I came upon this critique of Forks Over Knives the other day. It's a blog written by a 26 year old former vegan who now survives on a raw food diet with some meat in the picture. She is also an English major taking on the MDs who started the Forks Over Knives movement. Her name is Denise Minger. She is Davy fighting Goliath.
We all share a common belief in the powers of what we eat. We share an interest in seeing people get healthy by taking aim at their behavior. We also have skepticism built into our DNA. We all like positive results, but here is where we must avoid being Cargo Cult Scientists. What matters is finding the most probable reasons for the outcomes we like so much.
The first thing we at the CCS must address is part of the documentary regarding the Nazi occupation of Norway. The message was that meat rationing led to a rapid reduction in death from cardiovascular disease. What was missing was the fact that the rationing of meat began one year after the reduction of death from cardiovascular disease.
It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty--a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid--not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked--to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated. - R. Feynman
The question now is how this information was dealt with by the Forks Over Knives people. Did they, as Feyman instructs, "report everything that you think might make it invalid". I think this information might make vegans cringe. What other causes could explain these results? Sugar? bread? syrup? Fats? Luckily for us, Denise Minger got the attention of T Colin Cambell. This response was a testament to her work. Unfortunately in his response he failed to specifically address the actual scientific studies that were of dubious quality, yet made it into the film for dramatic affects.During the first year [starting in spring of 1940] the rationing included all imported foods, bread, fats, sugar, coffee, cocoa, syrup, and coffee substitute. In the second year [starting in late 1941] all kinds of meat and pork, eggs, milk and dairy products were rationed…
I'd like to highlight the condescending response and some of the Cargo Cultisms therein. The response begins with a classic ad Hominem logical fallacy, a veiled attack on Ms. Mingers qualifications to question the Great Oz's of medical science.
Kudos to Ms. Minger for having the interest, and taking the time, to do considerableanalysis, and for describing her findings in readily accessible language. And kudos toher for being clear and admitting, right up front, that she is neither a statistician nor anepidemiologist, but an English major with a love for writing and an interest in nutrition.We need more people with this kind of interest.
Silly rabbit, Tricks are for kids... and science is for doctors. The Cargo Cult message here is that they are doctors and she is only an English major. Not even an English PhD!
Next up in the Cargo Cult Science department is the appeal that no specific part of their Cargo Cult ceremony brings the cargo. It is only the complicated intermingling of this-that-and-the-other-thing that makes the narrative work. It's the George Bush Jr. cop-out. Sure we lied to get the war started but now that Sadam is dead, it all worked out for the best. Dr. Campbell organized his thusly:
My response can be divided into three parts, mostly addressing her lack of proportionality—what’s important and what’s not. •Misunderstanding our book’s objectives and my research findings •Excessive reliance on the use of unadjusted correlations in the China database •Failure to note the broader implications of choosing the right dietary lifestyleLet's slow down the straw man argument for a moment and see if Dr. Campbell addresses the above Nazi/Norway dilemma or the following specific question by Ms. Minger:
What we’re interested in is the sentence near the bottom, which the film’s producers apparently didn’t notice: ”In all, 30 rats on the high-protein diet and 12 on the low-protein diet survived for more than a year.”To which we get the response:
So... what about the damned rats dying? What about those sugar-free Norwegian vegans? Dr. Campbell says:First and foremost, our extensive work on the biochemical fundamentals of the caseineffect on experimental cancer in laboratory animals (only partly described in our book)was prominent because these findings led to my suggestion of fundamental principlesand concepts that apply to the broader effects of nutrition on cancer development.
The China research project was a cornerstone study, yes, but it was NOT the sole
determinant of my views (as I have repeated, almost ad nauseum in my lectures). In
doing so, and except for a few denigrating remarks on our experimental animal
research, she also ignores the remaining findings that I presented in our book. She
seems not to understand what our laboratory research was showing. Using univariate
correlations mostly without adjustment for confounding factors, qualification of variable
authenticity, and/or biological plausibility can lead to haphazard evidence, subject to the
whims of personal bias. Also, univariate correlations of this type can lead to too memphasis on individual nutrients and foods as potential causes of events.
I should conclude by noting the suggestion of the professional epidemiologist, cited above, who suggested that ultimately Denise may wish to publish her findings in a peer- reviewed journal but who presently felt strongly that the current version would not be accepted. I concur.I have never tired of my own narrative, that most of what gets published is pure bullshit. We all know that science journal editors do not practice the scientific method and thus Ms. Minger does not have the proper credentials to get published. We also know that Dr. Campbell does. What he is suggesting here is that, once again, he is a doctor and she is an English major. You win that one Dr. Campbell. You have surprisingly rejected her paper.
She sure did get Dr. Campbells goat though.
In honor of Ms. Minger, I'm going to sprinkle a little goat cheese on my salad tonight.