As health care professionals we are expected to be knowledgeable about current health trends and media, so when my cousin asked me what I thought about the new film "What the Health" on Netflix I was quick to give it a watch and report back. At least I tried to watch it. I couldn't even finish it. From the moment it started I had a strange feeling. The feeling I imagine Hansel and Gretel had when they were chilling in that candy house with the creepy old lady. I felt an ulterior motive. It took me the 0.2 seconds required to Google search "What the Health critique" to confirm my suspicion (search Robb Wolf, his is great), "What the Health" is in fact Vegan propaganda.
Now before the vegans get upset, realize that I have spent time in my life as a vegan, I personally don't eat dairy, and I limit my consumption of meat. My issues with the movie are not with veganism at all, they are with the manipulative way that certain "facts" are presented. My issues are that this movie is rooted in bad, naughty science.
The idea of science has an air of specificity and precision that almost gives it a free pass from scrutiny. For someone without a graduate degree, most research articles seem like they are written in a foreign language. A large portion of the Doctor's responsibilities is to sift through all of the information to weed out the insignificant findings and misinformation. I would like to present some of the heavy hitters when it comes to the ways that science can fail us.
Weak Study: Some of the references within the film are to a cohort study populated by self reported diet questionnaires. If one were simply to hear the fact that the results of a study revealed a certain conclusion, they are apt to believe it. With more investigation, the validity of cohort studies in general are always in question1. There is no way to account for all of the variables influencing an individual's life, no matter how much paperwork they are provided. On top of that, they have to fill the paperwork out with perfect recall, which rarely happens.
Misinformation and Omission of facts: There is a lot of focus on the evils of meat, saturated fat, and a relationship to heart disease in the film. These references are to a flawed study, which was referenced previously, but what is more sinister here is the subtle way the information is presented. The studies references showed a correlation between processed meats and health issues. They directly use the phrase processed meats, but it will take an astute observer to notice that 2-3 second segment. From there they demonize all meat, even though the flawed study they reference shows no direct correlation between unprocessed meat and coronary artery disease or type 2 diabetes. Grass fed and organic pasture raised meats are not even mentioned.
Confirmation and Publication Bias: Flat Earthers and Holocaust deniers can find the evidence they need to back up their minority viewpoints. This is confirmation bias. In a very human, but a very unscientific way we will find the data we need to justify our beliefs. Until we have full AI and androids running our research labs, the human element cannot be eliminated.
To believe that all of the published research is all the research that has ever been done is a virtuous and naive belief. Humans run the scientific journals. Humans fund the studies. Gary Taubes, in his book "Good Calories, Bad Calories", exposed Ancel Keys and his faulty saturated fat research from the 60's and 70's. This expose is further confirmed by a recent discovery of contradictory research that was shelved in favor of research that supports a hypothesis of animal fats being the enemy.2 Confirmation bias and publication bias were wed here in holy matrimony.
Humans, Ego, and Delusion: Beyond the facts that we cannot be trusted to fill out forms, or publish all of the research available, we as a species are so arrogant that we believe we have accounted for all of the factors involved in each situation we are investigating. BJ Palmer, the developer of chiropractic, was ahead of his time when it came to this realization. He would do his research on patients in shielded cages which blocked the external electromagnetic fields in the area. Physicists today are attempting to detect gravity waves in facilities buried miles beneath the earth. There's a natural Schumann resonance frequency to the Earth that effects our sleep cycles. The location of the moon with reference to the earth effects the tides which in turn affects the sleep cycles of the surf community in Santa Cruz. There are too many variables, and these are just the one's we're aware of. Quantum effects still being a mystery, even to quantum physicists, there is no way to account for all of the minutia which hold influence over a given situation.
I remember being taught about critical thinking over and over in primary school. I didn't truly reflect on what that phrase meant when it was being introduces. What we have today is an oversaturated supply of information sources. Critical thinking is more important than it ever has been. Luckily, with a little bit of time and effort one can perform their own due diligence to dig into the truth, or they can wait for their chiropractor to do it for them.
Tony Murray DC