What is ‘good science’? I’ve never seen it defined as eloquently as this:
“This is how functioning science works. Outstanding questions are identified or hypothesis proposed; experimental tests are than established either to answer the questions or to refute the hypotheses, regardless of how obviously true they might appear to be. If assertions are made without the empirical evidence to defend them, they are vigorously rebuked. In science, as (Robert) Merton noted, progress is made only by first establishing whether one’s predecessors have erred or ‘have stopped before tracking down the implications of their results or have passed over in their work what is there to be seen by the fresh eye of another.’ Each new claim to knowledge, therefore, has to be picked apart and appraised. Its shortcomings have to be established unequivocally before we can know what questions remain to be asked, and so what answers to seek — what we know is really so and what we don’t. “This unending exchange of critical judgment,” Merton wrote, “of praise and punishment, is developed in science to a degree that makes the monitoring of children’s behavior by their parents seem little more than child’s play.” (from Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories, pp. 450-51)
How often is “good science” practiced? Taubes follows the above passage with this opinion:
“The institutionalized vigilance, “this unending exchange of critical judgment,” is nowhere to be found in the study of nutrition, chronic disease, and obesity, and it hasn’t been for decades. . . Though the reasons for this situation are understandable, they offer scant grounds for optimism. Individuals who pursue research in this confluence of nutrition, obesity and chronic disease are typically motivated by the desire to conserve our health and prevent disease. This is an admirable goal, and it undeniably requires reliable knowledge to achieve, but it cannot be accomplished by allowing the goal to compromise the means, and this is what has happened.** Practical considerations of what is too loosely defined as the “public health” have consistently been allowed to take precedence over the dispassionate, critical evaluation of evidence and the rigorous and meticulous experimentation that are required to establish reliable knowledge. The urge to simplify a complex scientific situation so that physicians can apply it and their patients and the public embrace it has taken precedence over the scientific obligation of presenting the evidence with relentless honesty. The result is an enormous enterprise dedicated in theory to determining the relationship between diet, obesity, and disease, while dedicated in practice to convincing everyone involved, and the lay public, most of all, that the answers are already known and always have been — an enterprise, in other words, that purports to be a science and yet functions like a religion.” (pp. 451-52)
In the fields of nutrition, chronic disease and obesity, the good intention of helping others has lead to mountains of research that, essentially, is as valuable as garbage because it frequently fails to live up to the rigorous standards of good science.
This misfortune is compounded when the results of these studies are released to the public as (unsubstantiated) “courses of action” that are often accepted as gospel because they’re delivered by highly regarded experts.
What’s the price we pay when research isn’t forced to live up to the rigorous standards of the scientific method?
What’s the price of delivering a “course of action” prematurely?
Conflicting advice. Confusion by the masses. And a world that’s sicker and fatter than it’s ever been, despite all the time, energy and money we’ve dedicated to study.
It’s time for it to stop.
Good science in the fields of nutrition, chronic disease and obesity was done well before the end of WWII (though much of it has been lost (or ignored)). Good science, backed by evidence from the trenches of today’s top fitness professionals, exists today.
It’s up to us professionals to deliver it to you. It’s up to you to be open to it. Just know that the beneficial “course of action” you take will likely go against the grain of the sound, scientific advice that’s guided you for the past 60 years.
Thank you for reading! (If this post resonated with you (or struck a nerve) please share your comments below!)