Recently in the pages of the CJR, I took on science journalism’s lack of skepticism and misuse of published scientific studies, especially with regard to personal health. (“Survival of the Wrongest,” January/February 2013.) To highlight some of the problems, I look at reporting on obesity and long-term weight loss. I argued that this reporting has been focused on catchy, simplistic—and utterly wrong—ideas, such as that long-term weight loss is nearly impossible, or that it can be easily achieved by cutting out one major food group or another.
The fact that reporters are able to support these misleading and conflicting claims with published studies is a clear sign that something has gone badly wrong with both science and science journalism. Specifically, I charge that journalists have consistently failed to point out (if they know it at all) that the findings of medical studies have been inarguably shown by scientists themselves to be highly unreliable. Even worse, journalists are taking advantage of the problem by enlisting studies to make their arguments seem like scientific truth, potentially wreaking enormous damage on their readers’ health.
Not surprisingly, some readers object to my argument, or parts of it. (As I noted in the article, science journalists, unlike scientists themselves, tend to react badly to the assertion that published scientific findings are untrustworthy.) Let me address some of the posted comments.
First off, I’m a little surprised and, frankly, annoyed, that CJR readers would really need me to dig up for them citations of some of the many studies that have come up with positive long-term weight-loss results. Aside from disliking having to do people’s homework for them, I hate playing the study game in general—there are studies that back almost any assertion up. After I provide the citations to those who demand them, they will invariably then tell me why these studies are flawed, or don’t really back me up, and they will refer me to “good” studies that back them up. No one learns anything from these dueling-studies debates. But fine, here are a few citations, from over the years:
• “Long-Term weight loss maintenance,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
• “Evidence for success of behavior modification in weight loss and control,” Annals of Internal Medicine
• “Effectiveness of Weight Management Interventions in Children,” Pediatrics
• “Long-Term Weight Maintenance after an Intensive Weight-Loss Program,” Journal of the American College of Nutrition
In the recently halted “Look AHEAD” study, a group of thousands of older, significantly overweight people with diabetes—considered the toughest group with which to achieve long-term weight loss—lost and kept off an average of 5 percent of their body weight for ten years. Yes, it’s only 5 percent (again, in a very tough group). And it’s true that some studies with relatively high percentages of people who keep weight off long term use as little as 5 percent of body weight as a threshold, though some find quite a bit more. (Plus, remember, the studies typically report averages or minimums, which means there were many in the Look AHEAD and other studies who lost more, and sometimes a lot more.) But I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss a 5 percent loss as nothing to celebrate. For one thing, it’s proof of concept, putting the lie to claims that we are genetically fixed to have a certain weight. For another (the Look AHEAD study being a confusing exception), most studies have found that even small amounts of weight loss can make a big difference in health.
The failure of most studies to find long-term weight-loss maintenance is due to the generally poor weight-loss programs that subjects are exposed to in these studies. These studies tend to rely on simplistic approaches like prescribing cutting calories and exercise without good guidance and support, or cutting carbs or fat, or handing over a pile of weight-loss literature, or—big high-tech twist—directing people to a website with weight-loss advice. Usually ignored is the one technique that’s been proven to work over and over again over the long term: A comprehensive behavioral support program.
Regarding Karl J. Kaiyala’s comment that I dared to quote Barbara Berkeley, a physician who—gasp—sells books and diet programs: Another great myth and prejudice of science reporting is that we want to heed only pure scientific studies, not the observations of experts who are actually out in the real world and therefore have all kinds of biases. I’ve got news for everyone: Ask any scientist—as apparently relatively few science writers do—about how free the academic science world is of bias, politics, and the corrupting drive for success.