Pay No Attention to the Magnate Behind the Curtain?
In 2000, a bunch of diet “gurus” were assembled to debate the pros and cons of different weight loss diets. Robert Atkins, Dean Ornish, John McDougall, the Sugar Busters guy, Barry Sears, and Keith-Thomas Ayoob from American Dietetics Association were in attendance.
At the time, the Atkins diet was booming in popularity. The low-fat guys demanded from Atkins data supporting his advocacy of high-fat, high-protein, low-carb diets. Atkins said he hadn’t been able to secure research funding.
Ayoob chided, “Excuse me, 10 million books in print and you can’t fund the study?”
Eventually, Atkins funded his own studies, which demonstrated that his’ conclusions about carbs and fats were not something to be ridiculed (they influences much of today’s emerging thinking about weight loss). Many of these studies were published in distinguished journals, such as the New England Journal of Medicine. Regardless, they were viewed warily because they were funded by Atkins.
In other words, skeptics belittled Atkins for not funding studies of his diet. Then, when he did fund them, they dismissed the results as biased…because he funded them.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Almost all employee wellness research is commercially funded, and I do believe bias and distortion are prevalent. On the other hand, I respect companies that endeavor to publish their results.
My job, as a consumer of science information is:
- to be aware of the potential for bias;
- to try to understand how bias may or may not influence outcomes;
- to seek less biased sources;
…and then to use my own critical thinking skills to reach or reject a conclusion based on all the information I have at hand.
[This post was adapted from a reply I wrote in response to Ted Kyle’s blog post Head Spinning Bias About Funding Bias. Ted blogs prolifically about obesity on his ConscienHealth – website, and is uncommonly faithful to scientific evidence. He’s a voice that needs to be heard.]