The Search for Science without Bias

Lynne Murray says:

Science is the religion I grew up in. My father was a research psychologist who was flexible in some ways. But he was very serious about the design of experiments. I didn’t follow science as a career but when I was in grammar school my father used to quiz me about the elements of the scientific method.

It’s simple enough for even a math-challenged kid like me to grasp how to design a basic experiment. The goal is to set up a situation that isolates the one factor you are studying and as much as possible controls other factors that could influence it. Not every experiment proves the scientist’s initial hypothesis (aka the scientist’s first guess at what might be causing the phenomenon). Failures provide as much information as successes.

In the ethical atmosphere I grew up in, faking the data on an experiment would be a major sin, certainly grounds for dismissal for a researcher.

I am constantly distressed at how often so-called obesity research never bothers to question major, unproven assumptions about what makes people fat.

Commercial interests and fear of crossing accepted views on what kind of result researchers are expected to get dictate a lot of “funding bias”:

… an observed tendency of the conclusion of a scientific research study to support the interests of the study’s financial sponsor.

In this toxic atmosphere I was particularly intrigued to see the following passage in an article entitled “Why Are Animals Getting Fat?”:

[H]ow do you explain the rising weights of lab animals? They have been fed a standard diet and kept to a standard lifestyle for at least 50 years…. captive chimps “living in highly controlled environments with nearly constant living conditions and diets” increased in weight by over 30% between 1985 and 2005.

Notice that experimental animals live in totally controlled populations, every possible variable is known. You can’t cook up a story that they gained weight because they ran downstairs to raid the refrigerator and lied about it. Every aspect of their existence is known and observed.

The several authors who did the research called it: “Canaries in the coal mine: a cross-species analysis of the plurality of obesity epidemics.” Here’s part of their abstract.

We examined samples collectively consisting of over 20,000 animals from 24 populations (12 divided separately into males and females) of animals representing eight species living with or around humans in industrialized societies. … Surprisingly, we find that over the past several decades, average mid-life body weights have risen among primates and rodents living in research colonies, as well as among feral rodents and domestic dogs and cats. The consistency of these findings among animals living in varying environments, suggests the intriguing possibility that … increasing body weight may involve several as-of-yet unidentified and/or poorly understood factors (e.g. viral pathogens, epigenetic factors).

Okay, now that is authentic science.

Instead of committing experimental atrocities like throwing out or ignoring results that don’t confirm the popular bias or cramming the data into a cookie cutter pre-decided conclusion aimed at pumping up a profitable product, the authors look at the statistical results and consider realistic factors that might lead to future testing that could yield actual answers.

I’m curious to follow this line of research and see what they find.

Note: For those who want to explore the real science behind obesity reseach, Sandy Szwarc, BSN, RN, CCP offers a wealth of information at her blog, Junk Food Science (now inactive and archived but still a great resource).

She examines the actual scientific studies that are often tossed around in the media, simplified, misquoted or simply poorly done. She addresses the product-driven nature of so-called scientific research. Szwarc describes why she needed to debunk fake science:

Science is being misused for marketing and political purposes. Evidence is being distorted and bias has inundated media, research, government policies and clinical guidelines. Unsound information proliferates in professional and advocacy organizations, academic institutions and journals; and even professionals aren’t reaching beyond beliefs to critically examine studies and recognize credible information. So much valuable and critically important information, and the very best science — well documented in careful, objective, evidence-based research — is almost never reported by mainstream media. Fear sells and unfounded scares, exaggerations and “what-ifs?” are being used to terrify people about their foods, bodies and health.

And all of this is costing, frightening and hurting people.

For years Szwarc made it her mission to trace “virtually every science, food and health story in media to their original press releases, which are reported verbatim.”

She concluded that:

Literally everything we hear and read today – on the internet or mainstream media – is marketing and created by those trying to sell us something: a belief, cause, product, service, or themselves. That’s why we hear “science” finds something one day, and something entirely different the next. “Pop” science, what is popularly believed and marketed as “science,” is oftentimes really the junk science.

I’ve also gone to the original source, the study behind each of those stories, and been even more alarmed to realize that the evidence is nothing like what we hear, or even what appears in the conclusions of many study abstracts. In fact, it’s often the exact opposite! Simultaneously, I’ve watched the very best science that counters popular beliefs and could put fears to rest, go unreported.

The best path to the truth is to embrace good science, no matter where it takes us … and even if the evidence debunks some of the things we’ve also come to believe. I am passionate about helping people understand the scientific process and decipher media and unsound marketing. That’s the only way we can all protect ourselves.

3 thoughts on “The Search for Science without Bias

  1. Lynne, I have to disagree that “unbiased silence” is possible, but I do think scientists can and should (and all-too-frequently don’t) work to identify and minimize bias, which it seems like the “canaries in the coal mine” authors have done.

  2. I totally agree, Debbie, that we can never expect to totally eliminate bias.

    As Werner Heisenberg pointed out in his famous Uncertainty Principle, even in the much more measurable field of physics, “the act of observing alters the reality being observed” quote from a sorta simple article explaining that without the math that I personally couldn’t follow here:

    Another problem in studying science that applies to humans is unconscious bias that the experimenter literally cannot sense because it’s such a fundamental part of the cultural mindset. But honest scientists will, as you point out, look for and try to minimize factors that could influence the data. Worst of all scientists slip off the path of ethics when they cherry pick results that blatantly confirm popular prejudice or lead to personal profit.

  3. I’m very intrigued with what we’re starting to learn about the role of gut microbes in metabolism.

    I think another source of bias in science is study design that relies on design of earlier studies as a template.

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