Incompetence of medical researchers leads to doubt regarding climate change?

“Feeding Infants Peanut Products Could Prevent Allergies, Study Suggests” (nytimes) is a recent example of the public learning about the incompetence of medical researchers. Previously these folks had told parents to keep children in a nut-free bubble so as to prevent nut allergies from developing. Now they are saying that a nut-free bubble may lead to a nut rash later in life. In a society that spends so much of its time and effort trying to separate children from nuts and so much money on medical research, how could this question not have been answered definitively and correctly many years ago?

From a consumer’s point of view an epidemiologist or other medical researcher is a “scientist” in the same category as a physicist or chemist.  So the manifest inability of “scientists” to answer a simple question such as “Is a child more or less likely to develop a peanut allergy given early peanut exposure?” could easily make a consumer skeptical when a “scientist” says “I have a pretty good idea what the average global temperature 100 years from now is going to be.”

What do readers think? Do these constant reversals on everyday questions make consumers wary of science in general?

Related: Back in the early 1980s the great mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota would say “The methods of the biologist are not distinguishable from those of the stamp collector.”

[Of course it may well be the case that Earth turning into Venus 100 years from now is a simpler question than the origin of nut rashes. But that would not be obvious to someone without a degree in the physical sciences.]

23 thoughts on “Incompetence of medical researchers leads to doubt regarding climate change?

  1. No, not a “nut rash”, but deadly nut allergies , which are literally a question of life and death. By giving completely wrong advice, based on little or no science, they have literally killed children. Some of those kids deprived of all exposure to nuts based on this terrible advice will later be accidentally exposed to them and die of anaphylactic shock.

    For a long time in the US, there was a campaign to get “tropical fats” out of things like packaged cookies. It was clear from the epidemiology that in places like Thailand where people consume lots of tropical fats they were obese and dropping like flies from coronary artery disease. No, wait, it wasn’t, I made that up. Instead, the manufacturers switched to partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (AKA “transfat”). These Frankenstein fats are not commonly found in nature, so your body has no way to process them. They are MUCH worse for you than the tropical oils that the food industry was forced to replace under pressure from “health activists”.

    In the ’70s, there was real concern about “global cooling” – all of our industrial emissions were going to block out the sun and cause another Ice Age. However, if we darkened the polar ice caps with coal dust, we might be able to delay the return of the glaciers to Boston. Or maybe not.

    People have a touching faith in “settled science”. But only WRT to thing that they already believe or want to believe. So the same person can believe that it is “settled science” that global warming (lately called “climate change” since it seems too damn cold much of the time to talk about warming) is real but NOT believe that it is “settle science” that vaccines don’t give your child autism.

  2. Izzie: “literally a question of life and death,” eh? I asked a friend who has worked in a pediatric emergency room here in Boston for more than 20 years how many children he had ever seen who subsequently died of a nut allergy. The answer was 0. He has, on the other hand, seen rashes…

  3. Thanks, Colin, for finding that one case (which is consistent with the research described in the NY Times; her parents created a peanut-free bubble world for her after a slight reaction (to something other than peanuts, according to the story) and then 10 years later her body couldn’t handle peanuts). has some statistics regarding the prevalence within the U.S. population.

  4. The climate has always changed, the real issues are: is the climate changing in a way that is harmful to humans? If so, quantify how much harm is caused by humans in relation to other harmful issues facing humans.

    Meanwhile, the 2 satellite temperature datasets continue to show a “pause” (no statistically significant) in warming for the last 18 and 26 years, and the other 3 terrestrial datasets show warming only when their raw data is adjusted and the effects of urban heat islands are ignored. 18 and 26 years are significant, because the climate modellers said if their models didn’t match the empirical data for 15+ years, then there is a problem with the models. BTW, the IPCC last year revised their modal predicted warming by 2100 down from their scary 2.6-4.0 projections made in 2000 to a harmless 0.6-1.6C (which will only occur if the pause gets under-paused).

    NOAA was aware of the urban heat island / adjustment problems for US weather stations, so 11 years ago they built the most accurate network of temperature recording stations with standardized equipment regularly calibrated in isolated locations. The result? Their pristine data showed slight cooling in the last 10 years (long enough to be statistically significant) while the old weather stations adjusted data showed warming.

  5. There’s no doubt that there is hysteria about peanut allergy out of proportion to the danger – “only” 150 people per year die of all food allergies in the US (and some contest this # and say it could be as low as 11). Not enough of a risk to deprive every school child in America of his God given right to eat PBJ sandwiches.

    However, if you are the parent of a child with peanut allergy, it is terrifying. You take small comfort in the idea that “only” 150 or 11 people die from this annually if one of them might be your precious child. Even if the child doesn’t die, it’s a constant preoccupation to keep them away from peanuts, make sure they are near an epi-pen, etc. If you were told that you could completely prevent peanut allergies for a lifetime just by regularly feeding your kid a couple of ounces of peanut snack when he was little, wouldn’t you do it in a heartbeat? The only caveat is that you have to have the kid tested before he starts to make sure he is not already allergic.

    The way they found this was by accident – they noticed that Israeli children had much lower rates of peanut allergy. The most popular snack food in Israel (among everyone including toddlers) is Bamba. Bamba are corn puffs like Cheetos, but because of kosher prohibitions against eating dairy soon after meat (and vice versa), Israelis prefer a snack food that is pareve (contains neither meat nor dairy) and can be eaten at any time. So instead of cheese flavor, Bambas are peanut butter flavored. Israeli children therefore regularly eat peanuts from an early age.

  6. It’s possible this is contributing to the public’s skepticism. On a related note, I’d say the tendency of TV reporting to frequently put two “opposing views,” to argue with each other hasn’t been helpful to the public’s overall education on scientific issues. This is done without regard to the relative credibility of the two opposing guests. To give an example, if they were investigating the reality of the US moon landings, TV reporters would happily put two talking heads on, arguing over whether or not the US had landed on the moon. And with a straight face, this would be presented as “balanced” reporting. Baffling.

  7. There’s a convincing line of thought that the reasons a lot of people seem to suddenly be having problems with peanuts and wheat and other foods have much to do with agriculture methods. Cultivation practices have become more and more intense, for lack of a better word, and the plants are generally under stress. This results in a variety of defensive toxins in the plants. Intensively farmed, harvested, and warehoused peanuts seem to have the additional problem of molds growing on them. There’s a good dose of aflatoxin in typical peanut butter, more-so than was probably the case thirty years ago.

  8. I have a bit more faith in science’s ability to make and accurately use a thermometer and a sea level gauge, than in science’s ability to accurately design, perform, and interpret experiments involving the modification of human health.

    I realize that I’ve oversimplified, but that’s my response. I have near maximum skepticism for health claims involving expensive medications, nutrition, and lifestyle. Isn’t it a little too convenient that chocolate and Cabernet are really medicinal? Next month we’ll learn that to truly unlock the full life enhancing properties of coffee, we should add two teaspoons of cane sugar to each cup.

  9. > Do these constant reversals on everyday questions make consumers wary of science in general?

    Of course. There is basically no reason why there should ever be reversals on issues like this. We should at some point not know the answer, and then we should know the answer. Not only do scientists constantly lie to the public about issues like these claiming they know things that they don’t, but then they lie again and claim that there is some valid epistemological reason for them to have been not only wrong, but also so confident in their wrongness. You’d have to be a moron to keep believing this crap.

  10. And since you started in on the nut allergy issue, consider the question of why there is no desensitization vaccine. It seems that every other allergy in the world can be cured or managed by injecting the substance in doses that start out highly diluted and then get stronger over time. “They” say there are too many proteins and they can’t isolate the one ore ones that are responsible. Can’t you just use peanut itself and let the body choose the proteins that it wants to react to? I got shots for grass pollen allergy as a kid. Didn’t they just shoot me up with some solution made from ground pollen?

  11. consider the question of why there is no desensitization vaccine.

    Because you can’t patent ground up peanuts and charge $200,000/ year for them.

  12. Part of the problem is that the “incompetent” media reports typically early/tentative medical research publications as “breakthroughs”. The Dr OZ type of “miracle cures” doesn’t help either.

    Medical research would probably be easier if we could keep children in cages.

  13. “Incompetence of medical researchers leads to doubt regarding climate change?”

    Why not cut to the chase?

    Incompetence (and/or malfeasance?) of bureaucratized climate researchers leads to doubt regarding climate change.

  14. > Next month we’ll learn that to truly unlock the full life enhancing properties of coffee, we should add two teaspoons of cane sugar to each cup.

    Close. Turns out it’s butter. Who knew, right?

  15. Time magazine, June 24, 1974 – “Another Ice Age?”
    Newsweek magazine, April 28, 1975 – “The Cooling World”

  16. > Ioannidis’s 2005 paper “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False”[5] has been the most downloaded technical paper from the journal PLoS Medicine

    > “During a decade as head of global cancer research at Amgen, C. Glenn Begley identified 53 ‘landmark’ publications — papers in top journals, from reputable labs — for his team to reproduce. Begley sought to double-check the findings before trying to build on them for drug development. Result: 47 of the 53 could not be replicated. He described his findings in a commentary piece published on Wednesday in the journal Nature

    There is apparently a lot of bad science out there. Studies never replicated. Studies that should not have been published and the authors knew that. Studies that should have been retracted. Studies whose weak findings were blown up out of proportion. Poor or misuse of statistics. Intentional misconduct and research fraud. Perhaps even studies whose findings and conclusions (and research proposals) were made to suit a funding agency’s agenda.

    Now, noting the existence of bad apples is a long way from doubting climate change, but I don’t see much reason to understand why climate scientists are ethically above and beyond their peer scientists in other fields. And some of these scientists do have fancy New York Goddard NASA Columbia Manhattan addresses meaning that these high priests do have to mingle with the hoi polloi and see fancy restaurants, fancy clothes, fancy cars, fancy condominiums, fancy tv interviews, just saying perhaps they face the same corruption as the rest of us as they think of their career arcs and how they think they should be doing.

    On top of that add how the press is terrible about reporting science in which one brand new study is said to debunk prior work, with no regard to whether anyone has replicated the study, or how it is cited or treated by other scientists in the field.

  17. My mother, a public health nurse, made me stay out of the water for 45 minutes after eating. My whole boyhood. Received wisdom from the guardians of public health. Then I read a few years ago that you didn’t have to do that – you could just go in the water. I was furious. I want those hundreds of hours of waiting on the beach back.

    Medical science is like that though. My cousin got Aids early on in the epidemic. His doctors had him on a drug which kept him constantly nauseous for a year.Then he walked in one day and the doctor told him, “oh, cut down that drug to 1/3 of the dose you’ve been taking.” When he asked why the doctor said, “oh the drug works fine. We’ve just been giving people 3 times the amount the need. The higher dose makes them nauseous.”

    Whatever condition we have, peanut allergies, Aids, swimming fans, we think there are hundred of dedicated medical researchers, living for nothing more then to find a cure for our disease. Its important to remember that the researchers don’t have the condition they are researching, and so, are not as concerned over finding a cure. They go home to their families at five o’clock.

  18. Phil,

    The entire climate change subject has turned into (surprise, surprise) a left versus right political battle. And when THAT comes into play, all fair analysis and objectivity flies out the window. So no, I have little faith in science, particularly when the issue becomes a political hot button.

    One of my employees is sister-in-law to a recently prosecuted CEO of a peanut butter manufacturer and says that although her in-law’s alleged crime stemmed from shipping salmonella tainted peanut butter,, her family (which is also in the peanut business) now battles a daily public frenzy over peanuts being “just plain bad for everyone”.

  19. There is plenty of scientific doubt about climate change. No one really knows what would happen if we take CO2 from 300 ppm to 1000ppm. Our planet is a huge complex system. What is clear is that nearly everyone who studies these things thinks it is a really bad idea to do the experiment and find out.

    There is plenty of scientific uncertainty about how lifestyle affects health. Nonetheless, it is pretty clear “quit smoking, exercise, and eat a generally “healthy diet” was and remains good advice (even if the details of what constitute a “healthy” diet change a bit over time).

    The reality is everyone from individuals to national policy makers must make decisions with only imprecise and incomplete scientific knowledge. That doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and do nothing. It just means we need to keep our minds open, be willing to adjust as we learn more, and beware of folks who would use that doubt for their own selfish purposes. The new SciAm has an interesting take on the latter:

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