The fight over whether fat kills

A little after Christmas, Katherine Flegal and colleagues published a big review paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association.  They found that people who are overweight and even a little obese actually live a bit longer than "normal" weight people.  I wrote an article for in response with the tongue in cheek title (Will Fat Taxes Kill You?)

There was actually more to the story that I haven't previously touched on.  In particular, a very high profile Harvard Nutrition/Public Health Professor, Walter Willett, came out soon after the Flegal study and said  

This study is really a pile of rubbish and no one should waste their time reading it

And a symposium was pulled together to further criticize the study, which was seen as "dangerous" in some circles because it seemed to undermined the public health community's call to loose weight.  

Here is where it gets really interesting.  In May, Nature, one of the most prestigious scientific journals, actually called out Willett in an editorial and a feature article.  This editorial by Trevor Butterworth has most of the details, and as he summarizes it:

Science is complex, and Willett’s message to his fellow scientists appears to be that the public can’t be trusted with this complexity (except, as noted, when it might be something that he thinks is worthy of research); the question, which the public might ask in turn, is whether Willett can be trusted with complexity given his apparent intolerance for it in other scientists?

The problem seems to be that Willett and others could not separate their normative, ideological position from evidence-based science.  The evidence conflicted with their prior beliefs and commitments, ergo it must have been wrong.

I found this response from this from Mike Gibney (who also seems to have an interesting new book out) insightful:

Leaving the science aside, there is a critically important aspect to this row that needs highlighting. Think back to the BSE crisis. At that point, within the EU we had the risk assessment process and the risk management process both operated by the European Commission. That was then amended to take the risk assessment process away from the Commission and to create a totally science- based independent body, The European Food Safety Authority, to conduct risk assessment. The Harvard group is effectively seeking to be both risk assessors and risk managers. The former is science based and the latter is politically or policy based. If the two are attended to within the same institute, as the Harvard group seem to want, then the risk management process will filter the risk assessment process. Why support a scientific paper, which conflicts with your risk management goals? Indeed, in this week’s Harvard Gazette which covered this controversy, Professor Willett is quoted thus: “If you don’t have the right goal you are very unlikely to end up in the right place”[6]Clearly, Professor Willett knows what is “right” and those who differ are “wrong”. This is simply bad for science. As I said, dissent is the oxygen of science.