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Experts In Journalism

Eggs are good for you. They contain a ton of protein, including several amino acids that are critical ingredients for human health that our bodies cannot synthesize themselves, amino acids that we have to eat because we cannot make them.

The above science has been known for about a century and never contradicted. However, when you cut open dead people to investigate heart disease and take a look at what was clogging their arteries, you find:

 [a] buildup of fats, cholesterol and other substances in and on your artery walls (plaques), which can restrict blood flow.

So when a blood tests was invented that measured cholesterol in the blood, the ability to "check our cholesterol" made it possible to investigate the link between cholesterol in our diets and cholesterol deposited in our arteries. But unlike the amino acids mentioned above, cholesterol is something our bodies can and do make and they do so according to the formula contained in our genes.

How did that investigation turn out? Does the amount of cholesterol in our food change the amount in our blood? No. Here's Gary Taubes writing in the New York Times:

In the late 1960s, biochemists created a simple technique for measuring, more specifically, the cholesterol inside the different kinds of lipoproteins — high-density, low-density and very low-density. The National Institutes of Health financed a handful of studies to determine whether these “cholesterol fractions” could predict the risk of cardiovascular disease. In 1977, the researchers reported their results: total cholesterol turned out to be surprisingly useless as a predictor. Researchers involved with the Framingham Heart Study found that in men and women 50 and older, “total cholesterol per se is not a risk factor for coronary heart disease at all.”

Simple enough, right? Wrong. Taubes again:

Because medical authorities have always approached the cholesterol hypothesis as a public health issue, rather than as a scientific one, we’re repeatedly reminded that it shouldn’t be questioned. Heart attacks kill hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, statin therapy can save lives, and skepticism might be perceived as a reason to delay action. So let’s just trust our assumptions, get people to change their diets and put high-risk people on statins and other cholesterol-lowering drugs.

Science, however, suggests a different approach: test the hypothesis rigorously and see if it survives. If the evidence continues to challenge the role of cholesterol, then rethink it, without preconceptions, and consider what these other pathways in cardiovascular disease are implying about cause and prevention. A different hypothesis may turn out to fit the facts better, and one day help prevent considerably more deaths.

Into the fray comes an "explainer" post in the "Science of Us" blog at New York Magazine, Understanding the Science of Cholesterol. The article acknowledges that there is no evidence that dietary cholesterol is bad for us, and no evidence that eggs are bad for us. But for some reason, the conclusion still makes it sound like eggs are not a healthy thing to eat. The point of the article is that there is zero science that says eggs are bad for us. Zero. And yet it ends like this:

What's some practical advice to take away here? (In other words, is it cool if I eat eggs every day now?)
It's probably just fine to eat a couple of eggs a day instead of a couple of eggs a week, as was previously recommended, the experts said. "It looks like eggs are more or less neutral when it comes to heart disease risk," said Willett. Sure, there are better things you could be eating for breakfast — he suggested some combination of whole grains, berries, nuts, and yogurt — but an omelette a day is very unlikely to harm you, even if our outdated nutritional guidelines say otherwise.

In the comment section I noted:

The tone of this article is bizarre. Right now there are soy based emulsifiers in probably half of the food the average person consumes. The science on the heart disease risk of soy based emulsifiers is identical to the science on the heart disease risk of eggs: there is none.

So why the cautious tone about eating eggs? Where's the article cautiously optimistic about soy based emulsifiers? It's like you're afraid of offending all the doctors who gave terrible nutrition advice based on no evidence whatsoever for close to 50 years. These are rich comfortable white men. They should be afflicted, not comforted.

If journalists were self-aware, they would realize that they are very much to blame for the confusion surrounding nutrition. In the years before WWII, journalists were self-described "hacks" with very little education and an undisguised ambition to sell newspapers by writing "stories" that the people would pay for.

After WWII we were given a new, "professional media". Not only had they graduated from college, in many cases, our news was delivered by people with a MASTERS DEGREE in news. So how does one create an academic field out of a job where parasites exploit people's suffering for profit? One approach would be to train journalists in the fields they covered. Science journalists would earn Masters degrees by learning science. Political journalists would earn a masters in political history. Crime journalists would study law. Thus, three post-graduate years of study would prepare these reporters to be professionals in their field.

But take a gander at the program offered by the most prestigious of all the "J Schools": Columbia University.

  • First off: the journalism masters degree does not take three years, it takes just one. 
  • Second, notice the subject matter of all the courses: journalism.

So we've radically changed our idea of the news from stories produced by hacks into "journalism" produced by expert and professional investigators based on their expertise in what? Their expertise in being a hack!

So much of our national discussion is a feedback loop between academia and the media that it is absolutely crucial that they provide a check on each other's errors. When they get it wrong together, at the same time, they put us all in danger.

In this case it was the failure of journalists to understand that doctors are not scientists. And why would journalists understand this, it's an easy error to make. We all want to believe that the man or woman charged with keeping us alive is at the forefront of medical knowledge. So what you find are endless articles in the NYT Well Blog where good science about, e.g., the danger of carbs and the benefits of fats, is then "balanced" with contradictory information from a doctor simply repeating what he learned 30 years ago in medical school. The choice of sources makes all the difference, and a poorly educated journalist does a terrible job of choosing. 

We need a new model of journalism where reporters are honest about not just their bias, but also their ignorance. The Internet is taking us there, but slowly, and there's still going to be a lot of people who die because of the faulty old model before it's gone. 

IMPORTANT POSTSCRIPT: Statin drugs do prevent heart disease. They also lower cholesterol. The problem is that the lower cholesterol does not seem to have anything to do with the preventing of heart disease. The causal mechanism is unknown. So keep taking your Lipitor, but question medical studies where the endpoint is lower LDL and not lower rates of heart disease. That's a whole different issue: the choice of endpoints that don't represent what researchers think or claim they represent.

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