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, June 8, 2012

Rory Robertson throws $40,000 challenge to Sydney Uni's scientists

He's back. Rory Robertson has stepped into the ring for the second major challenge of his career. First Steve Keen, now a university and its questionable research. He's put his money where his mouth is too, offering to pay out $40,000 in cold hard cash to anyone who proves him wrong. What is enclosed below is a summary only. I have added in some light-hearted comments, not to undermine the seriousness of the subject, or Rory's laser-like intent. If you want to read the full letter, click here.

Letter to Sydney University's Vice Chancellor Outlining $40,000 Challenge

Dear Dr Spence, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney, and outside observers

Thank you for your brief initial reply (28 May) on the problem of the University of Sydney’s high-profile scientists publishing - and failing to correct - factually incorrect conclusions on the causes of Australia's obesity epidemic [CJ: Sounds like the RBA mate!]. 

Dr Spence, that makes it three out of three for me: the authors, the journal and now the University all have decided to simply bat away my concerns, chosen unreasonably not to correct the public record on Australian Paradox's factually incorrect conclusions.  It's unsurprising I guess that a university supports its scientists, a journal supports its authors, and that underperforming authors pretend there is no problem, simply hoping the issue goes away.  [CJ: Oh no, you have taken on one of Australia's best economic gamblers!]

But there’s a major issue at stake in this growing public-health controversy, so I feel it is my civic duty to try to do a better job of explaining the situation more clearly; to try to do a better job of convincing you and your colleagues - and other observers involved both indirectly and directly in public-health matters - that the public record should be corrected. [CJ; Sydney Uni, this is starting to sound really bad--You do not want to Rory Robertson to go "lock-jaw" on you.]

To begin, I must say that I found your response (above) somewhat surprising because one on the main questions I have been asking in recent months is: "Whatever happened to quality control at the University of Sydney?"  In your brief reply, you effectively have stated that in this case quality control has been contracted out to the pay-for-publication E-journal Nutrients.  And yet in my previous letter, I had documented in rigorous if long-winded [CJ: affirmative ghost rider] detail the fact that Nutrients' peer-review process in this case was either non-existent or incompetent (see here).  

With the University of Sydney having made a substantial long-term investment in its particular approach to nutrition – the “Low-GI school” - and in its growing Low-GI industry (see here), I sense that coming to agreement on the appropriate remedial action in this awkward situation will not be easy.  I hope that you will accept that what follows is my sincere assessment of the situation, even if, perhaps, you do not agree with my analysis. [CJ; Okay, right now Rory Robertson has pushed you against the ropes, and is loading up his fearsome right-hand.]  Respectfully, I apologise in advance for any problems with “tone”, as I am a bit cranky that the authors, the journal and now the University have treated my serious concerns with scant regard. [CJ: It's about to become a bloodbath boys.]

So, the point of this letter is to bring into sharper focus the issues of academic quality control, the importance and drivers of the global obesity and diabetes epidemics, and your low-GI researchers’ serious but undisclosed conflict of interest in dealing with sugar - specifically super-low-GI “fructose”, the sweet but dangerous half of table sugar. [CJ: Big allegations--ultimately the boss's neck will be on the line if Rory is right.]

In summary, the available data suggest the trend in sugar consumption has been up not down, and "sugar up, obesity up" is not even a puzzle, let alone a paradox.  It’s what most of us thought in the first place.  Thus, there is no “Australian Paradox” in the link between sugar and obesity, just an idiosyncratic and unreasonable assessment - and avoidance - of the available data by those who coined the phrase.

The only real paradox with Australian Paradox is why what your nutritionists are saying – sugar consumption has declined "over the past 30 years" - is the opposite of what their own valid charts are saying - the trends are up - and why clownish quality control at Nutrients twice has allowed publication of the nonsense “sugar down, obesity up” conclusion.  [CJ: You might start to understand why his mates call him "pit bull".]

As I explain in detail below, Dr Spence, my concern is that your high-profile nutritionists’ particular low-GI brand of nutrition relies on the increasingly unrealistic assumption that added sugar - specifically super-low-GI "fructose", the sweet half of table sugar - is not a problem in modern doses.  That is, there is a growing body of evidence globally that added sugar/fructose is a huge problem, yet the ongoing prosperity of the Low-GI school of nutrition needs added sugar/fructose not to be a problem. 

Interestingly, the nutritionists whose careers are most at risk from added sugar in processed food becoming widely recognised as a health hazard have, over recent years, happened to become perhaps Australia's most enthusiastic and high-profile promoters of the view that added sugar in our food supply is not a health hazard.

All of the above raises a whole range of public-health and conflict-of-interest issues to be considered by the University of Sydney.  Facts matter, especially when we are talking about scientists at one of Australia's leading universities misinforming the public debate on the causes of obesity and diabetes, today’s single-biggest health issue for a growing proportion of society.  It is unacceptable for a trusted part of the science community to not correct the public record as soon as it becomes clear that the public has been misinformed.  We are well past that point. [CJ: In case you were not aware, Rory has been landing repeated head-shots, and your knees look like they are about to drop to the canvass.]

The University of Sydney has a responsibility to ensure that its scientists publicly disclose their conflicts of interest.  In this case, your scientists seem to have a serious conflict of interest that has remained undisclosed despite their high-profile involvement in public debates. [CJ: He's about to show no mercy.]

Dr Spence, I think it is a pity that you have chosen to support your underperforming low-GI scientists and their dud Australia Paradox paper rather than supporting the need for the Australian public not to be misled on critical health matters.  The University receives vast public subsidies, and taxpayers I think would want the University - now that it’s fully informed on the mistakes that have been made - to correct the public record on the facts surrounding obesity and diabetes - the biggest health issue for a growing proportion of taxpayers and their children - without further delay. [CJ: He is channelling the spirit of yours truly on bank subsidies, and in unstoppable right now. Rory is right--this is serious.]

Given the importance of this issue, you perhaps will understand that until the public record is corrected, I am unable to take the University of Sydney's outsourcing of its quality control to the little-respected pay-for publication E-journal Nutrients as the last word in this dispute.  Indeed, I challenge the University of Sydney’s scores of fine scientists – indeed, any scientist, nutritionist, medical doctor, economist, journalist or enthusiastic observer anywhere - to prove that my critique of Australian Paradox is mistaken.  [CJ: Oh no, guys, get out of the ring. Run as far as you can! Last time Rory challenged somebody, the guy was ridiculed all the way from Canberra to Mount Kosciuszko. This is lose-lose. Don't do it.]

To be clear, I will reward the first successful researcher with $20,000 (cash), if anyone is able show beyond dispute that the available (valid) information really "…indicates a consistent and substantial decline in total refined or added sugar consumption by Australians over the past 30 years”, as concluded in Australian Paradox.  Moreover, I will pay a further $20,000 to the charity of choice at the University of Sydney's low-GI school, and publish a genuine public apology in The Sydney Morning HeraldThe Australian and The Australian Financial Review.  What could be fairer to the University of Sydney?  Here’s an opportunity to (i) show everyone that the annoying economist is wrong, (ii) secure a public apology in major newspapers, and (iii) relieve him of the price of a new car in the process. [CJ: Wow, Rory has gone for the jugular. If he was an MMA fighter, you'd be on the canvass copping non-stop blows to an increasingly rattled cranium. He knows he's right, and, unfortunately, for you, there is no way out. You're snookered.]  

There are only two rules.  Researchers who accept this challenge must seek a valid proof that incorporates the authors' Figure 1 from Australian Paradox Revisited - which shows “sugar availability” from 1979-80 to 2009-10 - as well as official information on trends in Australia's imported foodstuffs.   To ensure participants all start off on the right foot, Figure 1 is reproduced here and the dataset for imports can be viewed at here (various charts on p. 10, or p. 17 of 189). 

Some of us, of course, have the useful reality-check of having been alive since 1980, consuming food and occasionally visiting big grocery stores, 7-elevens and cafes along the way.  If sugar consumption really has declined over the past 30 years, it’s a wonder the shelves in food stores today are so well stocked with almost endless varieties of sugary products.  It wasn’t always thus.  Is everyone today really “just looking”?

Dr Spence, I hope that after your teams of scientists report themselves unable to demonstrate that sugar consumption and obesity have trended in strongly different directions over the past 30 years – unable to confirm the main (false) conclusion in Australian Paradox - you will reconsider your decision to do nothing on this matter.  So too, perhaps the authors - and the editors of Nutrients - will consider resignation, in the Max-Planck tradition of assisting the advance of scientific knowledge.  In any case, I hope that the University of Sydney eventually will do the right thing and correct the public record on the erroneous conclusions produced in this troubling Australian Paradox episode.  [CJ: I am thinking Mike Tyson, aged 20, jumping into the ring.]

In the meantime, please remind your low-GI nutritionists to publicly disclose their serious conflict of interest, and of the need for researchers not to publish shoddy research that simultaneously brings the University into disrepute and becomes a menace to public health.  A good start on that front might be for management to insist that University of Sydney researchers publish important papers with supposedly profound conclusions only in real academic journals with real quality control.
Again, Dr Spence, apologies for being cranky and long-winded on this issue.  And thank you for your time.   
Yours sincerely,
[CJ: Ding-a-ling-ling. Wow, what a great letter by Rory. Watch this space.]