The Older Brother takes a whack at the sciency stuff

Okay, This isn’t really my strong suit, and I don’t usually climb up into the big chair two days in a row, but there’s been several folks asking about the latest study proving that red meat will kill you.

Sigh.

Firstly, keep in mind that these things crop up like spring mushrooms after a rain. Tom just finished debunking one a couple of months ago here.

If you’ve checked out my blog, you know I’m more of an economics nerd.  The equivalent in that realm is every other year or so, some liberal think tank or university releases a dramatic new study proving that increasing the minimum wage actually raises employment.  It’s always trumpeted on the front page.  Once it gets peer review, if they even bother, it gets shredded.  Those stories never seem to make the editorial cut, much less get front page attention:

Startling Review of Study Shows Higher Prices Mean People Buy Less, Even for Labor!!!

The irritating part is if you look at them, it seems like they just took the last one that was discredited, then rerun the same plan, then go to press.

So I figured I’d take a look at this one not because I think I can do an original analysis and takedown ala Tom on a fresh study done by “experts,” but because I guessed we could spot some of the same doo-doo that are the hallmark of bogus science.

I hit paydirt pretty quickly and thought I’d pass some easy observations along.

First of all, this isn’t a new study, it’s a meta-analysis where they cherry-pick some studies that have data they want to use.  It’s also “observational” in the worst way — from the study’s description of its methodology:

“Diet was assessed by validated food frequency questionnaires and updated every 4 years.”

Okay, if you really insist on good science, you could stop reading right there.  Long-term food questionnaires are the hallmark of bogus nutritional science.  How many servings of red meat did you eat last Thursday?  How about January 12, 2010?  You simply can’t invent less reliable information.  And fortunately for hacks, with food questionnaires you don’t have to!

Also:

“Men and women with higher intake of red meat were less likely to be physically active and were more likely to be current smokers, to drink alcohol, and to have a higher body mass index.”

Can anyone say “Confounding Variables?”  The researchers said they adjusted for these.

“We also stopped updating the dietary information after a diagnosis of major chronic disease assuming that participants could have changed their diet after receiving the diagnosis.”

So, instead of actually gathering data, you assume it would’ve changed and stopped asking.  Huh?  I can’t help but wonder what kind of data they would’ve wanted to not include.  Here’s one that popped into my mind:

Meat eater gets diagnosis of chronic disease and, at the insistence of doctor and experts, changes diet to hearthealthywholegrains, avoids arterycloggingsaturatedfat, starts chronic cardio exercise program.  Drops dead two years later.  Wouldn’t want to show he’d changed his diet, would we?  Let’s count him in the red meat column!

Here’s the thing that did it for me.  The authors made a statement that “red meat has been shown to increase diabetes.”  Again, Huh? The reference for this statement was a study the same authors had conducted.  The methodologies and verbiage where the same boilerplate as the current study in question.  Their conclusion on that one was this:

“We estimated that substitutions of one serving of nuts, low-fat dairy, and whole grains per day for one serving of red meat per day were associated with a 16–35% lower risk of [Type 2 Diabetes].”

Here’s the thing, kids.  If you believe people can dramatically drop their incidence of diabetes by swapping grain in for protein, then I say all we have to do is raise the minimum wage to $500 an hour; we’ll all be millionaires and this whole little economic downturn will be solved overnight.

I don’t know what the authors of this study’s motivation or cause or agenda is, but it sure as hell isn’t the pursuit of good science.

The ironic thing is that the reason Tom isn’t here to respond to this latest step on the slow road to idiocracy is because he’s in Washington D.C. on a mission to get bureaucrats to understand why people don’t trust doctors, scientists, nutritionists, government committees and the panalopy of “experts” who’ve been making us fatter, more diabetic, more arthritic, and more lots of bad stuff while making tons of money for their “owners.”

So, please pass that study on to anybody you don’t like.  Then enjoy your bacon and repeat after me,

Scientists are Freaking Liars!

Cheers,

The Older Brother

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26 thoughts on “The Older Brother takes a whack at the sciency stuff

  1. Andy

    Is the main author of this study (Frank B. Hu) not a vegetarian, with his own agenda?


    I thought some of the names looked suspiciously familiar, but I don’t spend as much time with my nose in these things as Tom does. The funding come from some of the big touts for the lipid hypothesis.

    Reply
  2. Junebug

    You did good.

    I took a look at the actual study. They gave the actual numbers for the number of participants and for the total number of deaths, but they don’t give the actual number of deaths in each of the groups, they only give the ‘Hazard Ratio’ and even that’s not all that exciting. I’m guessing if they gave us the raw data we would see that it isn’t really that big of a deal.


    I thought the “Hazard Ratio” smelled a little funny, too. The best info I could get seemed like it’s still some type of relative risk calculation, which are designed to make small absolute risk variances look larger.

    Seriously, though, once you hear “Food Survey” you can pretty much stop reading.

    Reply
  3. Auntie M

    Way to go, Older Brother! My hubby was acting concerned about this study, so I told him (thanks to Tom’s lectures, etc.) that I bet it was an observational study/meta-analysis/ food survey kind of thing. I just posted this to his Facebook wall to hopefully make him feel better. When they say it was a study of a hundred thousand people (or whatever), it makes people think it’s completely accurate. 🙂


    I figured some fellow Fat Heads would take Tom’s “Science for Smart People” approach. Good call.

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  4. Dan

    Just finished my dinner of bacon and eggs. It’s weird that “Scientists” ignore the scientific method so readily by skipping number four and five and heading right to six.

    1.) Ask a Question
    2.) Do Background Research
    3.) Construct a Hypothesis
    4.) Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment
    5.) Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion
    6.) Communicate Your Results


    Can’t really blame them. Skipping four and five makes it easier to get to

    7.) Collect grants and honoraria
    8.) Repeat

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  5. Lori

    There’s a paper that’s going to be in Sociology of Health and Illness stating that book reading predicts lower BMI about as well as regular exercise. So does socioeconomic status. Who wants to bet that getting people to lose weight through reading books is going to work any better than trying to make everyone middle class by pushing them into student loans and subprime mortgages?

    Just as middle class people are middle class because they have many good habits, most healthy people past their youth do, too. But if you go back to times when people didn’t have a thousand lifestyle choices, but had good health (few cavities, strong bones, little or no arthritis, obesity or diabetes, and enough fitness to live off the land), a few things stand out: they all ate some meat, no refined foods, little or no grains or dairy, some roots and shoots, and they got some exercise and sunlight. Even in that short list, there are some confounding variables. But adopting just those few things is a one-foot hurdle compared to the seven-foot hurdle of a layman, with no knowledge of statistics and other magic tricks used in studies, trying to sort through nutritional research.

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  6. Jo

    Hi

    As well as all the good point you raise (and quite a few you didn’t no doubt for reasons of limited space) other questions I want answers to are:

    Apparently this ‘study’ is funded by an outfit called the World Cancer Research Fund. I wasn’t able to find out where their money came from. This concerns me.

    Why do Havard allow themselves to be associated with junk science? Follow the money?

    This story has had blanket coverage in the UK and New Zealand, and possibly in lots of other countries as well. How the hell do these people get their press releases taken so seriously? Or why are journalists so gullible?

    Sigh – fed up with it all. What concerns me is that mums will be ditching the meat and feeding their kiddies soy burgers instead.

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  7. Thomas

    Excellent analysis. It is discouraging to think about how many government agencies will lap this garbage up and regurgitate it back at us in the form of nutrition guidelines and dietary advice and how many well meaning people will follow the advice.

    Reply
  8. Ghost

    Hey there Older Brother!

    Intrestingly enough, I have a high BMI, but I don’t Smoke, Drink, or … gee, I dunno, do a lot of other things associated with seriously unhealthy behaviors.

    I do eat read meat, and, I’ve been noticing an interesting correlation between my intake of red meat and the size of my pants. Mainly, the more meat, not carbs, I’ve been eating, the more my belt needs to be tightened! Weird!

    Thanks for the writeup!


    Probably the red meat is affecting your judgment so you’re over-tightening your belt!

    Reply
  9. Markus

    It’s made the headlines here in Sweden as well. And in a nation where the government is supposed to help you out all the time I’m surprised we havn’t had a set of guidelines to combat the oh so harmfull red meat. But hey!

    Thanks to this study however they’re already talking about issuing maximum-meat-per-week-intake-recommendation for us all. I’m seriously so fed up with all these people. They don’t react when there’s a study saying anything different. Not even if it’s an RCT-study. People have tried to explain it to them but oh no stuff like that is counter to their beliefs so they happily disgard it. But as soon as something like this comes out they’re so happy and they don’t waste any time what so ever telling people what to do. Based absolute junk science. They’re ignoring black swans like crazy.

    No caution as to how their advice may cause harm to others since people still trust the government over here and most people with nice titles. Although people are starting to question them a lot more. Which they can’t handle btw and that could possibly be the reason why they are so quick with stuff like this. They are desperate and want to reclaim the power of the old days when every single person here had absolute and blind trust in everything government. I hope I can come back here in a few years and triumphantly state that the National Food Administration is closing and these people will stop harming others.

    But until then I’ll be sitting here banging my head on my desk.


    Please keep your desk well-padded. Government departments don’t close. They can only collapse. Kind of like how dinosaurs didn’t just decide to stop bothering mammals.

    Cheers

    Reply
  10. Paul c

    Phew! For a second there I was thinking I had a 20% increased chance of death by eating red meat.

    But seriously, bad science is so easy to spot once you get the eye for it. Great post.

    Thanks older brother, (and tom (and Ben goldacre))

    Reply
  11. Sol y Sombra

    Quote: “The ironic thing is that the reason Tom isn’t here to respond to this latest step on the slow road to idiocracy is because he’s in Washington D.C. on a mission to get bureaucrats to understand why people don’t trust doctors, scientists, nutritionists, government committees and the panalopy of “experts” who’ve been making us fatter, more diabetic, more arthritic, and more lots of bad stuff while making tons of money for their “owners.””

    The problem is people DO trust doctors, scientists, government committees and experts, at least most of them do. Most would never question an expert, after all experts are supposed to know better, work in the public interest, give unbiased opinions and help everyone get healthier… Only most of the time they don’t!


    Good point. But enough people are starting to wake up that it’s got them worried.

    Reply
  12. Tyler

    I saw this study on a fairly well known, government funded, Canadian news site which shall remain nameless.

    I spent a bit of time in the comments raising these exact issues and pointing out that this study, and especially the reporting on it don’t amount to much more than a load of whole grains. Some others were doing the same as well.

    The response we got? We’re apparently science deniers who should put more value in appeals to so-called experts than we do. This was followed by me ordering a new desk to replace the one I had just shattered with my skull. I guess those martial arts classes as a kid were handy after all.

    I think half the problem here is that scientific literacy is not where it needs to be. Especially among researchers and so-called experts. Like Dan mentioned, too many people either aren’t even familiar with, or are just straight up ignoring the scientific method.


    Unfortunately, the smart people going into scientific pursuits are being educated by their owners. When I went looking for what “Hazard Ratio” meant (the calculation cited in the study) I found a really good paper on it — produced by a Big Pharma company!

    Reply
  13. Lisa

    Thanks for chiming in on this study. I’ve been seeing it a lot in the media lately and the conclusions and headlines are so strong and convincing I was beginning to wonder. But most articles that talk of this data, don’t talk about where it is from, what the control group had and if their results were better. All I ever see is, eat any meat and you die faster. It’s so frustrating that there is so much poor information spread around media outlets. It’s hard to find any reliable information.


    Just remember, that’s more steak for us folks who took the red pill!

    Reply
  14. Brian

    The second quote you pulled from the article was exactly the one I used to show how worthless this study was. I posted it on another comment board attached to a sensationalist media piece; I was surprised and reassured by how many other commenters shared the view that the so-called “risks” of eating red meat are over-hyped or otherwise completely bogus.

    Reply
  15. Don in Arkansas

    Even if the study were true, I’d rather die of an overdose of ribeye than an overdose of oatmeal.

    Reply
  16. Dr. William Davis

    An excellent analysis!

    I, too, was shocked that this silly analysis received so much press attention. And some have felt compelled to suggest legislative action based on these “findings”!

    Thank you for weighing in with your helpful insights.


    Flattered to have you weigh in, doctor.

    I’m thinking more like “designed for legislative action,” no?

    BTW, you may want to check Tom’s post here of your interview. Someone interpreted one of your statements as favorable towards GMO(?!?).

    Cheers!

    Reply
  17. NM

    Oh, it gets better. This “study” was peer-reviewed by Dean Ornish. Yes – that quack cum cult-leader!

    And this is not the first time that the Nurses Health Survey has been abused to deadly effect: people looked at it and got all excited that those nurses who took Hormone Replacement Therapy seemed healthier than those who did not. So quickly came the recommendations for lots of women to take HRT. And they did. And many died because of it. Whoops! The analysts realised they forgot to take account of the confounding variable that those nurses who took HRT happened to be attracted to other healthy things (like not smoking and so on), which overcame the *damage* that the HRT was doing.

    You’d think they’d have learned their lesson from this sort of biased cherry picking. But not with Dr Ornish waving it through!

    The best way to think of this sort of retrospective cohort study is to realise that it treats the original data as white noise. And remember that white noise can be filtered to produce pretty much any tone you want.


    The NHS is indeed the gift that keeps on giving. Depending on who you mean by “they” I’m sure the lesson has been well noted – “the media, when not outright acomplises, can always be assumed to be useful idiots.”

    Reply
  18. Justin B

    I saw this on the “coming up on the 10 O’Clock News” commercials during just about every broadcast network show I watched last week. Every time I see advertisements for what’s going to be on the televised news, it makes me glad I don’t watch the news.

    Reply
  19. Ricardo

    The great thing is that the article included a link to the study, http://archinte.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/archinternmed.2011.2287
    That site has some of the data that they collected, and shows some interesting things (interesting unless you have been exposed to sites like this). For instance there seems to be an inverse relationship between the amount of red meat consumed and high cholesterol. The participants were divided into 5 quintiles based on the amount of red meat consumed. Now look at this:
    Health Professionals Follow-up Study
    Q1 mean servings of red meat per day = 0.22, High cholesterol = 14.8%
    Q2 mean servings of red meat per day = 0.62, High cholesterol = 11.1%
    Q3 mean servings of red meat per day = 1.01, High cholesterol = 9.7%
    Q4 mean servings of red meat per day = 1.47, High cholesterol = 9.0%
    Q5 mean servings of red meat per day = 2.36, High cholesterol = 7.9%

    Nurses’ Health Study
    Q1 mean servings of red meat per day = 0.53, High cholesterol = 6.0%
    Q2 mean servings of red meat per day = 1.04, High cholesterol = 5.3%
    Q3 mean servings of red meat per day = 1.52, High cholesterol = 5.2%
    Q4 mean servings of red meat per day = 2.01, High cholesterol = 4.5%
    Q5 mean servings of red meat per day = 3.10, High cholesterol = 4.7%

    If I’m reading that right, it shows that as you increase the number of servings of red meat consumed per day, the probability that you will have high cholesterol decreases. Why wasn’t that in the headlines?

    Even looking at the mortality rates, which is what made the headlines, seems to show something different than they claim. Before any adjustments, those in Q2 and Q3 had lower mortality rates than Q1, and those in Q4 had equal or lower rates of cardiovascular mortality. It’s only after the “adjustments” that Q1 starts to show lower mortality rates. This looks like the authors went looking for ways to adjust the data that would give them the results that they were looking for.

    Reply
  20. Drew @ WIllpower Is For Fat People

    @Ricardo, I read that the same way you did.

    And did you also notice that somehow at every quintile the nurses reported nearly a half-serving per day more meat consumed than the physicians? That’s a remarkably consistent difference between the two. It suggests something about the surveys led to systematic mis-reporting in at least one of the studies.


    Unless I’m reading their mortality charts wrong (which is possible), another thing that seems to have escaped the sharp-eyed press (and researchers) is that the mortality numbers for the lowest quintile of meat consumers is higher than for the next two highest quintiles.

    ?!?

    Reply
  21. Bear

    I did come across a refreshing study that is not shown on the news here. I find it interesting that this study actually showed what a high glycemic diet does to your arteries and why it is so bad for your heart. This study was conducted in Israel where, due to kosher diets, people eat less red meat and almost no pork. As I understand it, Israel still has a very high rate of heart disease.

    http://www.israel21c.org/health/heart-disease-israel-carb-foods

    Reply
  22. Bob Laughton

    “Scientists are liars”? Kind of a broad brush there, fatty.


    It’s “Freaking Liars.” See, when you use quotes, that means you’re trying to use what the person actually said. Just a little hint for your next effort.

    Of course not all scientists are freaking liars. Neither are all politicians. But if you want to protect your health or your kids or your money or your liberty, you should start with the assumption that they are all, in fact, freaking liars. Especially when they’re financed, directly or indirectly, by people who have a huge monetary interest in them reaching the exact conclusions that they seem to unerringly come up with.

    As a growing number of folks are starting to figure out, a set of credentials and some initials after a person’s name doesn’t mean they’re really a scientist. They could just be a well compensated lobbyist with a white lab coat and above average math skills.

    Sorry if I struck a nerve, slim.

    Cheers

    Reply
  23. Charlie

    Why they don’t give the same coverage to this “study”; Could it be that it just goes against dogma? ja

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120315225751.htm

    White Rice Increases Risk of Type 2 Diabetes

    ScienceDaily (Mar. 15, 2012) — The risk of type 2 diabetes is significantly increased if white rice is eaten regularly, claims a study published today on bmj.com.


    Based on the number of times the word ” associated” is used in the writeup, and no mention of words such as “clinical,” my guess is this is just as shoddy as the studies from the “fat – baaaad/grain -gooood” advocates.

    I realize bad or dishonest science never keeps those folks from jumping at a conclusion that reinforces their cherished beliefs, but we don’t want to start playing by their rules. It’s like arguing with idiots – first, they drag you down to their level; then, they beat you with experience.

    Cheers!

    Reply

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