Thursday, July 28, 2011

Spinning Science News

Science Daily recently (well, sort of recently) had two stories about the same research, one put out by the PR department at Johns Hopkins and the other distributed by the PR department at the University of East Anglia, in the UK. See if you can tell which is which.

1. ScienceDaily (June 14, 2011) — People who use a mist inhaler to deliver a drug widely prescribed in more than 55 countries to treat chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may be 52 percent more likely to die, new Johns Hopkins-led research suggests.

2. ScienceDaily (June 13, 2011) — An inhaler designed to help chronic bronchitis and emphysema sufferers breathe could be significantly increasing their risk of dying, according to new research by the University of East Anglia (UEA) and three US universities.

Right you are! The Hopkins PR department didn't even mention the UK university and the UK university dismissed Hopkins as just one of three US universities.

These press releases that get published by Science Daily and then picked up by newspapers are released not only when some research group has a real breakthrough, not only when some research group has something slightly new to say, but often whenever a clever PR person at the research center can figure out how to put a positive spin on something that might or might not be confirmed with future research.

The lead invariably mentions the institution. The next few paragraphs often describe the researchers and give all their titles. I usually skip reading all this. Then there are a few paragraphs giving background, for example, giving the differences between type 1 and type 2 or once again describing the "obesity epidemic."

The real news is often far down in the article, sometimes only a sentence or two. Then come quotes from the researchers saying how important this work is and how it either suggests the need for more research (the researchers want more grants) or suggests the need for the development of new drugs on the basis of the work (the researchers want to patent something).

[These two articles did have more meat than some others, and the safety concerns are, in fact, newsworthy. It was the leads that were so obviously PR-department generated.]

When science news is spun just like political news or "sold" by PR departments like a new type of plastic kitchenware, how can we trust anything we read on these news sources? There are zillions of scientific journals out there today, and no one can read even the tables of contents of them all. We have to trust science journalists to notice the important stuff and let us know about it.

But if all they do is reprint press releases from PR departments, is there any point? I suppose these press releases are better than nothing. They do alert us to the possibility there's something new there, and they usually give links to the source, so we can check it out ourselves.

But wouldn't it be wonderful if we could read real science news without having to scrutinize it for spin?

War on Fruits

How many times have you read recently that you should eat more fruits and vegetables?

It's today's fad mantra. Want to lose weight? Eat more fruits and vegetables. Feeling sad? Eat more fruits and vegetables. Credit card maxed out? Eat more fruits and vegetables.

Sometimes I think we should just make it one word: fruitsandvegetables.

When I read one article that claimed that people in previous centuries ate lots of fruitsandvegetables my tolerance limit was reached.

That's idiotic!

Sure, there wasn't as much junk food in past centuries. But then, as now, poor people couldn't afford expensive fruits, or even vegetables unless they grew their own. Oranges were considered a rare luxury. Then, as now, poor people had to eat a lot of starches like bread and potatoes to get sufficient calories.

Even rich people didn't feast on lots of fruitsandvegetables. Here's a menu from Queen Victoria's household on her 80th birthday. I don't see a lot of fruits there. A few vegetables, but mostly meat and fish and eggs.

Here's an article describing what people ate in Boston restaurants in the 19th century. Like Queen Victoria's household menu, the restaurants seemed heavy on lots of meat courses, thick sauces, and pastry. Certainly not what today's nutritionists would recommend. Not a lot of emphasis on salads. Fruit was offered at the end, but only after a pastry course.

Here's another 19th century menu so heavy on meats that it makes me slightly nauseous to read it . . . and I'm on a low-carb diet! They do offer some fruit at the end, but by that time you'd probably be so stuffed with meat, game birds, lobster, and fish that you wouldn't have much room to stuff yourself with fruit.

I have nothing against eating more vegetables, limiting them to the low-carb ones like greens and other above-ground vegetables except peas and corn if you have diabetes. But fruits are full of sugar. If you have diabetes, it's not a good idea to eat a lot of fruit.

It's time we came to our senses and got rid of the fruitsandvegetables mantra. It's time we stopped thinking of some past Golden Age when everyone ate lots of lean meat (people in the 19th century would have guffawed at the idea of lean meat; they added bacon or lard to meat to make it juicier) and fruitsandvegetables and low-fat dairy and had glowing skin and never got fat.

Let's separate fruits from vegetables and eat less of the former and more of the latter. Let's focus on the carb counts of foods rather than whether they're fruitsandvegetables or other things.

Let's control our diabetes by finding out what foods make our blood glucose levels go up instead of listening to idiotic fad mantras.

We're smarter than fruitsandvegetables, right?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Warped Logic

In science, it's good to have an open mind, because we're always discovering new things that change the "facts" we were once so certain of.

But too many scientists get stuck in a groove, and they can't be budged from the current dogma, even when the evidence doesn't support their beliefs.

This is apparent in the eternal debate about the best diet. One problem is that people are different, they interpret diets differently, they keep track of what they're actually eating differently, they have different exercise patterns, they take different drugs, and so on and so on. But focus on "evidence-based medicine" means physicians won't believe anything unless it's been proved in a double-blinded controlled randomized trial.

And because such trials involve large groups of people, some of them usually respond one way and others respond in another way, and only statistical analysis will show whether the intervention worked on average. It says nothing about how the intervention will work on any individual patient in the future.

Nevertheless, what bothers me is the tendency of the scientists doing these trials to interpret the results in the light of their own biases. One such ploy when your intervention didn't work is to suggest that you didn't intervene hard enough.

For example, when a study of l0w-fat diets resulted in no benefit, the researchers said maybe the fat content wasn't low enough, that the study should be repeated with even less fat in the diet. It didn't seem to occur to them that perhaps lowering the fat content of the diet wasn't helpful.

A recent study shows the same type of reasoning. This study showed that adding moderate exercise (walking) to diet in people with type 2 diabetes resulted in no benefit for hemoglobin A1c. The first explanation by the lead author of the study was that "the activity chosen, walking, was suboptimal."

In other words, if the exercise you used shows no benefit, maybe more exercise will help.

A lot of studies have shown that exercise doesn't contribute to weight loss. Just Google "exercise, weight loss, doesn't help" for a smorgasbord of articles. Often, exercise just makes you hungrier. Other studies have shown that diet and exercise do work better for overall fitness than either diet or exercise alone.

Exercise helps the cardiovascular system and is certainly a good thing to get. (So why am I sitting here typing instead of finishing the wood stacking I started this morning? Answer: I'm human, just like you.)

I'm not suggesting that exercise is bad. What bothers me is the knee-jerk reaction of some science investigators. "My study doesn't support my hypothesis, so maybe the study wasn't done right" instead of "My study doesn't support my hypothesis, so maybe the hypothesis is wrong."

If everyone thought like this, we'd never make any progress.

Luckily, there are always a few brave souls who dare to defy the current dogma. They're usually laughed at when they start, and some of them give up. Some persist. And they're the ones who end up with the Nobel Prizes.