Seeing Red PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Jeff Wagg   

Today, the Archives of Internal Medicine reported that a new study confirmed previous studies that showed a correlation between consuming a large amount of red meat and a shorter life. I counted 332 news reports on this in Google, and they mostly said this, but one was a little different.

It was from The Center for Consumer Freedom, a “nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies, and consumers, working together to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices.”

And basically they said: eh, no big deal.

From their press release:

It’s ridiculous to try to separate our diets from our lifestyles," Martosko said. "Nobody eats in a vacuum, and countless variables go into figuring out when we die. This study’s data connect mortality with smoking, a lack of exercise, taking daily vitamins, and even marriage. It’s silly to suggest that any single factor is the biggest one.

Well, I think they’re smart enough to see when a particular variable makes a huge difference. But… Ok, maybe Martosko has a point. Let’s look at the actual study to see what it says.

Oh wait, we can’t. You see, you have to pay to see it. $140 for a year’s subscription. And that’s what this Swift is really about.

Science has a problem. It seems that many people in this country and elsewhere consider a scientific study to be just as valid as Oprah saying “It works!” The truth is, science offers something that Oprah doesn’t: data. And it’s not just any old data… it’s peer reviewed, tested and self-evident. It’s also damn hard for a layman to access.

How can we say “what does the evidence say” if we can’t see it ourselves?

There are some great and trustworthy websites out there that provide summaries of studies like this one. Science News is great, and New Scientist has this to say about the red meat study:

This is probably the biggest and most carefully done study on the relationship between diet and mortality that I've seen," says Barry Popkin, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, who was not involved in the study.

Still, I’d like to investigate the claims on consumerfreedom.com for myself, but unless I pay for the subscription, I have to go by second hand reports. And that’s nearly the same as listening to Oprah.

Now obviously, journals need to raise money to survive, and their model of professional subscriptions has worked for many years. But I’d like to see the science made more accessible to the public. We need an “open source” journal, or something similar that allows laypeople to breach the walls of the ivory tower and examine the evidence for ourselves.

And yes, I know this will create all sorts of problems. People will abuse the data, come to the wrong conclusions, etc. But really, won’t they do that anyway?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue. How can lay people gain access to studies without going broke, and what can science and scientists do to communicate better and more directly with the public? I know of some ways, but I'd like to see what you come up with. You can leave a comment at the end of this article.