Go fill your coffee cup, you're gonna need it.
So by now you've heard of the new Harvard study that villianizes red meat and says you'll die sooner if you eat it. You can read about it here.
It's worth the read.
Back in 2007 when I first published Good Calories, Bad Calories I also wrote a cover story in theNew York Times Magazine on the problems with observational epidemiology. The article was called “Do We Really Know What Makes Us Healthy?” and I made the argument that even the better epidemiologists in the world consider this stuff closer to a pseudoscience than a real science. I used as a case study the researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, led by Walter Willett, who runs the Nurses’ Health Study. In doing so, I wanted to point out one of the main reasons why nutritionists and public health authorities have gone off the rails in their advice about what constitutes a healthy diet. The article itself pointed out that every time in the past that these researchers had claimed that an association observed in their observational trials was a causal relationship, and that causal relationship had then been tested in experiment, the experiment had failed to confirm the causal interpretation — i.e., the folks from Harvard got it wrong. Not most times, but every time. No exception. Their batting average circa 2007, at least, was .000.
Now it’s these very same Harvard researchers — Walter Willett and his colleagues — who have authored this new article claiming that red meat and processed meat consumption is deadly; that eating it regularly raises our risk of dying prematurely and contracting a host of chronic diseases. Zoe Harcombe has done a wonderful job dissecting the paper at her site. I want to talk about the bigger picture (in a less concise way).
This is an issue about science itself and the quality of research done in nutrition. Those of you who have read Good Calories, Bad Calories (The Diet Delusion in the UK) know that in the epilogue I make a point to say that I never used the word scientist to describe the people doing nutrition and obesity research, except in very rare and specific cases. Simply put, I don’t believe these people do science as it needs to be done; it would not be recognized as science by scientists in any functioning discipline.
Science is ultimately about establishing cause and effect. It’s not about guessing. You come up with a hypothesis — force x causes observation y — and then you do your best to prove that it’s wrong. If you can’t, you tentatively accept the possibility that your hypothesis was right. Peter Medawar, the Nobel Laureate immunologist, described this proving-it’s-wrong step as the ”the critical or rectifying episode in scientific reasoning.” Here’s Karl Popper saying the same thing: “The method of science is the method of bold conjectures and ingenious and severe attempts to refute them.” The bold conjectures, the hypotheses, making the observations that lead to your conjectures… that’s the easy part. The critical or rectifying episode, which is to say, the ingenious and severe attempts to refute your conjectures, is the hard part. Anyone can make a bold conjecture. (Here’s one: space aliens cause heart disease.) Making the observations and crafting them into a hypothesis is easy. Testing them ingeniously and severely to see if they’re right is the rest of the job — say 99 percent of the job of doing science, of being a scientist.
The problem with observational studies like those run by Willett and his colleagues is that they do none of this. That’s why it’s so frustrating. The hard part of science is left out and they skip straight to the endpoint, insisting that their interpretation of the association is the correct one and we should all change our diets accordingly.
In these observational studies, the epidemiologists establish a cohort of subjects to follow (tens of thousands of nurses and physicians, in this case) and then ask them about what they eat. The fact that they use questionnaires that are notoriously fallible is almost irrelevant here because the rest of the science is so flawed. Then they follow the subjects for decades — 28 years in this case. Now they have a database of diseases, deaths and foods consumed, and they can draw associations between what these people were eating and the diseases and deaths.