Butter, Meat and Free Speech

It’s official: The BMJ won’t retract “controversial” dietary guidelines article by New York Times best-selling author/journalist Nina Teicholz

Yesterday, the BMJ officially announced that it won’t retract a “controversial” 2015 article by investigative journalist Nina Teicholz, author of NYT best-seller The Big Fat Surprise.

Following a lengthy investigation lasting over a year, the BMJ said that two independent reviewers “found no grounds for retraction,” and that Teicholz’s criticisms of the methods used by the 2015 US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) “are within the realm of scientific debate.”

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Author/Journalist Nina Teicholz

As reported on this blog and The Sidebar (my US blogging buddy Peter M. Heimlich’s crack investigative journalism blog), Washington-DC based advocacy group the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) – in bed with prominent members of the DGAC – aggressively campaigned to get the article retracted.

Bonnie Liebman

source

Leading the charge was CSPI’s Director of Nutrition Bonnie Liebman, who in her September 23, 2015 opening salvo called the article an “error-laden attack” on the 2015 DGAC report:

The DGAC’s advice is consistent with dietary advice from virtually every major health authority [but] Teicholz would have us believe that only she, not the dozens of experts who systematically reviewed the evidence for these health authorities, has the smarts to accurately interpret this evidence.

One month later, a letter organised by Liebman was sent to the BMJ highlighting what it claimed were a number of factual errors with Teicholz’s article.

The letter, which was signed by over 180 credentialed professionals including a number of prominent faculty members at major universities, plus all 14 members of the 2015 DGAC, urged the BMJ to retract the article on the basis that it harmed the journal’s credibility.

However, the credibility of the letter was itself soon called into question.

As reported by the Guardian in April, none of the signatories interviewed for Ian Leslie’s acclaimed article, “The Sugar Conspiracy” – including Dr. Meir Stampfer, an influential Harvard epidemiologist – were able to name any of the “trivial” errors with Teicholz’s article, with one even admitting he had not read it.

Frank Hu MD PhD MPH (source)

But the most explosive revelation came in May, when Peter – with help from my sweetie Kelsi White and I – exposed efforts by another Harvard epidemiologist, DGAC member Dr. Frank Hu, to solicit European signatures to Liebman’s retraction demand which resulted in a chain e-mail exchanged by European medical professionals and university faculty.

You can read more about that, and other related items, via Peter’s blog herehere and here.

Accompanying yesterday’s announcement, the BMJ has issued four corrections (plus three clarifications) of the 11 purported errors highlighted by the CSPI, but Editor in Chief Fiona Godlee said the journal is standing by Teicholz’s article:

We stand by Teicholz’s article with its important critique of the advisory committee’s processes for reviewing the evidence, and we echo her conclusion: ‘Given the ever increasing toll of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, and the failure of existing strategies to make inroads in fighting these diseases, there is an urgent need to provide nutritional advice based on sound science.’

Via the BMJ’s press release, Teicholz thanked the journal for its support:¹

I am very grateful to The BMJ editors for their profound commitment to verifying the facts of my article and for their professionalism and integrity throughout this process. I am also grateful that they are providing a space for rigorous scientific debate, especially on a subject so important to public health. I hope the original intention of that article can now be fulfilled—to help improve nutritional advice, so that it is based on rigorous science. This will help us to better combat nutrition-related diseases that have caused so much human suffering around the world.

In a separate statement, Liebman doubled down on her position, claiming that the BMJ has “stained its reputation”:

The BMJ has stained its reputation by circling the wagons around Nina Teicholz’s discredited and opinionated attack on the science underpinning the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The BMJ corrected or “clarified” 7 of the 11 errors cited by the letter from more than 180 scientists requesting a retraction, and failed to respond to the remaining four. (The clarifications are thinly veiled corrections.) It’s startling that despite this long list of corrections and clarifications—including several that undergirded the article’s attack on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report–the journal nevertheless stands by the article’s conclusions.

I’ll leave it to the experts to debate the scientific merits of Teicholz’s arguments. My opinion, from a free speech perspective, is that the CSPI’s retraction demand was not about merit, but about a powerful lobby group wielding its influence to try to suppress a voice of dissent.

As Ian Leslie remarked in his Guardian long-read“Publishing a rejoinder to an article is one thing; requesting its erasure is another, conventionally reserved for cases involving fraudulent data.”

20 years ago, Teicholz might have gone the way of the beleaguered British scientist John Yudkin, and others who have dared question the conventional wisdom on nutrition. As it stands, Teicholz has survived the ordeal, in no small part thanks to the support of a committed, widespread and ever-growing group of LCHF enthusiasts.

¹Teicholz’s full response is available to read by clicking here.

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