Confirming a Bias

The problem with doing science is enormous. I have often said that science is a "discipline," and what I mean when I say that involves the recognition that it can be used even more easily to conceal the truth — or even advance falsehood — than to establish the truth.

In fact, science, qua discipline, can't really "establish the truth." It can only really show what's unequivocally false. Doing this involves confining one's self (through discipline, over the desire to "prove" one's self "right") to speculations and hypotheses that are falsifiable. I've linked this before, but here's my favorite passage that serves to explain the principal. So, in short, we speculate and hypothesize, and then if doing science in a disciplined way, we set about to prove our speculations and hypotheses…not true, but false. Failing to do that, time and again, is the basis of real science. Look at it logically. Even if I came up with a million different associations to "confirm" or suggest that a hypothesis could possibly be true, I only need one single contradictory fact to render a hypothesis useless.

In the fields of nutrition and health, it's an unmitigated disaster. Has been for decades. It's so insane that there have been billions upon billions (much your tax dollars) spent on research to "prove" or confirm a baseless bias that saturated fats from animals, and consuming other foods high in cholesterol (like eggs) substantially increases your risk for cardiovascular disease, typically through the accumulation of atherosclerotic plaque buildup, i.e., calcification. Why? Maybe because it represents a lifetime of employment. As I indicate above, they can come up with millions upon millions of associations, but you'll never know which one, or combination, or which combination among many possibilities is your "secret formula" for heart health. It's even so bad now that when they don't even produce an association they have predicted to produce, it gets chalked up to a fluke.

It goes even deeper than that; for, the chances — even if you do all the supposedly "good" or "bad" things — are that you'll live a fine long life in general good health. …Although, that's getting more tenuous as there are now so many millions doing "all the right things" and getting fat, diabetic, clogged arteries, and dying young — like Tim Russert.

Those who subscribe to Art De Vany's private blog were recently treated to a great science lesson along these lines. Art has graciously granted me permission to quote liberally, but, by all means: do yourself a favor and subscribe if you can. And here's a hint: It ain't just Art. One of the great things about the private blog is the comments, like those from Doug McGuff, MD, for example. I'll get to him later.

Before I take up the topic a reader asked me about may I mention that studies by psychologists show that we all suffer confirmation bias. That is, we look at evidence to find ways in which it supports a view or opinion we already have. Minds or opinions are seldom changed by evidence. It is so bad that experiments show that if you take a group of people and separate them according to their view point on a subject — marathons are good for you, or gun control is good or bad — and then give them a lot of data and studies to read, they will strengthen their opinion. They find, even in the most objective studies they may read that are neutral on the opinion and just cover the evidence, that the review strengthens their already held opinion. Minds don’t change, they just have more facts to back their opinion when they read the same studies as the other group. Psychologists call this the confirmation bias; we look for evidence to support our views. This is why Popper and real scientists stress the need to look for evidence that goes against your idea.

Art goes on to quote a Dr. Mirkin on why we should avoid red meat. Take a read, it's pretty short. I'll quote one bit:

His theory depends on evolution.

Ha! Blinded by Science, again. What's most amazing is that after millions of years of meat eating all this human heart disease shows up only relatively recently. Evolution, it must be understood, is merely a term we use to describe what is the underlying cause of it: the almost mathematical logic of natural selection.

Now, if one were to firmly affix such logical cause-effect relationships in their mind they would immediately see that Mirkin is full of bunk. According to the doc, this gene mutated way back when, as homo sapiens first emerged. Yet, there is clear evidence that humans have always eaten meat. Had, in fact, this gene's mutation been harmful in the way Mirkin (and Ajit Varki) suggest, then considering that meat was so absolutely essential to human evolution, natural selection almost certainly would have weeded out that mutation (carriers would have died off), or some other mutation would have emerged to neuter its adverse effects on survival and continued evolution, or even render the original mutation beneficial.

There's more. Back to Art:

First you see the new information is used only to confirm his already held view that one should not eat meat. Second, you see that he adopts the hypothesis proposed by Varki with out testing it. It has not been tested and is nothing more than a possibility. Third, you see that much is being attributed to a difference of one molecule between humans and other animals when there are thousands of such molecules. Fourth, the new form of the molecule evolved with the emergence of humans, a late development in our evolution and one that may have occured along with many others to permit brain expansion. Fifth, no evidence is given concerning the function of the molecule. Sixth, the evolutionary argument is used to make a case for the importance of the molecule while failing to note that humans ate animals for at least 3 million years and most other animals also eat animals, whether they are herbivores are not. Seventh, there are many causes of inflammation and the immune system lies at the root of it. Obesity is the primary cause of systemic inflammation and there are other promoters such as alcohol and trans fats. The list is endless. Eighth, many elements of our lives, diet and environment promote inflammation through immune system responses.

Art goes on to point out how Mirkin (and/or Varki — I'm not certain who was meant) used to be an early promoter of the "fat=bad" hypothesis, now largely discredited for those in the know (the diet and nutrition media are still shilling for and being the fools of the sugar / grain / pharma industries — and the public is everybody's fool, as usual). So, now he / they have latched onto an obscure molecule to point the finger at meat. So, it's not the fat, now, but the meat: meat=bad.

And modern ignorance marches on…

Richard Nikoley

I'm Richard Nikoley. Free The Animal began in 2003 and as of 2021, contains 5,000 posts. I blog what I wish...from health, diet, and food to travel and lifestyle; to politics, social antagonism, expat-living location and time independent—while you sleep—income. I celebrate the audacity and hubris to live by your own exclusive authority and take your own chances. Read More


  1. Jacqueline on November 16, 2008 at 14:29

    This is the second time I've seen this stuff about Neu5GC tonight – it's also over in a comment on Dr Eades' blog. Two things come to mind: 1) has anyone even shown that humans do produce antibodies to this – it would possibly be unusual to produce antibodies to such a small molecule – after all, plant flavinoids are small molecules which aren't 'naturally' found in our bodies – do we produce antibodies to those?
    2) has it occurred to anyone that the reason this stuff is concentrated in tumours is that the tumours might be making it? Maybe suffering a mutation to make the stuff is associated with what caused the tumour?

  2. Daniel on November 20, 2008 at 10:16

    "What's most amazing is that after millions of years of meat eating all this human heart disease shows up only relatively recently."

    I may need to brush up on my evolutionary biology, but hasn't heart disease's prevalence corresponded with a general increase in life expectancy? Also, for most of that time, wouldn't humans have mainly reproduced before heart disease eliminated them from the gene pool?

  3. Richard Nikoley on November 20, 2008 at 10:41

    "hasn't heart disease's prevalence corresponded with a general increase in life expectancy?"

    No. Life expectance is expressed as an average, and what mostly brings down the average for primitive peoples is infant mortality, pathogens, poisons, accidents, harsh environments — not the lack of modern medicine. There have always been plenty of people living past 100.

    There have been NO studies of primitive peoples, going back hundreds of years, that has ever produced evidence of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, hypertension, and so on and so forth. These are all diseases of civilization, and "modern medicine" is largely occupied in managing the problem.

    "Also, for most of that time, wouldn't humans have mainly reproduced before heart disease eliminated them from the gene pool?"

    Heart disease isn't genetic. It's metabolic. It comes from eating a lot of crap over a lot of years, and also, probably deficiencies of fat-soluble vitamins like D and K2 Menatetrenone (MK-4).

  4. Lang Rimba on November 21, 2008 at 20:06

    Very good health care food tips and info..but I like the food actually….

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