Investigating ‘science’

It’s sort of the hot thing to bandy about words like ‘experts’, ‘science’ and ‘evidence’ right now. Throwing one of those words in your sentence is meant to make people take you seriously. Citing a study has become the holy jackhammer of “See? I know what I’m talking about!”. But research can be corrput, biased, pressured by industry and politics, or flat out censored. And if you think that kind of thing only happens in the States and quaint little New Zealand is off the hook, think again. Get your brush and shovel ready, because I’m about to shatter your worldview.

My moment of disillusionment happened seven years ago, at work, while reading a Dietitians New Zealand newsletter that had just been emailed through. It included a link to another newsletter, Sweet Bites. I clicked on it and was rewarded with the results of a study that had found that sugar wasn’t really that bad for you. Hmm. My eyes scrolled down the page. The next study had also come to the conclusion that sugar was just calories and was perfectly fine as part of a balanced diet. I kept reading. Every study mentioned in this Sweet Bites newsletter was the same. Something was nagging at me. It felt wrong. Who were these researchers anyway?

It really wasn’t hard to find out. The newsletter was from something called the Sugar Research Advisory Service (now called the Sugar Nutrition Resource Centre). A quick trip to their website showed plain as day that they are funded by Sugar Australia and New Zealand Sugar. The dietitians and nutritionists who write for them are paid by these companies. And who are Sugar Australia and New Zealand Sugar? It was just a case of clicking on the links. Sugar Australia is CSR Sugar, and New Zealand Sugar is Chelsea Sugar. I don’t think it’s exactly rocket science why their research was pro-sugar. And I assumed that Dietitians New Zealand wasn’t in the dark, but was getting money from them, too.

I let my membership expire, and I became about 1000% more suspicious of every research article to cross my desk. I didn’t take summaries of studies at their word, I went back to the original study. And I scoured it not only for how good the study design was, etc., but for conflicts of interest, for funders. Where did they get their money from?

As I’ve grown more experienced as a dietitian, I’ve also grown more cynical and jaded about all ‘experts’, ‘science’ and ‘evidence’ in all areas, not just nutrition. Science is expensive and money is tight. Funding often comes from either government or industry, who often have their own agenda (it seems to always boil down to money and power). Scientific journals may have their own motivations. Highly politicized media choose what to report on to the general public and they put their own spin on everything. And in an age of cancel culture and censorship, scientists who think differently or whose conclusions differ from the crafted narrative are often silent out of fear for their jobs, and they certainly don’t receive funding for their research projects. And that’s not true science, is it? True science, the never-ending pursuit of truth, relies on being able to openly debate all sides without fear of reprisal.

So the next time someone tries to tell you about ‘experts’, ‘science’ and ‘evidence’, go back to the source and get your Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass out. Who funded it? Is anyone making money off it or advancing a political agenda with it? If it’s pro-meat, was it funded by Beef and Lamb New Zealand? If it’s pro-dairy, was it funded by Fonterra? If it recommends taking probiotic supplements, are there any ties to companies who make and sell those? And was the study design any good? Has it been repeated by others and the same conclusions reached? And who were the others? Who funded them? You might be surprised with what you find. Or you might be like me, and you’re actually not surprised at all.

2 responses to “Investigating ‘science’”

  1. People forget about the scientific methods principles. Reproducibility is a major one, (not just one or two studies by the same researchers).

    Looking at the actual research papers might have us draw very different conclusions than those sensational headlines that reference these studies.

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