Science Academies Skew Report on Alcohol, Health; Kick 2 Researchers Off Panel

We logged onto the website of the National Academies of Sciences and were promptly greeted by a front-page panel that tells us the Academies are exploring ways to counter misinformation and share science effectively.

We have a suggestion: Begin by understanding that there are an awful lot of folks who no longer believe science --especially science issued with a government imprimatur – is honest and can be trusted.

One way to start rebuilding that trust is by reminding folks that disagreements among scientists are normal and expected. It's one of the ways science advances. The NAS and other scientific bodies might also admit that sometimes scientists just plain get it wrong.

It wasn't all that long ago that reputable scientists were fully supportive of eugenics. (So, by the way, was Adolph Hitler.) Nor was it that long ago that DuPont's slogan was "better living through chemistry." No one thought anything about dumping industrial waste into rivers, for instance. Reputable scientists assured us that flowing currents would wash that waste out to sea where it would be quickly dissipated in the vast ocean.

Since it's demonstrably true that scientists working at the high standards make mistakes, sometimes with horrendous consequences, it seems to us that it would make sense for panels convened to advise policymakers to welcome scientists who have solid reputation but are known to challenge the "party line."

Congress does this all the time. Committee hearings on legislation routinely include testimony against the bill, even when everyone knows the bill will pass.

So do appellate judges. Sometimes if they disagree with the majority they simply record that disagreement. Other times, they issue scathing rebuttals to the majority opinion, and sometimes years later those rebuttals become the law of the land. And then there are the times when judges agree with the decision, but disagree with the reasoning or want to emphasize a particular point. In those cases, they may write a lengthy concurring opinion to make their case.

If the National Academies is sincere in wanting to reduce distrust in general and of science in particular, having a little humility would be a good place to start. So would having scientists who are known to disagree with the prevailing thought on a particular topic serve on a scientific panel. After all, it should be a search for truth, shouldn't it?

What triggers all this discussion is the news that a gaggle of anti-alcohol scientists (they would call themselves "truth seekers concerned about public health") managed to get a couple of scientists kicked off a panel to review health evidence of alcohol consumption. One of those scientists, Dr. Eric Rimm of Harvard Medical School, has long voiced the mainstream view that moderate drinking provides some protection against heart disease.

The other, Dr. Kenneth J. Mukamal, also a professor at Harvard Medical School, has conducted large scale epidemiological studies testing the effects of blueberry consumption on blood pressure, cognition and physiological paramaters. He has a study currently underway on metabolic aging. Two of his most recent research activities listed on the Harvard Current involve health effects of moderate alcohol consumption; the last deals with fatty acids and cardiometabolic disease in older adults.

Five years ago, Rimm and Mukamal got a grant from NIH to do some research on moderate alcohol consumption. But the NIH grant didn't cover the full cost of the research, so Rimm, Mukamal and some NIH employees began calling around to see if they could obtain additional funding.

Soon the word got around that the three – Rimm, Mukamal and the NIH employees – were seeking funding from the alcohol industry. Academia is a snake pit, even more so when it involves money.

Oh, please. Let's not have any more of this "I'm purer than Ivory Snow" stuff out of the scientific community. In 2022, according to Retraction Watch, 4,600 research papers were withdrawn. What's interesting that is that since the retraction – a public admission that the paper contains gross errors – those retracted papers have been cited in other scientific papers and journals more than they were before the retraction.

It gets worse: Marc Tessier-Lavigne, the President of Stanford University, was forced to resign after it was disclosed that he oversaw at least two papers published in Science in which the data had been manipulated to support the research hypothesis.

Now, to be honest, everyone knows that the source of funding can affect one's results. It is natural to be suspicious of a study with funding from any industry. But one should also be suspicious of a study funded by health advocacy groups. But what is the solution to that?

The answer, we think is to do research – to replicate the investigator's studies. Does new research come up with the same answer as the old? Does new research perhaps confirm a study but suggest a new study that may in fact be a breakthrough study.

That's the way science should be done. And to answer the National Academies inquiry, people won't trust science until science begins acting in a way that earns people's trust.

That means including opposing voices in a report for policymakers provided the opposing position is well supported.

Subscribe to Kane's Beverage News Daily

Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.
Jamie Larson
Subscribe