Do Avatar characters eat cheese? James Cameron’s films may suspend disbelief, but his dairy claims are fiction, not fact.

In our brave new world, where questioning authority and searching for truth are championed as positive attributes, it is ironic that we tend to follow predictable behaviour patterns when faced with new information. Decisions which we consider to be impartial, or opinions that we hold about controversial issues based on evidence, balance and facts, may prove to be anything but when scrutinised further.

Take, for example, the preponderance of media articles suggesting that meat and dairy consumption are unhealthy – for us, the animals and the planet. One of the most recent, a plea from film-maker and deep-sea explorer James Cameron, plays upon three phenomena relating to decision-making – cultural cognition, bad news bias and confirmation bias.

Figure 8

We assume that we make impartial, balanced decisions, but we’re far more subject to bias than we may think. Graphic from Capper (2017) Cattle Practice.

Celebrities have been used to sell products, messages and ideologies for centuries, from the Royal Family endorsing Wedgewood pottery in the 1760s, to Bette Davis advertising shampoo in the 1950s and Joanna Lumley now gaining publicity for activist causes. However, fame doesn’t imply any degree of expertise, knowledge or understanding of the issue, just a belief that the solution lies with X, whatever X might be.

Most of us aim to be like our heroes, whether they are famous based on appearance, acting ability, athletic skill or career prominence; thus we are prone to cultural cognition. If I believe that celebrity A believes that something is right/wrong and I aspire to being like this celebrity, I am more likely to adopt their message without question. The fact that a famous Hollywood film maker (and deep-sea explorer – seriously, who doesn’t aspire to be a deep-sea explorer?) has sufficient belief to write an op-ed in The Guardian claiming that we should all reduce meat and dairy consumption, therefore resonates with us far more highly than the same message from a non-famous individual.

The inevitable “this is killing us and the planet” rhetoric adds an extra layer of credibility via bad news bias, in that we are preconditioned to believe negative news over positive news. “Bad news sells” is clichéd, yet true (and explains the popularity of “X Causes Cancer” stories in the Daily Mail) and we need five pieces of positive information to negate each piece of negative information.

Confirmation bias is the final layer in this anti-meat and dairy club sandwich. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to have missed media coverage of potential impacts of meat and dairy consumption on health. If we consciously (or subconsciously) absorb the message that these foods are bad, then Cameron’s claims that “eating too much meat and dairy is making us sick, greatly increasing our risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, several major cancers (including breast, liver and prostate) and obesity” agree with our existing bias and we are likely to believe them. However, these claims do not accord with (nor are linked to) current scientific literature on dairy consumption.

This would include, for example, a meta-analysis in Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, which demonstrated a negative association between dairy consumption and breast cancer, i.e. increasing dairy product consumption may be associated with a reduced risk of breast cancer. In addition, a dose-response meta-analysis in the European Journal of Epidemiology reported neutral associations (i.e. no clear positive or negative association) between dairy product consumption and cardiovascular and all-cause mortality. Perhaps even the recent article in Nutrition Research Reviews, which concluded that recommending reduced dairy consumption in order to lower saturated fatty acid intakes (and thus the risk of type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease) would have limited, or possibly negative effects.

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Ice-cream (and other dairy products) may reduce the risk of breast cancer.  

When the subject under discussion is the fictional lives of blue-skinned human hybrids (as per the film Avatar, directed by Cameron), it’s perhaps easier to use imagination than rely on scientific veracity. However, having an evidence basis for claims made in media articles is increasingly important, especially when the claims are made by those who are only prominent for their excellence in other (non-scientific) areas.

In the meantime, eat, drink and be merry over the next two weeks – content in the knowledge that clotted cream with your mince pie will not have adverse health effects, and may even prevent against cancer. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

 

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Cutting Meat? Or Just Cutting Corners?

DexterIt is equally interesting, inevitable and lamentable to see that another study has come out claiming that the only way to reduce climate change is to cut meat consumption per person.

Meat consumption appears to be the only human activity subject to continuous “we must cease/reduce this” claims on the basis of environmental impacts. If we compare to other greenhouse gas sources, a considerable proportion come from transportation. Yet rather than insisting that every car-owner cut their annual mileage by 25%, the focus has been on reducing emissions by producing more fuel-efficient vehicles. Similarly, no one has yet claimed that we should reduce household lighting by four hours per day, but the compact fluorescent lightbulb (CFL) has become the poster child for improving household energy efficiency.

We have demonstrable proof that beef and dairy producers have improved greenhouse gas emissions (as well as land use, water use, energy efficiency, etc) over time through improved efficiency, and can continue to do so into the future. So why are the gains made by livestock producers dismissed, and reduced meat intakes seen as the only solution? I have an absolute hatred of conspiracy theories, but it is difficult not to see an latent agenda in the preponderance of “Cut meat consumption” papers. Jumping on the bandwagon? Promoting individual dietary opinions as science? Or simply bowing to NGO/media opinions and looking for easy funding and publicity?

As the global population increases to over 9.5 billion people by 2050, with the majority of this growth occurring in the developing world, the demand for milk, meat and eggs is going to increase by 60%. If we are serious about cutting greenhouse gas emissions, it’s time to examine the impacts of all of our actions and concentrate on further efficiency improvements rather than constraining dietary choice.

If I Bill, Am I A Shill? Why Travel Funding and Speaker Fees Don’t Equal Industry Bias.

COI tweetA New York Times article published this week questioned the ethics of large companies funding travel for scientists to “promote” technologies or agendas. The quotation marks are there because the gist of the article (and related Twitter debate) is that if scientists have travel costs or speaker fees paid by industry, their scientific expertise and credibility is at best suspect, at worst, massively biased by a conflict of interest (COI).

Obviously I cannot presume to speak on behalf of all scientists, but having done presentations for 8+ years to audiences ranging from rural high schools and county cattlemen’s associations to international corporations, government and the National Academy of Sciences, I’d like to give you my perspective.

I trained as an animal scientist and gained my BSc and PhD in the UK, followed by post-doctoral work at Cornell University. I was an Assistant Professor at Washington State University for 2.75 years, and started my own consultancy business 3.5 years ago. As a consultant I divide my time between animal science research and presentations. My peer-reviewed scientific research is funded by industry. Beef industry associations, dairy industry groups, animal health companies, et al. That does not mean it’s biased, inaccurate or lacks credibility. It simply means that the research that I do is useful to the industry in which I trained and work. Who else would fund a project modelling the environmental impact of the beef industry or the effects of using Jersey rather than Holstein cattle for cheese production, if not the beef and dairy industries?

My presentations are also often funded by industry. Sometimes directly, when a company asks me to give a presentation as part of a conference that they are sponsoring or organising, sometimes indirectly when I’m asked to speak by conference organisers who then seek funding to cover the costs of hosting the conference. In the latter cases I sometimes haven’t known who’s sponsoring my expenses/honorarium until my talk is introduced by the chairperson. Bias? COI? I haven’t even had time to process the fact that I’ve been sponsored by Company X before I’m up on stage, let alone had time to amend my slides/messages.

Travel costs are almost always covered, sometimes an honorarium or speaker fee is also offered. Do I accept speaker fees? Absolutely. It’s part of my job to do a good presentation and be recompensed accordingly; and I have a small daughter who’s constantly growing out of her clothes. However, I’ve done a significant number of talks without a speaker fee attached because I’m interested in attending the conference; because I’d like to visit the region; because I know that the indirect return on investment (networking opportunities, etc) is worth it or simply because I know they cannot afford to pay me. Does that mean those talks were more balanced? Credible? Non-biased? No. As with all my presentations, the data was peer-reviewed science (with citations at the base of each slide), irrespective of the presence or absence of a speaker fee.

Sci travel tweetHowever, accepting speaker fees or travel expenses apparently makes me a less credible expert, because some journalists and food pundits consider that scientists must be biased by their funding sources.

So let’s reverse the questions:

How many journalists can say that they are not influenced by their editor, the paper/media they work for or the fee that they’re paid? That the article published is exactly the same as the first draft that they submitted, unaltered by editorial staff or policy? The only instance in which I ever recall an inviting organisation making changes to my slides was when I gave a webinar to a national dietetic organisation and their educational board had to approve my presentation’s scientific content. I was reluctant to submit my slides in that instance as I did not wish whatever their agenda might be to alter my science-based message.

About four years ago, a journalist demanded to have a “second opinion” to balance a paper I presented at a scientific conference in Australia (again based on peer-reviewed, published science), from a 1st-year masters student studying social sustainability, because the journalist considered that I was “too tied to the livestock industry” for my science to be impartial. Apparently the quotes from the masters student (from non-peer-reviewed anti-animal agriculture activist group reports) were considered to be non-biased, and the journalist’s “too tied” conclusion was based on reading the 140 characters in my Twitter bio. As scientists, we have to back up our hypotheses and conclusions with scientific literature and data. Yet, we’re accused and often condemned without trial based on speculation relating to our relationships with companies or industries with which we work. What happened to journalistic integrity and proof?

How many people would travel across states, countries or continents as part of their job, but refuse travel expenses and fund it themselves, as some seem to be suggesting that scientists should do to prove their credibility? Travel expenses are not benefits, tax-free income nor a huge bag of Scrooge McDuck-esque gold coins tossed to the scientist by “big ag” or “big pharma” with an extortion to go and have fun in the city. In reality, they mean staying in yet another Holiday Inn Express, accounting for every meal, flight and cab ride, and if you lose that $30 receipt for your airport parking, well tough luck, you’re covering that one yourself. Furthermore, why should scientists be expected to work for low or no pay simply to gain credibility, when the idea of being anything but transparent, honest and scientific never even occurred to the vast majority of us?

Most journalists with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work have been straightforward about their intentions and outcomes. However, perhaps it’s time to examine the integrity of those among them who have the ability to influence millions and are the first to seek FOIA data or call “bias”? Or do we have to accept that given that bad news sells papers, we can’t blame them for trying to rake up the dirt? Sadly, given the current follow the money culture in which we live, the fact that I choose to be paid by industry rather than academia is likely to continue to lead to claims of biased research in future, regardless of scientific veracity and peer-review. I’m happy that I can dismiss the claims, knowing that sponsors have never tried to influence, bias or bury my work and will continue to publish in academic journals, acknowledging funding sources.