Standards in science journalism – #LCHF, #Banting and @BiznewsCOM

If you only get your news from people and places that agree with your pre-existing view, then you are living in a filter-bubble. This is not a good thing, as it means that you’re (relatively) impervious to discovering any errors in your beliefs, while simultaneously getting constant affirmation that you’re “right”.

That’s true for individuals as consumers of news, but also presents an opportunity for producers of news to reflect on their responsibilities. If you purport to be an objective – or at least balanced, seeing as objectivity is impossible – purveyor of news, then you need to take care to publish fair representations of the current state of knowledge.

One South African site that constantly abrogates its responsibility to present a balanced view is, and the headlong rush towards partisan propaganda is led by Marika Sboros, who seems to have taken on the position of journalistic praise-singer for the low-carb, high-fat diet, and for Professor Tim Noakes in particular.

To be clear, I don’t have a problem with self-confessed fans – rather than people who present themselves as journalists – doing praise-singing. Whether they are right or wrong about the facts, individuals have no responsibility to be fair with regard to the totality of evidence, and/or how it’s interpreted, on their personal websites or Twitter feeds.

This doesn’t mean I’d encourage that sort of epistemic irresponsibility, in the least. As I say, they have no responsibility to us to be fair – I’d say that have that responsibility to themselves, but that’s not what’s at issue here. In this case, we’re talking about a news website that isn’t set up as a promotional vehicle for LCHF, and a “journalist” who presents herself as objective.

Sboros’ most recent piece of misrepresentation arises as a result of the USA’s Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee announcing that they are set to reverse their cautionary stance on dietary cholesterol (so, the cautions against the cholesterol content of food, rather than the cholesterol content of your blood).

A second piece of new research is also described in the link above, namely a meta-analysis by Harcombe et. al. arguing that the dietary fat guidelines in 1977 and 1983 (cautioning against fat) were never justified by evidence from randomised controlled trials (RCTs).

The piece begins with nonsense, where Sboros’ italicised introductory text includes “In 2013, Sweden became the first country to ditch low-fat dietary guidelines, restoring cholesterol in eggs and bacon to its former glory”. That’s literally false, in that a Swedish advisory body, rather than “Sweden”, made certain recommendations. Second, that’s a gross misrepresentation of the recommendations they made, as even the advisory body themselves have noted.

Let’s take them one at a time, starting with the case of the USA. First, the headline Sboros chooses is “Science says Tim Noakes is right on cholesterol”. “Science” is rarely, if ever, dogmatic – pseudoscience is. Science – meaning what the totality of evidence suggests – points in one direction or another, and sometimes by very fine margins.

What I mean is, evidence in support of one particular point of view (Noakes’, for example) tips the scales in favour of their point of view, rather than “proving someone right”. And in this case, the misrepresentation is particularly bad, in that the only support for Noakes in these guidelines is for one leg of his argument, namely that cholesterol consumed has little impact on cholesterol in the blood.

As the Washington Post write-up makes clear,

The greater danger in this regard, these experts believe, lies not in products such as eggs, shrimp or lobster, which are high in cholesterol, but in too many servings of foods heavy with saturated fats, such as fatty meats, whole milk, and butter.

The new view on cholesterol in food does not reverse warnings about high levels of “bad” cholesterol in the blood, which have been linked to heart disease. Moreover, some experts warned that people with particular health problems, such as diabetes, should continue to avoid cholesterol-rich diets.

So, we see continued warnings about saturated fat, and continued warnings about blood cholesterol. Noakes says that saturated fat is fine, and that statins (to lower blood cholesterol) are bad, even toxic – he even uses the perjorative “statinators” for those who prescribe or recommend them. In other words, two key pegs of the Noakes argument are directly contradicted by this research.

Sboros, meanwhile, Tweeted a link to that same Washington Post piece, saying:

Well – if those doctors or dietitians actually read the linked piece, you’d imagine that they would carry on prescribing the statins, seeing as nothing in it recommends that they stop doing so.

Another interesting thing to note is that these guidelines seem to have been developed with the support of the Egg Nutrition Center and American Egg Board. Now, I don’t think that this automatically taints the research – as I’ve said before, “the fact that something is funded by a pharmaceutical company doesn’t guarantee bias. There’s a difference between being cognisant of potential biases, and writing something off in advance, just because of whence it came.”

I note it just to make the point that Sboros, Noakes and other LCHF supporters constantly use alleged taint via funding to dismiss research they don’t like – but then somehow seem to forget that principle when the research says things that they happen to agree with. For example:

Before moving on, read especially that second link for a contrasting view on what the revised guidelines mean, and on how they should be interpreted according to the holistic framework of knowledge related to diet. My concern here is about misrepresentation, rather than the science itself.

On the second issue (the Harcombe study), a key thing to note is that, as ever in the case of this “journalist”, only one view is being presented. The Harcombe study has already been subjected to a fair amount of criticism, some of which seems rather compelling. You might fall on either end of the contrasting views, or somewhere in the middle, but a piece of journalism, rather than praise-singing, would include relevant and plausible dissenting views at the same time.

To conclude, another recent Sboros post is worth highlighting, titled “Are you a vaccine zombie? Risks versus benefits of jabs debate goes on“. The piece expresses anti-vaccine fears, primarily the standard one amongst cranks, namely the risk of autism. The debate does not “go on”, except to the extent that those who hold fringe views pretend that it does – the scientific consensus on vaccines is clear, and long-settled.

This post embeds a video from (quoting Sboros) “one of my favourite sources of health information: Mike Adams, AKA the Health Ranger”. Mike Adams is the man behind “Natural News”, the site that argues that Microsoft are developing eugenics vaccines. And that HIV doesn’t cause Aids. It also publishes David Icke, the man who thinks the world is controlled by reptiles from outer space, who live in underground tunnels and take on human form.

This is a health journalist’s favourite source of health information?

To quote Ben Goldacre, speaking of Zoe Harcombe but with words that might apply equally well here, “you may disagree, but in a busy world, I’m not sure I see the point of a Zoe Harcombe”.

Also published on Medium.

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  • Kevin Charleston

    Excellent, thanks Jacques. Have you thought you may run the risk of being labelled “The Anti-Noakes”? I’m not suggesting this is a problem – there needs to be a sound and rational response to the drivel I see from the LCHF disciples; and I enjoy what you write. But there is a growing list of posts that some might see as an obsession 😉

    Minor typo I think there’s a word missing. “In this case, we’re talking about a news website isn’t set up as a promotional vehicle for LCHF”

    • Thanks Kevin (and for the typo-spotting).

      As for the “anti-Noakes”, I’m afraid that happened a long time ago already. But I console myself with the knowledge that a) these are important points; and b) the ad hom and other abuse has been from them, not me. As a bonus, of course, it would be yet another example of poor reasoning on their part to ignore the arguments in favour of calling me names – and I could then blog about that, too!

    • Alta De Waal

      Hi Kevin,
      I follow LCHF ‘journalism’ not for the sake of the diet. I also found arguments from ‘both’ sides unconvincing and uninspiring (maybe because I don’t understand it). But I follow it because it is such an excellent example of lack of scientific process (the journalism, not necessary the diet itself).
      It is abundent with heuristics, anecdotes and lack of falsificationism. I love the personal stories about how it changed people’s lives for the better, but that’s just it – it is anecdotal. The same goes for many other diets and lifestyle products, but obviously LCHF is the flavor of the day. The same goes for many other research fields as well. The typical ‘Mother who eat chocolate while pregnant have happier babies’ type of journalism

      What could also contribute to the ‘anti’ campaign is the LCHF movement’s sense of vindication – they saved us from all the lies and bad habits carefully engineered by food companies. Come on! Who ever said sugar and bread are good for you!

      So yes, this is a great article about practicing good science with LCHF journalism as a case study.

  • I get the Sboros attack, and in light of what is written here, I agree. But…

    In very early LCHF literature, Noakes called for a proper study. Presumably this was with the usual scientific peer revue process of proving his theory wrong. Has this been done by anybody or hopefully any reputable institution with the required double blind, objective, etc etc requirements?

    Or is everybody still hell bent on throwing sugar coated lumps of lard at one another?

    In the 80s Noakes was a proponent of FRN, an energy supplement for marathon runners, in a partnership of some sort with Bernard Rose and Bruce Fordyce. It was high carb. And then some more carbs. All about carbo loading and carb maintenence and carb recovery.

    For Noakes to have backtracked on that stance took some doing. Brave men admit their errors as publicly as he has.

    So my question again… Has anybody proven him and others wrong – on the banting thing, not the FRN thing?

    Or are we gonna just see who can shout louder?

    • A criticism of poor journalism, rather than “attack”. A word like attack assumes, or implies, that these issues are emotive, and they aren’t (at least for me).

      As for your substantive point – this isn’t the place to be asking it, as I don’t focus on the relative merits of diet. I’ve written about poor reasoning, and misrepresentation of certainty, etc.

      And yes, it does take bravery to admit great error. But that in itself also doesn’t prove anything – one can be wrong more than once. As for whether anyone has “proven him wrong”, that presumes that the burden of proof is on others, rather than Noakes, and I’m not sure that’s correct.

      If you’d like to shout, go ahead (although not here). I’ll just keep reading what emerges as it does, and commenting on the areas that interest me.

    • Forgot to mention: the most interesting research project on the go – at least as far as I can tell – that relates to your second paragraph is . Even though it’s Attia and Taubes who started it, they do seem intent on objectively researching and reporting whatever emerges from their well-funded and ambitious project.

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