Hand it back: Catalyst edition

In a recent post, I observed that “Anyone with a university education ought to be able to recognise the limits of their own expertise, and to be able to distinguish between bogus sources of information and the products of genuine peer-reviewed research.” Sadly, the ABC’s Catalyst program appears to be failing that test, judging from the first episode of their report, attempting a debunking of the claims that elevated cholesterol causes heart disease, and that statins reduce the risk of disease. I looked at the evidence on this when I started taking statins around 20 years ago, and it seemed pretty convincing. In the last few years, with intensive exercise, I’ve reduced my cholesterol and stopped taking medication, so I think I can look at this fairly objectively.

As I said, before regarding someone’s opinion as having weight, you need to check whether they have any reason for claiming authority[1]. A quick visit to Google reveals the following info on the medical “scientists” quoted in the program

*”Stephen T. Sinatra is a board certified cardiologist, nutritionist, and anti-aging specialist specializing in integrative medicine. He is also a certified bioenergetic psychotherapist”

* Jonny Bowden – The Rogue Nutritionist is a weight loss coach

* Michael Eades is the biggest prat in the diet industry (alert: possibly not a neutral source).

* Ernest Curtis publishes not in medical journals but on LewRockwell.com

AFAICT, none of them has ever published scientific research in a peer-reviewed journal (still need to check this more carefully). I’m going to watch Part II now. But based on Part I, I’d say everyone involved should hand back their degrees.

Update The second episode was an improvement on the first. At least it quoted real scientists who have done actual research, and provided something like links to the real stuff (not sure if that will show up in transcript). And the general problems of research funded by drug companies are real enough. OTOH, at least one of the experts quoted against statins was described as a litigation expert, which suggests that the bad incentives aren’t all on one side. An interview with someone from the Heart Foundation was a welcome element of balance, but looked to me to have been edited in a way that gave a misleading picture of what (I imagine) was actually said.

Moreover, given the stress on drug company profits, the show might have taken a minute to point out that both simvastatin (Zocor) and atorvastatin (Lipitor) are now off-patent. There’s been some dispute over whether Australia has moved fast enough to cut the price paid for Lipitor and to encourage the prescribing of cheap generic versions, but the days of statins as a cash cow are already receding. That doesn’t preclude the possibility that its advocates are locked into positions taken previously, but it does cast some doubt on the continuing relevance of financial incentives.

fn1. As I grow tired of pointing out to people who have a misunderstood high school lessons in logic, the alternative to rejecting unqualified “experts” out of hand is not to look at the evidence they present and “make up your own mind”. It’s to undertake the years of intensive study needed to master the subject, then assess the evidence and make up your own mind.

108 thoughts on “Hand it back: Catalyst edition

  1. @Neil Hanrhahan In a perfect world we would all have the standard of education to comprehend and disseminate the scientific language. In the real world many are dependent on the opinion of those who appear to be acting in their best interest (John Howard always claimed to be acting in the best interests of various groups)

  2. UQ has confirmed that two academics published “research findings” on Parkinson’s Disease in an international journal, apparently with no data or evidence:

    Dr Bretag says while academic misconduct investigations are common, to have a study published with no data or evidence it was conducted is rare.

    But she says it is something that could become more common with immense pressure on academics to quickly publish quality research.

    “The intense pressure on academics to continue to publish in ridiculous timeframes often under-resourced while having heavy teaching loads, I think when you create that environment when there is so much pressure I guess that’s when maybe people might be tempted to take shortcuts even when they know it’s the wrong thing to do,” she said.

    “I think these sorts of breaches we might see more and more of because there is so much pressure on researchers to publish in quality journals.

    “And in terms of quantity, you don’t get a continuing position, you are lucky to get any position at all you are constantly, academics are constantly, under pressure to get grant money to justify their positions for promotion and so on.”

    Of course, I know nothing of this case and can make no specific statement about it. But, when the excuse for making up stuff is based on money, can there be any real surprise that people are (and should sensibly be) leery of ‘Big Pharma’ and its involvement in our health?

  3. @Megan I was under the impression the pressure was more from their peers, not ‘Big Pharma’.

    That is, the trickle down effect of commercializing science with institutions having to pay their way, or making contribution to their upkeep.

  4. @rog

    That’s not quite right. They apparently were spruiking ‘magnetism’ (don’t know if that equals MRI or not – let’s never forget the Howard government’s dodgy deal on MRI).

    Of course that isn’t ‘Big Pharma’, in this particular case.

    But the pressure, whether trickling down or otherwise, is purely dollar-based. It certainly is not their “peers” but the system they operate in. That’s where Australian academe is at today, the bucks win and integrity loses.

    Look into UQ’s “CSG unit of superb excellence in innovation” (not its real name) for an example.

  5. As documented here two of the people Catalyst relied on not only have no peer reviewed research but are also shills for the palm oil industry. http://scepticalnutritionist.com.au/?p=1121

    So my question is, why is big pharma bad but people who slaughter our nearest living relatives for funand profit just fine? If people will happily kill orangutans, I doubt they’ll be too troubled about paying some one to lie about heart disease.

  6. did anyone see the media watch episode on this program? i’m sure there are re-runs on demand at the abc site. -a.v.

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