Not all science reporting is bad

I should have gotten to it sooner, but kudos to Anahad O’Connor on his piece on breakfast this week:

Americans have long been told that routinely eating breakfast is a simple habit that helps prevent weight gain.

Skipping breakfast, the thinking goes, increases hunger throughout the day, making people overeat and seek out snacks to compensate for missing that first – and some would say most important – meal of the day.

“Eating a healthy breakfast is a good way to start the day,” according to the Web site of the United States surgeon general, “and may be important in achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.”

But new research shows that despite the conventional weight-loss wisdom, the idea that eating breakfast helps you lose weight stems largely from misconstrued studies.

I don’t eat breakfast. Not because I don’t like it, or because I think it has some relation to obesity, but just because I’m not hungry most days when I get up in the morning. I don’t know why. A cup of coffee is all I want. My wife, on the other hand, thinks the world will fall apart if she doesn’t get something to eat first thing. My friends are convinced that she’s right, and I’m wrong, and that my actions will lead to obesity. I get texts, emails, and calls whenever some news story adds to the JUST KNOWN TRUTH that eating breakfast helps you lose weight.

Bah! Here’s the study the NYT references above:

BACKGROUND: Various intentional and unintentional factors influence beliefs beyond what scientific evidence justifies. Two such factors are research lacking probative value (RLPV) and biased research reporting (BRR).

OBJECTIVE: We investigated the prevalence of RLPV and BRR in research about the proposition that skipping breakfast causes weight gain, which is called the proposed effect of breakfast on obesity (PEBO) in this article.

DESIGN: Studies related to the PEBO were synthesized by using a cumulative meta-analysis. Abstracts from these studies were also rated for the improper use of causal language and biased interpretations. In separate analyses, articles that cited an observational study about the PEBO were rated for the inappropriate use of causal language, and articles that cited a randomized controlled trial (RCT) about the PEBO were rated for misleadingly citing the RCT.

RESULTS: The current body of scientific knowledge indicates that the PEBO is only presumed true. The observational literature on the PEBO has gratuitously established the association, but not the causal relation, between skipping breakfast and obesity (final cumulative meta-analysis P value <10-42), which is evidence of RLPV. Four examples of BRR are evident in the PEBO literature as follows: 1) biased interpretation of one’s own results, 2) improper use of causal language in describing one’s own results, 3) misleadingly citing others’ results, and 4) improper use of causal language in citing others’ work.

CONCLUSIONS: The belief in the PEBO exceeds the strength of scientific evidence. The scientific record is distorted by RLPV and BRR. RLPV is a suboptimal use of collective scientific resources.

I bet it’s behind a firewall, but if it’s not, it’s worth your time. It’s a great example of showing how biases can drive publication and interpretation. It’s also a good reminder that you should go to the source and not rely just on others’ interpretations. Mine included.


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