Whenever the average Joe Soap thinks about researchers as a breed, he likely visualizes serious faced blokes in white coats milling reverently around a laboratory of gleaming steel and glass, clipboard in hand. In the mind's eye, it must take years of tedious and painstaking hard work but important life-changing discoveries are made sometimes. In reality though, nothing could be further from the truth.
Today's researchers have a PC at home instead of a laboratory and use statistics instead of microscopes and chemicals. Real world conditions and scenarios are dumped and computer statistical models are used instead. It is the study of populations or Public Health, as it is better known. The new science is called epidemiology and I had a go at that in an earlier article.
One of yesterday's headlines read, "School dinners contribute to obesity." The latest buzzword in research is obesity as it tends to draw research funding like pins to a magnet. The lead researcher from the obesity project was on the radio yesterday morning and she was in her element. Hers, was the voice of concern and caring as she skimmed over the methodology of her work in favour of words like, risk, danger, fatal disease and estimates. All this wishy washy drivel was facilitated by a fawning presenter trying frantically for some scary soundbite that, "You heard here first folks." Like most of her ilk, she was peddling fear as a tool of profit.
Inconsequential findings such as yesterday's nonsense should never see air-time because they are pure speculative crap spewed out of a computer, as pre-arranged results before the research ever begins. It's a case of, "Here's the answer, now how did we get it?" Epidemiology is plagued with all sorts of failings not least of which are 'confounding factors,' and 'bias.' Psychology teaches us that any question can be carefully manipulated to illicit the preferred response for the questioner and this is vital to know when epidemiology is based on the answers given by a selected group to a selected set of questions. A bias in one direction or another can shape the questions to get the desired answers. A pre-disposal to personally believe a conclusion you have not yet proved, but have to prove, can lead to tinkering with the imputed information until the statistical model gives you the right overall answer. Not only can this be done but it is done routinely these days.
But the biggest bias in all epidemiological research is known as "The funding bias." Real science poses a question and then sets about getting a viable answer to it. If it works in one condition then it is tested in multiple other conditions for validity. After exhaustive testing by the scientist in question, his new theory is made available to his peer group with the expressed wish that any of them can disprove it. If the theory stands this most rigorous examination then it can be called a discovery or a new breakthrough of some kind. Even then, the possibility always exists that years down the road, the theory may be disproved. This is honest, open, real science that makes a difference. Epidemiology though is so flexible and open to manipulation, that it attracts funding like bees to honey. In plain english, epidemiology can prove whatever you'd like it to prove for the right fee.
So back to the lady on the radio yesterday and how I would have handled the interview if I were the presenter. My first question would have been, "Who funded the project?" I would have pursued this line of questioning for quite a while until the full picture emerged. It is vital to ask how much was paid, over what period of time and to who. Then there is the question as to whether this lady had funding coming in before she was tasked with exploring obesity. Was the awarding of this contract a God-send for her and her team? Indeed, is there anything further on the horizon for them now that they've completed this one. If I sensed any reticence in answering any of those questions then I'd persist by demanding that the listeners had a right to know. The slimming industry is big business and they would have a vested interest in shaming the obese into buying their products, would they not? An official sounding report on some university's letterhead would represent valuable sales literature for such companies and university researchers are just crying out for money.
I would ask intensely about how the research project was presented to them, (by the funders), and what objectives they were given before they began. How were the questions to the participants phrased and how were the participants chosen in the first place. How many were there, (how large and representative was the research), and over what period of time? What confounding factors were taken into account and which ones were discarded and why? Then I'd get really sticky and ask if we are looking at cause or merely some speculative relationship that may or may not be true like correlation. I would want to know a hell of a lot more about the statistical computer model used like who wrote it, in what computer language, what is it called and how much did it cost for the software? Computers don't think for themselves they just calculate figures faster than you do. I would ask if she might have got a different answer is she'd also asked the participants about their levels of stress or earning potential. Were they home owners or renters. gay or straight, christian or atheist, young or old, male or female, fit or lazy, intelligent or stupid and a whole myriad of other possible confounders. Indeed did the lady take her base mark from the now maligned body mass index? There are hundreds of questions that should have been asked before her findings are even mentioned.
I would consider it my job to tear the story her shreds and rubbish her findings because that is precisely what they do in real science. If I couldn't then the listener would know that the woman and her team might be on to something. But yesterday's interview didn't do any of that and they never do. The woman had the carte blanche of fawning respect hurled at her by the presenter and accredited an almost God-like status for the duration. She could have been lying through her teeth to make a comfortable living and we'll never know. But the worst part of it is that our legislation is deeply informed by such junk science and the airwaves are the open platform to soften up the public for an attack on the overweight population in order to increase taxation. It's not science, but it is coercsion by means of propaganda.
It disgusts me!