything new? Not really. Anil Potti, MD, a Duke University medical researcher, falsified his data defining personalized cancer treatments, and his work was widely published in 2010 by respected, peer-reviewed medical journals. As one respected and published researcher recently confided to me, it is virtually impossible to know if one of your co-authors has fudged his data.

Which brings us to how and why the United States faces an epidemic of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Forty years ago, bad science propelled America towards a public health disaster. Ancel Keys, the preeminent American academic nutritionist, began his famous Seven Countries Study in 1958, analyzing the epidemiology of heart disease and diet. While this study was impressive in its design and execution, its limited conclusions were oversimplified to justify a decades-long focus on dietary fat as the primary cause of cardiovascular disease.

At the same time, food industry lobbyists quietly funded "research" and review articles to amplify this message, and marginalize or discredit a growing body of data suggesting that sugar consumption also plays a significant role. Furthermore, Keys and his allies personally attacked researchers who advanced such alternative hypotheses. Despite obvious flaws and conflicts of interest, this nutritional propoganda was embraced by the U.S. government as the Food and Drug Administration officially defined "healthy" as food with low fat and cholesterol, but with no concern for added sugar or refined carbohydrates.

So we've been encouraged to enjoy our "heart healthy" breakfast cereal where four of the first eight ingredients are sweeteners, with 50 grams of carbohydrates and 16 grams of sugar per cup.

The rest is history.

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