Conspiracy theories masked as academic analysis

A great article by Katherine Rich:

In an era when consumers are sceptical of “fake news”, a further concern is brewing. 

It surrounds the blurred lines between objective academia, legitimate advocacy, and what is, in essence, just academic activism.

 Public health is one field where such concern is relevant—where sometimes the effort to advance knowledge and public benefit is threatened by the use of exaggeration and flawed methodologies wrapped in emotive but persuasive language.  …

The most recent glaring example of this is a paper published in the journal Critical Public Health under the names of Gary Sacks, Boyd A Swinburn, Adrian J Cameron, and Gary Ruskin, entitled “How food companies influence evidence and opinion—straight from the horse’s mouth”.

Once again it’s a paper based on academic analysis of the correspondence of others, which extrapolates the exchange to imply it is representative of the entire global food industry. 

It’s hard not to conclude that with this paper we might have reached peak social science silliness. 

So what is this email, which is treated like a food industry Watergate tape, all about?

It was written by Dr Michael Knowles, a man whose life’s work has been to ensure good science underpinned food decision-making. 

In it he shared a view with a colleague, Dr Alex Malaspina, about how the food industry should respond to “biased, non-scientifically based recommendations” concerning key issues such as obesity and causative factors, sugar, and low/no-calorie sweetener safety. 

Knowles’s suggestion was to encourage learned discussion among scientists in professional societies. 

And that’s it. 

But the authors have chosen to interpret this suggestion in the darkest possible light. 

Despite not even knowing Knowles, his organisation, work or motivations, the authors present his support of evidence-based discussion as being some kind of Machiavellian food industry plot. This is unfair and not substantiated by the evidence.

In my experience you can divide public health activists into two camps. The former are focused on achieving better public health outcomes, and the latter are focused on attacking companies they don’t like. The latter group tend to be heavily left wing and basically see capitalism as the true enemy.

Here’s why I believe the academic paper is flawed and the attacks on Knowles unsubstantiated and appalling… 

Inconceivably small dataset – one email 

The “horse’s mouth” of the paper is a single (yes, just one!) email from 2015 between the two former employees of Coca-Cola. Both men have strong qualifications and are still passionately involved in positive global food and beverage discussions.

One. Single. Email. The smallest dataset possible. Hardly the Rosetta Stone.

It’s difficult to conceive how a selective analysis of one email can be accepted by a reputable, refereed journal like Critical Public Health as an adequate basis for making sweeping claims in respect of entire industries and groups of directors and managers. An unknown graduate researcher could not expect to gain such traction.

The authors make such evidence sound much grander than it is by using phrases that minimise the fact that this is one email from two former industry executives. 

So this paper alleging a huge conspiracy is based on one innocuous e-mail.

Is it reasonable to take an email sent to a man who left a company many years ago and claim that it’s representative of a company today? The paper’s authors apparently think so.

The authors rely heavily on the fact that they’re analysing an email between two “former senior executives of Coca-Cola to gain insider insight”. They’ve treated Knowles’s typed words with the same solemnity as if they’d been uttered by the Coca-Cola Company chief executive at the time, Muhtar Kent.

Both gentlemen had retired from the company years before the email was written: the recipient hadn’t worked for Coca-Cola for at least 15 years, while Knowles had retired in 2013.

Though the paper points out that the two are former employees, that doesn’t stop the authors from furthering the conspiracy theory—and extrapolating their findings to cover the entire global food industry.

So it was an e-mail between someone who had left Coke 15 years ago and someone who left Coke 2 years ago.

The paper’s references fall into two main groups: the authors’ own work or sensational general media stories. 

It happens a lot in academic work, but it always seems somewhat dubious when papers include the practice of making assertions such as “it is well established that…” and then quote the author’s own work as the evidence. 

In no sense can continual quoting and re-quoting of one’s own papers be seen as providing a satisfactory form of independent verification.

It’s self-verification!

The words “research”, “academic paper” and “journal”, create the impression that there is some higher process applied compared to that of an op-ed in a newspaper, a call to radio talkback or even a food industry CEO writing for FoodNavigator-Asia.

With this paper, it’s hard to see any other process at play than the authors looking at an email and expressing an opinion. How this paper managed to get published by such a respected journal is for the journal to justify.

It’s a legitimate op ed, but is it an academic paper?

I suggest people read the e-mail, the “research” paper and Katherine’s post in full. You’ll be amazed.

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