Vaccines and false balance

As anyone who reads Synapses would know, I’m a proponent of scientific skepticism. What that means is something along the lines of “the practice or project of studying paranormal and pseudoscientific claims through the lens of science and critical scholarship, and then sharing the results with the public (from Daniel Loxton’s 2013 essay, “Why is there a skeptical movement?).

Skepticism should not be conflated with hyperskepticism, as Caleb Lack and I argue in our book on critical thinking. So, it doesn’t (necessarily) mean believing in chemtrails, or Big Pharma deliberately poisoning you, or your cellphone making you infertile (it’s a bit of a pity that that one isn’t true, actually). Continue reading “Vaccines and false balance”

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 Biznews.com, 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”.