“Science’s Biggest Fail”

I completely agree with Scott Adams on this one: (many posts tagged nutrition on this blog have echoed the same sentiment)

What’s is science’s biggest fail of all time?

I nominate everything about diet and fitness.

Maybe science has the diet and fitness stuff mostly right by now. I hope so. But I thought the same thing twenty years ago and I was wrong.


Today I saw a link to an article in Mother Jones bemoaning the fact that the general public is out of step with the consensus of science on important issues. The implication is that science is right and the general public are idiots. But my take is different.

I think science has earned its lack of credibility with the public. If you kick me in the balls for 20-years, how do you expect me to close my eyes and trust you?


And I somewhat disagree with this response. It’s a common cop-out:

Who, exactly, does Adams think has been kicking him in the balls for 20 years?

Scientists themselves? Science teachers? Pop-science journalists? He downplays the roles of all these parties in his article[…]

The article says that the problem is pop-science journalists and the people who share their stories on Facebook & twitter.

Sorry, but no. Those parties are somewhat at fault, but so are real, bona fide tenured scientists and the scientific community.

Here is another weak argument:

How indeed? In the scientific journal papers I read, I rarely (if ever) encounter a scientist who claims anything like “this topic is now closed.”

 Of course, scientists rarely say a topic is closed, but they say things like “now that we’ve determined X, this opens new avenues of research.”


The overhyping of nutritional claims by scientist is bad enough that Nature wrote an editorial naming and shaming a Harvard department chair for oversimplifying the research.

Outside of nutrition, look at this egregious paper from 2013, heavily quoted in the public press: Evidence on the impact of sustained exposure to air pollution on life expectancy from China’s Huai River policy Yuyu Chena, Avraham Ebensteinb, Michael Greenstonec, and Hongbin Lie. The abstract says: the results indicate that life expectancies are about 5.5 y (95% CI: 0.8, 10.2) lower in the north owing to an increased incidence of cardiorespiratory mortality. The only hint of how weak the support of the claim is the large width of the confidence interval, but read Andrew Gellman‘s takedown to fully understand how crappy it is.

If you want something medical, this is an older link of scientists misleading journalists.

Tuesday Links

Posting today from the lovely KU Leuven campus (yes, this link points to the actual building where I’m sitting in now!).

  1. From Megan McArdle on why very invasive surgery works better than less invasive surgery:

    Patients may prefer percutaneous coronary intervention — also known as angioplasty — to a coronary bypass because it doesn’t involve cracking your chest open and grafting things onto your heart. But bypass patients seem to have better long-term outcomes, even though both methods increase blood flow to the heart muscle. […]

    A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests a possible answer: Bypass works better precisely because it’s more invasive. The very scale of the treatment makes people more likely to change their post-operative behavior in ways that enhance their long-term chances of survival

The original paper states that

We find that CABG patients are 12 percentage points more likely to quit smoking in the one-year period immediately surrounding their procedure than PCI patients, a result that is robust to numerous alternative specifications

  1. I have in the past criticized nutricional sciences, but this is excellent scientific behaviour

    In one of the best examples of science working, a researcher who provided key evidence of (non-celiac disease) gluten sensitivity recently published follow-up papers that show the opposite.


    For a follow-up paper, 37 self-identified gluten-sensitive patients were tested […]

    The subjects cycled through high-gluten, low-gluten, and no-gluten (placebo) diets, without knowing which diet plan they were on at any given time. In the end, all of the treatment diets — even the placebo diet — caused pain, bloating, nausea, and gas to a similar degree. It didn’t matter if the diet contained gluten.

One of the most insidious things about some of the health fads is that because of psychological effects, they do “work.”

3. Python San Sebastian will have a keynote talk & tutorial by your truly (it’s not up on the website yet, but it will be).


Friday Links

1. ASCII Delimited text. I somehow did not know about this.

2. The evidence for “salt is bad for your health” is pretty shaky. I’ll say it again: the science of nutrition is very shaky and given that this is what most people hear of as science, the credibility of science as a whole suffers.

3. On Phineas Cage, the famous “metal-rod-through-the-head patient”

Recent historical work, however, suggests that much of the canonical Gage story is hogwash, a mélange of scientific prejudice, artistic license, and outright fabrication.

Friday Links

1. Who Had Richer Parents, Doctors Or Artists [or Scientists]?

And see the picture here

The starving artist with the rich dad is not just a made stereotype, but we scientists grew up richer than all those chavs (which is why it’s so common to see young scientists aghast at getting an above-median salary [see link #4 in a previous Friday Links]: they just grew up with very high expectations).

2. It’s the worst medical papers that makes the news

Also, generally on topics where the data is shaky, like nutrition. As I wrote last year:

One of my top scientific peeves is the over-selling of weak results in public health, especially in nutrition. I think this is more damaging to the cause of evidence based policy than almost any anti-science group. Many people will say things like “I don’t trust scientists: first it was don’t eat olive oil, now olive oil is good. No peanuts, yes to peanuts, now no to peanuts again; science is just whatever is fashionable, really.”

3. Einstein & Pi

Friday Links

1. The vast majority of statistical analysis is not performed by statisticians

Let me fish out one paragraph:

[I]n 1967 Stanley Milgram did an experiment to determine the number of degrees of separation between two people in the U.S. In his experiment he sent 296 letters to people in Omaha, Nebraska and Wichita, Kansas. The goal was to get the letters to a specific person in Boston, Massachusetts. The trick was people had to send the letters to someone they knew, and they then sent it to someone they knew and so on. At the end of the experiment, only 64 letters made it to the individual in Boston. On average, the letters had gone through 6 people to get there. This is where the idea of “6-degrees of Kevin Bacon” comes from. Based on 64 data points. A 2007 study updated that number to “7 degrees of Kevin Bacon”. The study was based on 30 billion instant messaging conversations collected over the course of a month or two with the same amount of effort

What really jumps at me is how close the values were between the 1967 experiment (with so few datapoints, immensily biased: they only took the ones that got there!) and the 2007 version (whose conclusion is actually 6.6).

  1. Odds ratio vs. risk ratio

Scientists being misleading, tabloids being misled.

I assume that the author’s question of “why is this still allowed?” is rhethorical. His analysis answers the question: if we only allowed honest reporting in epidemiology, epidemiological papers would be much less interesting to the tabloids.

3. A bit old, but interesting: Peer reviews on PLoS One paper take reviews public

4. Speaking of scientists (particularly public health “scientists”) behaving badly: one of my top scientific peeves is the over-selling of weak results in public health, especially in nutrition. I think this is more damaging to the cause of evidence based policy than almost any anti-science group. Many people will say things like “I don’t trust scientists: first it was don’t eat olive oil, now olive oil is good. No peanuts, yes to peanuts, now no to peanuts again; science is just whatever is fashionable, really.” [1]

So, I was happy to see Nature telling a Harvard Medical School nutricionist to shut up and stop mangling the science for “public benefit”.

5. Please stop putting the figures at the end of the manuscript

I have never heard anyone defend the current system of figures at the end of the manuscript (except on that’s the way it always was grounds).

Computers & networks normally have a two step impact on systems: (1) reproduce the old paper based procedures in digital form, and (2) reshape the procedures to be native. Science publishing is still stuck on step 1.

[1] One really good comment from a non-scientist friend: “until I met you and your scientist friends, I was mostly exposed to science through news reports of the sort of studies that now I realise all the other scientists sneer at.” We need to sneer more. (Yes, I have non-scientist friends; who’d have known?)