Monday, July 12, 2010

Critique Of The China Study; The Nature Of Scientific Innovation

The China Study, sponsored by Cornell and Oxford Universities and conducted by T. Colin Campbell, PhD, concludes that consuming animal products causes chronic disease, and advocates a plant-based diet. It is often cited by people who favor plant-based diets.

Establishing causal relationships between diet and disease via statistics-based population studies can be difficult. Correlations in data are often mistaken for causation, especially when someone is trying to prove a point. Beyond that, there are always many variables to consider, and it's nearly impossible to control for them all.

Still, scientists and epidemiologists are experts at this sort of thing: it's what they're trained to do. Right?

I just read this excellent critique of The China Study, on Denise Minger's blog. Take a look and see what you think. I find no fault with it.

It is fascinating to me that an amateur (albeit a very smart one) can find fundamental problems with research sponsored and carried out by professionals with years of training and huge budgets.

Is T. Colin Campbell a careless scientist? Unlikely.

Do Cornell, Oxford, and T. Colin Campbell have an agenda that they are advancing, besides improving public health? Campbell may be motivated by financial considerations, but what about the others who reviewed his work?

Is it that the "plant-based diet" has become the flavor-of-the-day, and that scientists who want funding must cleave to this dogma?

The physicist Max Planck once said, "An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out, and that the growing generation is familiarized with the ideas from the beginning."

What Planck does not mention is that the validity or utility of a new scientific paradigm is not the only deciding factor in its acceptance. A powerful, multi-decade marketing campaign can affect the thinking of an entire generation of up-and-coming scientists and lay-people.

In physics, we have string theory, which is not verifiable and predicts nothing measurable, yet has dominated theoretical physics for decades. Many young physicists are "string theorists", having spent their professional lives working in string theory. They are invested, literally, in its continued popularity.

In nutrition theory, we have low-fat, which was promoted masterfully by Ancel Keys from the 1950s through the 1970s. Health in the US has gone sharply downhill in the forty years since low-fat hit the mainstream. Of course this is merely correlation, not necessarily causality, and of course there are many other variables involved. But modern nutritionists and dietitians are invested in the low-fat paradigm, and are reluctant to consider that it might be wrong.

Could it be that low-fat is grounded in marketing rather than good science?


Rachel said...

Excellent post, Alex. This phenomenon occurs again and again--it's part of being human. In nursing, we are now required to independently check each other's work, for when we do it together, we perpetuate the error known as confirmation bias; we see what we expect to see and not reality. This, when combined with a need for research funding and the desire for community and acceptance by the mainstream, result in terrible mistakes... like margarine.

Alex Lewin said...

Thanks Rachel. Would that all scientists were as conscious as you...

Anonymous said...

One thing I really like about Denise's analysis is that she doesn't make the leap from correlation to causation. Her article is incredibly neutral and unbiased in its tone. All she does is question whether it was appropriate for Campbell to make that leap (particularly regarding the virtue of an entirely plant-based diet) when there are other, stronger correlations made in the study's data.

Carla said...

I am going to eat the China Study with my soba for breakfast tomorrow.

Alex Lewin said...

That makes me think of an experiment demonstrating the health hazards of cornflakes. Go to this URL:

and search for "cardboard box".

So, Carla, if the nutritional profile of the China Study is similar to that of a cardboard box, I would advise against eating it.

Alex Lewin said...

All: There's quite an interesting storm of comments going on at the site I linked to:

LInda Middlesworth said...

People feel threatened when facts are released that go against the standard, cultural beliefs. We are raised as children to eat animals and animal secretions and so it is understandable why so many people feel threatened when they find out that the food mama gave them is helping to promote heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, autoimmune diseases, digestive disorders, etc. The China Study is the longest, most unbiased studies ever conducted and show statistically significant results, worldwide, that ingesting animal foods create chronic ill heath in humans. I have helped 400 people in the last 4 years to eat a healthy, low fat, plant based diet and they have all rid themselves of the diseases listed above. Now, I have also some Kaiser doctors who, instead of handing pills or surgery, are handing out this book and getting the same results. Thank you Dr. T. Colin Campbell for your 35 year long work. And, I know that you went into this study trying to prove the opposite results!
When people hear that their upbringing needs to be challenge, they lash out with untruths….just as yound, 23 yr old Mindy has done.

Alex Lewin said...


Right now, the standard cultural beliefs in the US are:

- fat is bad, especially saturated fat
- cholesterol is bad
- processed food is not so bad

That's how I was raised. And after much consideration, that's what I have rejected.

I do agree with you that most of the animals that are raised in the US are not fit for human consumption, nor are their "secretions".

I am glad that you are helping people get healthier.

I think the fixation on Denise's age is silly. Einstein was 25 or 26 when he came up with the Special Theory of Relativity. Mozart died in his 30s. "Young people" have something to contribute.

Carla said...

Alex, you raise an interesting point regarding the nutritional content of cardboard. Perhaps I should change my approach to The China Study and instead treat it like cardboard, which I use as mulch in my garden. Eventually the cardboard becomes incorporated into the soil via a web of soil creatures and fungi. I would then be eating The China Study as arugula or blueberries, next year.

Bill Kleinbauer said...

Plant-strong nutrition education has come a long way --

"Forks Over Knives" movie,

Dr. Esselstyn's book and video "Preventing and Reversing Heart Disease,"

Dr. McDougall's health education free website and monthly email newsletter, Total Health Solution clinics, adventure tours, Advance Study Weekend, eleven books and many videos.

Dr. Fuhrman's books, videos and website

Bill Clinton's vegan diet for heart health,

Dr. Sanjay Gupta's "Last Heart Attack" presentation on CNN'

VegSource's materials and annual Healthy Lifestyle Expo

PCRM's educational materials

and on and on. Our health, the planet health, hunger solution, animal cruelty both while alive and being slaughtered, health care costs -- all improved by adopting a plant-based diet.

We are designed from mouth to anus to be herbivores -- plant-eaters, no doubt.

And if you want to go the wrong nutrition of Paleo/Atkins, you can do
way too much fat, too much protein, and too little complex carbohydrates -- you can do that with PLANTS, too!

Bill K. -- maule5662h