American Beverage Association

March 5, 2013

Science Reporting in the Age of Allure and Pseudo-Expertise

We’ve written a lot lately about Dr. Robert Lustig’s new epidemiology study and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman’s who erroneously declared that Lustig’s study provides the “smoking gun” behind diabetes.

It turns out we’re not alone in our criticism of Lustig and Bittman.

Science blogger Mark Hoofnagle is critical of Bittman for drawing the wrong conclusions from Lustig’s study and states what we at Sip & Savor are often thinking: “The reality is, the press coverage of science is extremely poor, and there is not adequate critical analysis and presentation of results to their audience.” We couldn’t have said it better.

Marion Nestle, longtime sugar-crusader, also expresses reservations about Lustig’s study, writing that she is “not so sure” about the interpretations made of the study.

And in a guest column on Huffington Post, Dr. David Katz Director of Yale Prevention Research Center calls Bittman’s interpretation of the study “emphatically wrong.”

As Dr. Katz explains, Mr. Bittman has chosen to interpret the findings of an ecological evaluation further than the actual study even does – claiming a causal link between sugar and diabetes. The findings, Dr. Katz demonstrates are:

“… absolutely not the “closest thing to causation” — in fact, it is among the least reliable forms of evidence. At the population level, the presence of a Bentley in the driveway, or a high-speed Internet connection in the home, is profoundly associated with reduced likelihood of malaria (or tuberculosis, or leprosy, etc.). This is absolutely not because Bentleys or the Internet protect against leprosy or malaria. Rather, affluent people with expensive cars and high-speed Internet access are much less likely to encounter malaria or leprosy than the poor for reasons having nothing to do with horsepower, or bandwidth. Ecological studies are so notoriously subject to findings that are “true, true, but unrelated” that the phenomenon has a name: the ecological fallacy.”

Dr. Katz goes on to explain that despite Bittman’s assertion, the study does not attempt to “prove” anything – it’s Bittman who is attempting to justify his “verdict:”

“That he chose to interpret for us a study he did not understand was a transgression on his part, and that of the New York Times for ceding its prime real estate to someone in this instance impersonating an expert.”

“We clearly like little bits of truth we find easy to digest. But none of these is the whole truth, and when bits of truth are mistaken for the whole — they might just as well be falsehoods.”

We strongly encourage you to read all of what Dr. Katz has to say. To get the “whole truth” be sure to read the PLoS One study for yourself.


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