In the fight against obesity, should science matter? It depends on whom you ask. The answer may surprise you, and could make you realize that you shouldn't always trust the do-gooders.
A study published in Pediatrics magazine this month shows an association between obesity reduction and states with strict school rules against salty and fatty foods and sugary drinks. The researchers were properly prudent to caution that while they found a link between less obesity and rules against goodies, their study did not prove causation.
They noted that they did not control for key factors that could explain the results some other way. The conclusion of the study is clear and should be undisputed: These laws may, but don't necessarily, make a difference -- the same way umbrellas may be a leading cause of rain.
But consider the reaction from the executive director of the New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance: In response to the accurate NBC News headline, "School junk food bans may really help curb obesity," Nancy Huehnergarth tweeted, "Worth repeating. School food policy works!" But that's not repeating; it's distorting. Neither the study, the headline nor the story said the bans work.
There's nothing wrong with promoting a policy agenda, but it's wrong to mislead the public by knowingly twisting the findings of a study to serve that agenda. Unfortunately, policymakers and the public tend to give a free ride to anyone fighting obesity, smoking or any societal ill. If science is to determine policy, that is a mistake. We shouldn't blindly trust those who mislead us even if they want to save the world.
Similar fuzzy thinking applies in what turns out to be an asymmetrical battle over disclosure of funding and the credibility of scientific research. The study itself appears to be scientifically sound and comes with appropriate caveats. It was partially funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, or RWJF, which most media outlets disclosed. However, that disclosure is woefully incomplete; a distortion by omission. The typical reader would consider the funding source to bolster the credibility of the report. But I've found no coverage that also discloses that critical fact that the RWJF is one of the nation's leading proponents of the very laws being evaluated for their efficacy. Everyone might safely assume pretzel purveyors oppose the laws, but not everyone will know that RWJF has a dog in the fight.
Don't disbelieve the study just because it was funded by the RWJF, but be aware of the potential for bias, just as you would if a study funded by Coca-Cola reached the opposite result.
The same caution is also in order even for today's government-funded studies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is pushing the limits of federal law by using taxpayer dollars, first from the stimulus bill and now from the health care law, to lobby for policy changes at the state and local level. Remember the Bloomberg administration's controversial (and unscientific) subway ads, where soda turned into globs of fat? Those were the type of federally funded campaigns meant to lay the groundwork for soda taxes. Less controversial are federally funded studies meant to justify the policies. The government isn't funding studies to determine whether these laws work; it is funding them to justify a position it has already taken.
If you ignore these principles you aren't following the science -- you are biased in favor of nanny state laws. That's fine, but in that case, don't pretend the science is on your side.
Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.