A new study shows that tequila causes pregnancy.
No, there isn’t such a study. It’s an in-joke among science researchers to suggest how cause and effect - and profit motive - can be manipulated to produce new health headlines.
This has been a big year for new health studies that ostensibly debunk long established wisdom on what we eat.
And a big year for fraudulent studies, as well. More on that in a bit.
Last spring, a Japanese study showed that cholesterol, even the LDL kind that was thought to be human oil pan sludge, might actually be good for old geezers.
In another U-turn on nutrition, it was found that saturated fat is not associated with an increased risk of death, heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.
If you accept all that, here’s a new guilt-free breakfast: Eggs fried in anything that’s grease. Same for the hash browns. Four slices of country-thick bacon, not too crisp. Mounds of butter smeared lavishly on the toast.
Tablespoons of jam too; no, wait, sugar is still bad. But maybe just for now.
Omega 3 capsules on the side? A study from last month says people are wasting their money on fish oil supplements.
How does the public make sense of studies that purportedly prove anything and everything?
Back and forth like an election poll, but with no vote that finally settles it.
The public and scientists see the world differently.
The PEW research center reports that 88 percent of the scientists surveyed said it’s safe to eat genetically modified food (GMOs), while only 37 percent of the public think it’s safe.
And 68 percent of scientists said it’s harmless to eat foods grown with pesticides, compared with only 28 percent of the general public.
People don’t want to let evidence get in the way of what they believe, something like the old saw about reporters not wanting facts to ruin a good story. Few things are harder to do than changing our mind.
Scientists are human and they too can be guilty of confirmation bias, also known as my-side bias. That’s the tendency to look only for evidence that confirms a preconceived notion.
Think of it like a lawyer trying to win a case rather than uncovering the truth.
How often do you think that goes on when a company drops a ton of funding on researchers to see if the company’s product causes, for instance, cancer? Remember when Big Tobacco supressed its own researchers’ evidence that cigarettes were addictive and carcinogenic?
The instances of fraudulent research studies are becoming alarmingly high, in large measure because of the Internet publishing boom.
Here’s a good one by an academic whistle blower who submitted a research piece written by Maggie Simpson – yes, the soother-sucking toddler in The Simpsons. It was co-authored by Edna Krabappel, Bart Simpson's chain-smoking schoolteacher.
The paper was accepted by two journals, the Aperito Journal of Nanoscience Technology and the Journal of Computational Intelligence and Electronic Systems.
The spoofers had to pay the publications about $450 each to have the papers published.
Lesser known, but still quite remarkable, is anesthesiologist Yoshitaka Fujii, who holds the unofficial record for having his studies published and then retracted when major faults were found - 183 times.
The concept and integrity of peer reviews has, in many instances, gone up in flames like a Bunsen burner.
Mark Kingswell, philosophy professor at the University of Toronto, recently wrote in the Globe and Mail about Internet-based “predatory journals.”
Said Kingswell: “The academic imperative ‘publish or perish’ is so well known that people with no intention of entering scholarly life are familiar with it. Alas, now comes this new storm on the horizon of university careerists: predatory journals.
“Predatory journals are a whole different beast. Instead of you seeking their grudging approval, they come after you. And then they demand money.”
According to the University of Calgary’s Retraction Watch, 60 “peer reviewed” articles have had to be retracted. They consider the phoney peer reviewers “an apparent ring to generate positive assessments.”
The large Springer publishing group announced on Aug. 17 that it has identified more than five dozen papers that were published through manipulated peer review.
And what’s to be made of it when 270 researchers in the U.S. attempted to reproduce the findings in 100 previously published papers – and only one-third of the rerun studies came out with the same results found the first time around?
A bit of a disclaimer on these shenanigans. Legitimately conducted studies can go wrong for all kinds of justifiable reasons. And that doesn’t discredit the integrity of those who sincerely conduct them.
Brian Nosek, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, was candid about it: “We're going to get contradictions,” he said. “One year, we're going to learn that coffee is good for us. The next year, we're going to learn that it's bad for us. The next year, we're going to learn we don't know.”
And the final truth from Nosek: “Our best methodologies to try to figure out truth mostly reveal to us that figuring out truth is really hard.”
- Chuck Poulsen can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org