White Hat Scientists

In olden day cowboy movies the do-gooder cowboy heros wore white hats.  Recently the term “white hat bias” was coined to describe bias in scientific research on obesity (the subject of much nutrition research at present) which leads to “distortion of the published information in the service of what may be perceived as righteous ends”.

A commentary in this month’s International Journal of Obesity discusses this phenomenon and analyses examples.  Particular bias on topics related to weight, nutrition and the food industry were shown, especially a tendency to distort information about products such as sugar-sweetened beverages or practices like breastfeeding, regardless of the facts, when the distortions are perceived to serve good ends.

The authors examined the areas of citation bias, publication bias miscommunications in press releases and the inappropriate or questionable inclusion of information.  Analysis of specific research papers in the areas of reporting effects of sugar-sweetened beverages on body weight and the protective effects of breastfeeding were included.

The analysis showed that less than one-third of the papers citing the beverage studies accurately reported the overall findings, and more than two-thirds exaggerated evidence that reducing sugar-sweetened drink consumption reduced weight or obesity. The researchers also found several examples in breastfeeding studies in which the white hat authors selectively included some data and discarded other research to support the theory that breastfeeding decreases the risk of obesity.

For both the beverage and breastfeeding research, the resulting data was more likely to be published when it showed statistically significant outcomes. Studies with outcomes that did not show sugar-sweetened drinks to be bad and breastfeeding to be good were less likely to be published.

Notably, this bias appeared in studies not funded by industry, raising questions as to the motivation on non-industry funded research.  Interesting; since for many years health lobbyists have also sought to disqualify the results of industry-funded research.

Some researchers like to demonise certain products or defend practices with a kind of righteous zeal.  Whether this is intentional or unintentional, it’s simply wrong to stray from truthfulness in research reporting.

So, perhaps with the best of intentions, scientists are actually distorting the available evidence and losing sight of what science is about – the disciplined, objective observation, collection and documentation of findings.  The authors refer to white hat bias as “eroding the foundation of scientific discipline”.

Last week I went to a seminar in Wellington which discussed similarities between the food industry and tobacco industry, and was reminded of the potential dangers of White Hat bias being used here in New Zealand.

Categories: Nutrition and Health, Scientific Research

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