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Do Scientists Mislead?

"Yes" seems to be the unfortunate conclusion that stems from this paper by Mark Cope and David Allison published in the International Journal of Obesity.  Scientists may not (or may) distort their own research findings, but Cope and Allison show, pretty convulsively, that there is a general pattern of distorting the findings of others.   

They attribute this to a "white hat bias":

which we define to be bias leading to distortion of research-based information in the service of what may be perceived as righteous ends.

Cope and Allison found two studies related to soda consumption that:

had both statistically and non-statistically significant results on body-weight, body mass index (BMI) or overweight/obesity status which allowed future writers to potentially choose which results to cite, and were also widely cited, permitting quantitative analysis of citations.

Then, they looked at how other scientists subsequently cited the findings in their published papers.  Did they focus on the negative findings (that soda doesn't affect weight, etc.) or the positive findings (that soda does affect weight, etc.): 

The majority, 84.3% for [2] and 66.7% for [3], described results in a misleadingly positive way to varying degrees (i.e., exaggerating the strength of the evidence that [nutritively-sweetened beverage] reduction showed beneficial effects on obesity outcomes). Some were blatantly factually incorrect in their misleading statements, describing the result as showing an effect for a continuous obesity outcome whereas no statistically significant effect for continuous obesity outcomes was observed. In contrast, only four papers (3.5%) were negatively misleading (i.e., underplayed the strength of evidence) for [2] and none were negatively misleading for [3]. Only 12.7% and 33% of the papers accurately described complete overall findings related to obesity outcomes from [2] and [3], respectively.

They went on to document a similar pattern for studies on the effects of breastfeeding. They conclude:

Evidence presented herein suggests that at least one thing has been demonized ([nutritively-sweetened beverage] consumption) and another sanctified (Breastfeeding), leading to bias in the presentation of research literature to other scientists and to the public at large, a bias sufficient to misguide readers. Interestingly, while many papers point out what appear to be biases resulting from industry funding, we have identified here, perhaps for the first time, clear evidence that white-hat biases can also exist in opposition to industry interests.