Saturday, July 17, 2010

Minger Responds to Campbell

Hot off the presses: Dr. Colin Campbell's response to Denise Minger's China Study posts, and Minger's retort:

A Challenge and Response to the China Study

The China Study: My Response to Campbell

This is required reading for anyone who wants to evaluate Dr. Campbell's claims about the China Study data. Denise points out that Dr. Campbell's claims rest mostly on uncorrected associations, which is exactly what he was accusing Minger, Chris Masterjohn and Anthony Colpo of doing. He also appears to have selectively reported data that support his philosophy, and ignored data that didn't, even when the latter were stronger. This is true both in Dr. Campbell's book, and in his peer-reviewed papers. This type of thing is actually pretty common in the diet-health literature.

I respect everyone's food choices, whether they're omnivores, carnivores, or raw vegans, as long as they're doing it in a way that's thoughtful toward other people, animals and the environment. I'm sure there are plenty of vegans out there who are doing it gracefully, not spamming non-vegan blogs with arrogant comments.

As human beings, we're blessed and cursed with an ego, which is basically a self-esteem and self-image reinforcement machine. Since being wrong hurts our self-esteem and self-image, the ego makes us think we're right about more than we actually are. That can take the form of elaborate justifications, and the more intelligent the person, the more elaborate the justifications. An economic policy that makes you richer becomes the best way to improve everyone's bottom line. A dietary philosophy that was embraced for humane reasons becomes the path to optimum health... such is the human mind. Science is basically an attempt to remove as much of this psychic distortion as possible from an investigation. Ultimately, the scientific method requires rigorous and vigilant stewardship to achieve what it was designed to do.


Emily Deans, M.D. said...

Stephan - as a psychiatrist, I have to say, there is no way to remove that dirty human psychological element. Not really. But I think with careful, critical examination of the evidence and sources, the truth comes to light. Dr. Campbell always talks about his childhood on the farm, for example, and then his first parley at any critic is their affiliation with "farmers" and the Weston Price Foundation. Denise has her own troubled past with finding the right way to eat. We are all fired up about something! It's important to take that into account. And it's okay to take that into account.

Anonymous said...

I realize this is a health blog, but I gotta give you props for pointing out this all too prevalent distortion in American life:

"An economic policy that makes you richer becomes the best way to improve everyone's bottom line."

Anonymous said...

Of course there is no way to completely do away with the insecure ego that drives us to seek praise, power, and reputation. But at least we can lessen the degree to which we deceive ourselves and others about how much of these things we deserve and whether or not our actions truly warrant them. Getting laid seems to help big-time.

John Paul said...

People should drill inside their heads the saying "Knowledge Progresses When I am Proven Wrong."

David said...

Sounds like you should look in the mirror with your selective use of observational studies when they suit your arguments, but not when they don't, as in the case of polyunsaturated vegetable oils.

Brant Evans said...

I cannot get enough of this topic.

It's incredible how much a topic like this shows us about human nature.

David, which studies are you referring to? I'm not familiar with any studies that convincingly demonstrate that pharmaceutical doses of polyunsaturated fats have health benefits...but I'd be interested in reading whatever you have. When I say pharmaceutical, I'm simply referring to quantities that humans would not have encountered before agriculture.


This is probably slightly off topic and maybe not a popular sentiment, but I'd be willing to guess that literally no one who frequents the diet-health blogosphere can accurately claim that their eating habits are nondestructive. It's nice to minimize your impact buy buying local, eating vegan, etc, but the transportation, packaging, and very probably the agricultural practices required to bring your food to your plate are in no way sustainable.

Anyways, thanks for the update Stephan. It's always good to hear your input.

Stephan said...

Hi Emily,

I agree.

Hi David,

I acknowledge that the epidemiology isn't all consistent with my stance on seed oils. Fortunately, I don't have to rely on epidemiology because there are many controlled experimental studies. If you disagree with my interpretation of those studies, you're free to say so.

Stan (Heretic) said...

Hi Stephan,

Re: .. such is the human mind. Science is basically an attempt to remove as much of this psychic distortion as possible from an investigation. Ultimately, the scientific method requires rigorous and vigilant stewardship to achieve what it was designed to do.

Yes but not everyone is as close minded and as fanatically attached to one particular theory as our scientist. He is an extreme case.

Another issue I am facing all the time is that being open minded is no longer being encouraged nor valued in the Western society (and never has been in the Eastern cultures).

This is a bigger problem that people realise.

BTW, I think Denise Minger's analysis is so good, left me speachless. I was having hard time beliving she did it all by herself; similar doubts as Cambell, but with no malice. Good for her. :)

Stan (Heretic)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the heads up on this one Stephan.

I am with you in that people are generally free to eat any way they feel is best for them (I say generally as I do get somewhat peeved when people are following a particular diet that clearly wasn't going to do what it said on the box but they are reluctant to acknowledge this when their health starts to deteriorate or conveniently ignore signs & symptoms that may be attributable to their dietary choice/lifestyle).

What does get my goat, and this has become very apparent throughout the paleo blogosphere since we all pounced on Denise's superb work, is when nutrition becomes a religion that people feel the need to crusade on.

Obviously I am very much onboard with paleolithic nutrition - I practice it for my own health, and I educate people about it in my profession as a nutritionist. I maintain a blog as part of this passion for it. But each time I review a paper or other piece of information that goes for or against what I believe in, I don't go around vegan blogs & forums feeling the need to attack or defend as most of our blogs did when we posted on Denise's work.

The reaction from vegan quarters regarding Denise's analysis was most odd. I do wonder how much it had to do with Denise being a former vegan? Had the analysis been performed by yourself, Kurt Harris, Mark Sisson, et al, would it have caused such a stir? I'm thinking not. But the reaction, particularly on the 30 bananas a day site - a site that Denise herself used to frequent, reminded me very much of the reaction I have witnessed from the likes of the Jehovah's Witness church when one of their flock leaves and calls into question their dogma.

Anonymous said...

I just read Stan's comment above and completely agree re: being totally and utterly gobsmacked when I read Denise's age, the time she was up writing, etc. And I mean that with absolutely no disrespect... quite the opposite in fact.

It is an absolute credit to Denise that she is willing to go toe-to-toe with someone of Dr Campbells standing. I might give that sort of thing a go now, but certainly wouldn't have had the clangers at 23y.o.

My only advice to Denise would be to not do too many of those sorts of nights - I would hate to see that level of passion and talent getting burned out of her.

Stephan said...

Hi Jamie,

There are a few people who left annoying comments on our blogs, but they were really isolated incidents as far as I can tell. I think the silent majority have kept to themselves and not gone looking for trouble.

Stanley said...

"A dietary philosophy that was embraced for humane reasons becomes the path to optimum health... such is the human mind." I'm sad to say that I agree with you. Nature doesn't give a damn how we obtain our food. If we can steal our nutrients by killing animals, then we have a survival advantage due to high reward for relatively low energy expenditure. Having said that, a smart omnivore realizes that by giving farm animals proper nutrition and grazing access, they will in turn tend to produce better meat and dairy for us.

Furthermore, it's fortunate that eating animals low on the food chain, like sardines, tends to be healthier than eating those high on the food chain (for reasons of both nutrient diversity per gram, and pollution accumulation). This means that more nutritious food results from killing less-sentient animals, which coincides with some intuitive sense of morality.

I should note that vegan food isn't necessarily less environmentally destructive, despite the best of intentions on their part. It tends to be industrialized at high energy expense, packaged, and shipped thousands of kilometers. Then they get sick faster due to their low fat granola bars, creating additional environmental strains and lost economic efficiency.

I'm an omnivore, and I hate killing animals. I have a rule that I won't eat any animal that I wouldn't be willing to kill myself, at point-blank range. I despise omnivores who just avoid the question of the killing done on their behalf. Morons like my dad, who claims that "celery is also conscious [just like cattle]" so "it's all the same". OK, then shoot yourself. It won't matter.

Worse is the attitude of people like my mother, who once claimed that "pets are here to receive our love, but farm animals are meant to be killed." WTF? What if you were "meant to be killed?" Would you just not care, in that case?

I'm an omnivore. Animals are killed on my behalf. Morally, it's as though I'm killing them. But I'm cognizant of what animals are being killed, and basically how. I don't hide it, or devolve into gross generalizations that lose all distinction between species. I wish that I didn't need to eat them. But with present technology, I don't know how else to properly nourish myself.

While I don't eat beef, I have a lot more respect for someone who does, and acknowledges the killing done on his behalf, than someone who just eats shrimp, but claims that he doesn't kill animals because some shrimp farmer did the killing for him.

Michael said...

Denise has done a marvelous work, but I'm not sure why so many people are astounded. She entered college at the age of 16. It has been 8 years since then. Plenty of time for a diligent soul to get quite good at whatever interests her. I see that among the home schooled all the time.

As for being 23, well I guess its not common knowledge that Chris Masterjohn wrote his critique of The China Study at the exact same age. :-)

Wojciech Majda said...

Hi Stephan!

You have great blog. I would like to suggest that you could add "search" gadget. It will greatly improve people's experience.

Alex said...

You can search the blog using Google. Just add this along with your search words:

John said...

This is just ridiculous. So instead of just claiming Denise's science is incorrect, which it isn't, he throws out accusations of her having biases and/or other agendas.

Are these people (Campbell) simply too arrogant and close-minded, or are they pushing certain information for another reason?

Anna said...

For the readers who don't have familiarity with how scientific research is funded, keep in mind that the way Campbell dismisses Minger happens all the time during the grant proposal peer-review process (NIH study sections). The blogosphere is actually turning out to be an interesting route around the gridlock that sometimes interferes with "official" scientific progress.

spughy said...

This is such an interesting debate. Personally I find the raw data fascinating, but highly flawed - probably too flawed to be really deserving of the level of discussion! But I think Michael Pollan hit the nail on the head when he said that the reason we get SO uptight about our personal dietary choices is that we lack a coherent food culture, and something deep in our brains really, really needs that certainty about what is good to eat, so much so that once we have decided on what is good to eat, and surrounded ourselves with like-minded people, our brains will marshal any means necessary to preserve our certainty.

I found Stanley's comment earlier interesting: "This means that more nutritious food results from killing less-sentient animals, which coincides with some intuitive sense of morality.

I don't think that this is actually true. Yes, teeny fish are very good for you, but I'm not sure that you can balance the morality of killing ten thousand fish against killing one pasture-raised steer. Ten thousand lives for one seems steep, and even though cows are closer to us, biologically, I'm not convinced they're nearer to us than fish on the sentience scale. I've seen some fish do some fairly intelligent things - like a school of sea perch using the little ones to determine the safety of any food source before the big ones will eat it. Cows can be sweet, but they are herd creatures who largely prefer not to think too much. And, when grass-fed, they provide an extremely healthy source of protein and good fats. I really think you'd be hard-pressed to argue that the lives of ten thousand wee fish are worth less than the life of one nice big dumb steer.

Anonymous said...

Even Eric Drexler (of Nanotech fame) sides with Denise, amazing...

Stanley said...


I find your comment about 10,000 fish (or 1000 or whatever) vs. 1 steer, to be well-reasoned. And indeed, it's not just a question of how sentient an animal is. Its importance to the rest of the environment also matters. Suffice to say that the ramifications of our food raising and killing practices -- or nonanimal food synthesis on an industrial scale -- are extremely difficult to predict, in terms of bottom-line ethical tradeoffs.

Anyway, I'm happy to hear your perspective, which shows a refreshing level of analysis, relative to the blind American quest for unlimited obesity in the face of abhorrent industrial animal husbandry.

"Guppy" Honaker said...

I could not agree more with this and other blogs you've posted (esp. on Palm Oil). As for myself, I'll continue to grind my own wheat (for fresh bread twice a week) and grow my own organic fruits and veggies. Now, I would love to see a blog or two about flax seed and Quinoa - both are always used in my whole wheat breads and I think both are critical to great health (and esp good in baked foods).

- David

Aloe Vera Juice Benefits
Holistic Health Info.

zach said...

Campbell is a hack not worthy spending time on. Why? Because while it is a fun and worthwhile debate to see what the "best" or optimal diet is, the range of healthy diets that will leave you free of the chronic diseases of civilization is Extremely Large. This is a FACT from the anthropological evidence. Saying "dairy is a major cause of heart disease" is like saying " an object in free fall does NOT accelerate at 32ft/sec/sec." It's agenda driven nonsense.

PJNOIR said...

Borrowed from Rob Wolf: Why can physicists put aside Newton in favor of Einstein yet nutritionists cling to the SAD and low fat diets, etc ( and with horrible results) and can not except the next step of study. Is there that much $$$ in all of that?

PJNOIR said...

Forgot to add- You can see how classy and professional Minger ( the amateur) is compared to the 'professional' (somebody is paying him huh?) in their replies. Mimger and Armando Galarraga are my two heroes this year because of how the behave.

gibby1979 said...

The robb wolf comment about why physicists can put aside newton for einstein, I would answer that as Einstein doesn't say Newton was wrong he says that Newton wasn't complete. For all intensive purposes Newton still applies in 99.99% of things, it's at the level where modern scientific instruments allow us to go where Newton breaks down. I think in most cases classical low fat diets are being said to be wrong. I think that gets peoples backs up, let alone the possibility of lawsuits if health professionals gave improper advices (although I don't know if health professionals are covered if they are going with generally accepted advice)
I think science, despite peer review is allowing too much bias. For instance a paper was published recently saying that fish oil supplements were not proven to improve health and given the environmental impact of fishing, we should not take them or switch to flax oil. It was a meta study (often a little shifty) but the argument could be made. My problem was that one of the authors was Farley Mowat, a Canadian writer (very good) and environmental activist.
How can one accept the findings as impartial unbiased interpretation of the data if one of the Authors is both unqualified to interpret the data, and carries an acknowledged bias already.
Does the scientist expect that the interpretation of data is without bias when they read a paper. I don't believe someone who buys a book in a popular bookstore does but does the scientist.

Helen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Helen said...

@ spughy

But I think Michael Pollan hit the nail on the head when he said that the reason we get SO uptight about our personal dietary choices is that we lack a coherent food culture, and something deep in our brains really, really needs that certainty about what is good to eat....

Wow! That is a great insight. Dealing with various health issues, and trying to find the just-right diet to manage them best, I have trouble having a coherent food culture in my own mind. I thought I'd found one in the traditional foods approach, got worried about gluten again, went ("practically") lacto-paleo, was diagnosed with diabetes, went low-carb, found out the kind of diabetes I probably have may be worsened by a high-fat diet, and now I just don't know what to do.

Having a healthy diet had always been important to me, but all the pieces are definitely not coming together. Add in autoimmune and food allergy issues, and what used to feel like an interesting hobby is becoming the Minotaur's maze.

Ned Kock said...

I downloaded the data that Denise used (from the China Study), and did a multivariate analysis with it, since some have been criticizing Denise’s use of univariate stats to reach conclusions. I posted the results here:

Neonomide said...

Campbell wrote a rather lengthy critique on Minger's work:

PJNOIR said...

late comment, hope it isn't off topic:
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