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Science Degrees Can Be Used to Mislead

May 1, 2006
"Vitamin E is harmful", "salt is poison", "organic cookies decimate the endangered orangutan habitat" and "the childhood obesity crisis is a red herring made up by the liberal media." These assertions are just a sampling of the flagrant misuses of science degrees by people who should know better. When it’s expert versus expert, everyone gets short-changed.

Last month, The New York Times' Kim Severson reported on Michael Jacobson, Ph.D. and his Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) "nutrition advocacy" group. The people who have appointed themselves the nation's nutrition police are waging a campaign against palm oil. This is the same gang that has waged a smear campaign against sugar, salt, anything with a lipid structure, Italian food, Chinese food, Indian food, popcorn, milk…the list is just too long, folks.

The problem is, over the years Dr. Jacobson and his group just keep getting sloppier and sloppier when it comes to building a fact-based argument to support their crusade du jour.

I've reported on the ongoing salt siege by CSPI a couple of times. In a nutshell, CSPI published, with horns blaring, a thick book railing about why and how salt is going to kill 90 percent of humankind - or some such histrionic. After delving into the science tendered, there was still nothing to definitively connect salt consumption to disease in healthy people. Worse, much of the CSPI's report was outright misleading.

The bad seed? According to CSPI it is. This is the palm fruit, whence comes palm oil. Source: AmericanPalmOil.com.

In the palm oil case, it only gets better. Ever the dramaturge, Jacobson issued an anti-palm oil report titled not something responsible, such as "Palm Oil May Impact Health and Environment" but "Cruel Oil." This report accuses the palm oil industry of contributing to the decimation of the endangered orangutan's habitat in Malaysia, in addition to repeating Jacobson's contention that palm oil is responsible for increased risk of heart disease.

But there's more: In the report, amid such embarrassing phrases as "dying for a cookie," CSPI singles out Newman's Own Organics, implying the company and its principles are both misleading the public and contributing to the horror of palm oil proliferation.

First, and subjectively, I believe the rainforest and the habitat of its creatures - including the orangutan - merit the strictest protection possible by humanity. However, Newman's Own Organics gets its palm oil from South America, not Malaysia.

Another missed fact: Current nutrition science has not established a solid connection between the saturated fats in plants and heart disease. The saturated fats that concern nutrition experts are those from animal products, which are different from plant-sourced fats.

Michael Jacobson is not the only Ph.D. using his doctorate as a shield for his own "facts-be-damned" agenda. Clambering up the mound of bloviating "experts" brandishing their degrees is a once-trustworthy Harvard M.D./Ph.D. who insists potatoes are "poison" but has to cite data on the deep-fried version to back him up because if anyone looks at the boiled tuber, the health profile turns 180 degrees.

The past few months have also seen an American Heart Association committee slamming soy's long resume of benefits by carefully cherry-picking through decades of studies. Next, vitamin E was attacked, following a similar manipulation of aggregated study results.

Then there's the study that declares the childhood obesity crisis to be nonexistent. The problem is that the data used to support such an insane claim are those of only the most recent years. While this may be a good argument that childhood obesity could be plateauing, anyone comparing average weight and health of today's children to those of 25 years ago is still going to come up with the inescapable obvious: Our children are overweight and undernourished.

And, of course, we can't forget the various medical doctors who see a gold mine in the diet business and use their degrees to take advantage of a gullible public, foisting fad after fad on the teeming masses.

There's a lot of money in food for nutrition and health - about a third of a trillion dollars yearly, depending on how you parse the numbers. And I can see how this attracts the usual snakes of the world, degreed or not. What is disturbing is that after receiving a few front-page recognitions in the popular press, certain scientists who were once intelligent and diligent become so quick to shed all the ethics that should accompany a science degree.

A dozen years ago, the biggest problem with getting reliable nutrition reporting into the popular press was the gap between the lab and the journalist. Scientists would be misquoted or their work would be taken out of context by a media that simply wasn't science-savvy. Then, it was the reporting that had gone bad.

Today, degreed experts are willfully and "with malice aforethought" turning their backs on the values and principles of science. For those who genuinely care about how we can turn around the epidemic of obesity and its related dangers of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, etc., such moral bankruptcy makes our job that much more difficult.

Swapping trans fats with tropical oils was a good thing from a health standpoint. (The jury is still out for me as far as the environmental aspects, but I urge anyone studying the issue to visit www.americanpalmoil.com.) Scaring manufacturers and consumers away from that is a bad thing.

Disabusing folks of the notion that soy - or any food - can cure everything is responsible. Implying that soy is useless is irresponsible. Ditto vitamin E. Clarifying the uncertainties of science is important. Deliberately using the uncertainties of science to manipulate the public and the food industry is nothing short of unconscionable.

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