Scientists study things. It’s what they do. Some of them perform the actual bench science of doing the research — i.e., designing the study protocols, working in the lab, measuring the subjects, recording the data, analyzing the results, and publishing the findings. Others examine and learn from their work. The whole of scientific inquiry depends on those bench scientists doing their work with honesty and integrity, or else the endeavor is not just meaningless but potentially harmful.
In scientific inquiry, a researcher makes an observation, formulates a hypothesis about the cause of what was observed, and devises a means of objectively testing that hypothesis to see if it holds up. Whether it does or doesn’t, the scientist publishes the findings, laying out as transparently as possible the starting hypothesis, the design of what was being tested, the methods used to gather and evaluate the data that was collected, and ultimately, a conclusion about whether the starting hypothesis has been supported by the evidence or should be rejected based on the lack thereof. Whatever the result, science depends on everybody else being able to know the honest outcome.
Among the transparencies expected is a list of any possible conflicts of interest, financial and otherwise, such as funding by parties who might have an interest in the outcome, financial or professional cross-pollination with such parties, business associations with such parties, personal financial gain that might be enhanced by the finding on the topic in question, etc. In short, the researcher must disclose any reason that could be seen to bias the results in one way or another. Other scientists who examine the work often will weigh in with questions, comments, and suggestions to refine the research. Ideally, if it is a topic of broad interest, other bench scientists will attempt to follow the same protocol and repeat the experiment to see if they get similar results leading to similar conclusions. If the hypothesis is a valid one, subsequent studies should bear that out; the case for its validity should strengthen with more study.
At least, that’s the way it is supposed to work. But research doesn’t always turn out so intellectually pure. There are a number of ways that scientific inquiry can be dishonestly confounded, and pollution or bias, whether resulting from industry funding or deeply held ideology, is often at the heart of the problem.
We’ve grouped the main methods of skullduggery and academic sleight of hand commonly used to pervert, prevaricate, or persuade into broad buckets, which we have variously dubbed cloaking, racking, baiting and switching, brooming, cherry-picking, and britches burning. We’re going to tackle these “cardinal sins” of scientific research one by one, beginning with today’s focus: cloaking.
“Cloaking” in research, for our purposes, refers to dodgy maneuvering that makes the real money behind a study disappear to the casual observer. Sometimes the sin is one of omission: There’s simply no mention of the conflict of interest in the disclosure of a published paper. In some such instances, industry or special interests funding is subsequently ferreted out and exposed. Such was the case from the 1960s onward, when Big Sugar covertly paid leading researchers who downplayed the link between sugar and heart disease. This device was quite effective, as we’ve seen, with the sequelae visible around us today in the form of skyrocketing obesity and diabetes.
More often, the cloaking is more insidious. Industries pass money to willing researchers and organizations through puppet nonprofit entities with noble-sounding names and altruistic mission statements. These Potemkin villages of seeming do-goodery shade the special interest groups that fund and found them. Big Sugar and the sugar-sweetened beverage industry, aka Big Soda, are rife with examples, just as Big Tobacco was and Big Pharma and Big Agra continue to be.
Here are a few examples of cloaking:
- The American College of Sports Medicine created its Exercise is Medicine initiative (EIM), ostensibly aimed at getting people to move more to address the twin health crises of obesity and chronic disease. And who was its first founding partner? Coca-Cola. While the EIM “get moving” message is certainly there, so, too, is the one Coke hopes to spread: “Calories are just calories, wherever they come from,” and “Inactivity and lack of exercise are the drivers of obesity, not sugar.” Both storylines shift the blame for the chronic disease epidemics to “sloth” instead of “gluttony,” especially driving attention away from “sugar gluttony.” The stated mission sounds noble, but the unstated mission of EIM is a concerted effort to distract, deflect, deny, and downplay Big Soda or Big Sugar’s culpability in the obesity and Type 2 diabetes epidemics.
- Coca-Cola also underwrote a nonprofit called the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN) with an initial $1.5 million to get the organization started, once again to spread the messages that “all calories are equal and you just need to exercise more,” and “lack of exercise is at the root of chronic diseases.” More on this below.
Likewise, Big Sugar, Big Soda, Big Pharma, and Big Agra routinely buy the support and good will of scientists, academics, and national health practitioners’ organizations — such as the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, American Diabetes Association, American Heart Association, and many others — often under the guise of funding by a nonprofit “institute” or “foundation.” For example:
- Coca-Cola funneled over $4 million in research funds to two of GEBN’s founders: Dr. Steven Blair of the University of South Carolina (a foremost researcher in exercise for over a quarter-century) and Dean Gregory Hand of the University of West Virginia School of Public Health. The GEBN website and social media at that time mentioned no association with Coca-Cola, though there was a major financial conflict and the website itself actually was housed at Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta.
- GEBN’s president, James O. Hill of the University of Colorado, received $550,000 from Coca-Cola. When this was exposed, he stepped down from his position as head of the University of Colorado-affiliated Anschutz Health and Wellness Center, and the University returned $1 million of Coke’s money. Once the New York Times broke these stories, the GEBN quietly folded its tent and went away.
Industry underwriting invites bias in research, and numerous studies bear this tendency out. Industry-funded studies (whether openly funded or cloaked) yield far more outcomes in sync with the industry’s position about the topic in question — e.g., Does sugar cause obesity? Does fat cause heart disease? Does smoking cause cancer? — than do studies undertaken without such funding (1, 2, 3, 4).
When you read any research paper, you should first find the disclosures at the bottom. Look through them carefully. When you see disclosures of funding or support by noble-sounding organizations you aren’t familiar with, look them up. You’re likely to find that they are false fronts cloaking Big Somebody. Even if you do recognize them, go to those organizations and check out who funds them. More often than is credibly accidental, you’ll find Big Somebody somewhere in the mix.
In part 2, we’ll look at another cardinal sin used to exaggerate the positive and dampen the negative impact of experimental results: racking.
- The Cardinal Sins of Skewed Research, Part 2: Racking
- The Cardinal Sins of Skewed Research, Part 3: Sweeping
- The Cardinal Sins of Skewed Research, Part 4: Bait and Switch
- The Cardinal Sins of Skewed Research, Part 5: Burning Britches
Drs. Michael and Mary Dan Eades are the authors of 14 books in the fields of health, nutrition, and exercise, including the bestseller Protein Power.
Dr. Michael Eades was born in Springfield, Missouri, and educated in Missouri, Michigan, and California. He received his undergraduate degree in engineering from California State Polytechnic University and his medical degree from the University of Arkansas. After completing his medical and post-graduate training, he and his wife, Mary Dan, founded Medi-Stat Medical Clinics, a chain of ambulatory out-patient family care clinics in central Arkansas. Since 1986, Dr. Michael Eades has been in the full-time practice of bariatric, nutritional, and metabolic medicine.
Dr. Mary Dan Eades was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and received her undergraduate degree in biology and chemistry from the University of Arkansas, graduating magna cum laude. After completing her medical degree at the University of Arkansas, she and her husband have been in private practice devoting their clinical time exclusively to bariatric and nutritional medicine, gaining first-hand experience treating over 6,000 people suffering from high blood pressure, diabetes, elevated cholesterol and triglycerides, and obesity with their nutritional regimen.
Together, the Eades give numerous lectures to the general public and various lay organizations on their methods of treatment. They have both been guest nutritional experts on over 150 radio and television shows, including national segments for FOX and CBS.
- Bhandari M, Busse J, Jackowski D, Montori V, Schünemann H, Sprague S, Mears D, Schemitsch E, Heels-Ansdell D, and Devereaux PJ. Association between industry funding and statistically significant pro-industry findings in medical and surgical randomized trials. CMAJ 170.4 (2004): 477-480.
- Bes-Rastrollo M, Schulze M, Ruiz-Canela M, Martinez-Gonzalez M. Financial Conflicts of Interest and Reporting Bias Regarding the Association between Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Weight Gain: A Systematic Review of Systematic Reviews. PLOS Medicine 10.12 (2013).
- Litman E, Gortmaker S, Ebbeling C, and Ludwig D. Source of bias in sugar-sweetened beverage research: a systematic review. Public Health Nutrition 21.12 (Aug. 2018): 2345-2350.
- Stamatakis E, Weiler R, and Ioannidis J. Undue industry influences that distort healthcare research, strategy, expenditure and practice: a review. ESCI 43.5 (May 2013): 469-475.