The author has been described by News Ltd as an "iconoclast", "Svengali", a pollie's "economist muse", and "pungently accurate". Fairfax says he is a "Renaissance man" and "one of Australia’s most respected analysts." Stephen Koukoulas concludes that he is "85% right", and "would make a great Opposition leader." Terry McCrann claims the author thinks "‘nuance’ is a trendy village in the south of France", but can be "scintillating" when he thinks "clearly". The ACTU reckons he’s "an enigma wrapped in a Bloomberg terminal, wrapped in some apparently well-honed abs."

Friday, May 25, 2012

Rory Robertson takes on sugar lobby

Enclosed is economist-come-nutritionist Rory Robertson's letter to the editor-in-chief of Nutrients Journal (excerpt only):

Dear Professor Peter Howe (Editor-in-Chief), other Members of Nutrients’ Editorial Board and outside observers, 

Good afternoon. I’m writing to express my dismay at your woeful response to my 20 March letter requesting that Nutrients’ sub-standard quality-control processes be fixed. Having demonstrated to Nutrients via my critique of a hopelessly flawed obesity study that your peer-review process is broken or non-existent, I had assumed you would try hard to ensure that problems in future material would be corrected before publication. How wrong I was.

In response to my letter, Nutrients has published an Editorial on the issue, and a rebuttal of my critique by the authors of that obesity study, both featuring more of the same sub-standard quality control I highlighted in March. I have been shocked by Nutrients’ ongoing indifference to careful quality control. Nutrients’ unwise defence of the hopelessly flawed obesity study – the “desired standards of publication” were attained - belies the clear evidence.

In this letter, I document what I consider to be Nutrients’ gross incompetence in publishing Australian Paradox and Australian Paradox Revisited (links below). Most obviously, the authors’ main conclusion – sugar consumption and obesity are unrelated, because a “substantial decline” in the former “over the past 30 years” occurred alongside a big increase in the latter - clearly is contradicted by a series of the authors’ own big-picture charts (reproduced overleaf) indicating increased sugar consumption since 1980.

Awkwardly, neither the journal nor its authors - one the “Guest Editor” of the “Special Edition” in which Australian Paradox was published - have done themselves any favours with their ham-fisted response to my request for improved quality control. What started as regrettable sloppiness with key facts has morphed into something more troubling. With no credible defence available, the authors at one point resorted to inventing a story about our cars consuming a big and growing chunk of the available sugar to defend their dud paper. Disturbingly, no-one has been prepared to simply and honestly admit their major errors on a critical health issue. Neither Nutrients nor its high-profile authors have corrected the public record. The Australian public continues to be misled about key facts surrounding the causes of obesity.

The main paradox with Australian Paradox is why what your authors are saying – sugar consumption has declined - is exactly the opposite of what their own (valid) charts are saying - the trend has been up (overleaf) - and why clownish quality control at Nutrients twice has allowed publication of their nonsense. The Editorial Board may yet win a Shonky Award ( ).

Nutrients’ dismal performance on this matter is especially troubling because obesity and its related disorders are the single biggest health issue for a growing proportion of society. Reliable information is critical, yet here we have an academic journal going out of its way to support a paper that has become a menace to public health. Neither the authors nor their strong-but-misguided supporters at Nutrients have corrected the public record. Nutrients claims that “the desired standards of publication” were met, yet the available data (overleaf) show increased sugar consumption. The public clearly is being misinformed. No wonder this increasingly troubling episode is attracting growing media interest.

It is unacceptable for trusted parts of the science community to make a habit of publishing misinformation on key facts surrounding the causes of obesity. Accordingly, Nutrients’ Editor-in-Chief should resign, and hand over his quality-control responsibilities to someone who takes more seriously the need for a science journal not to publish papers full of dominating errors, especially if they are prone to become a menace to public health. It was Max Planck who once said (something like) “Science advances one [career’s] funeral at a time”.

The complete letter with charts can be read here.