What To Do When a Leading Physician Slanders Great Scientists?
It seems that every day we hear about fake news from the political sphere but the halls of medicine and science are somewhat insulated from mudslinging. Or so we think. This month mud was slung by one of the most prominent of physicians when he accused many other leading scientists of “fudging” data. Does one keep silent despite knowing with certainty that the accusation was erroneous? Over 200 years ago Irish parlimentarian Edmund Burke was credited with observing that “the only thing necessxary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing”. In that spirit, I proceed in defense of some dead and some elderly.
The physician is Salim Yusuf, MD, Ph.D., Professor of Medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Dr. Yusuf is no lightweight literally or figuratively and his resume is impressive. He has authored over 1,000 publications, many on the causes and therapy of cardiovascular disease (CVD). The current issue arose in a lecture he delivered on February 12, 2017 in Zurich at the Zurich Heart House. The setting was a cardiology conference titled Cardiology Update ’17. The 22 minute lecture by Yusuf was videotaped and published online. This rather obscure lecture has attained a tremendous amount of attention by the “low-carb” diet movement because Yusuf concludes that dietary carbohydrates, not saturated fats, are the cause of CVD. That is a matter for another article but his assertion has assured that many will view the presentation and over 20,000 have in just a week. Dr. Yusuf began the talk with apparent humility saying “I am not a nutrition scientist” and a few minutes later he proved how right he was.
The issue at hand is near the end of his talk. Beginning at 20:36 in the presentation, he makes the following statement that is worth reading more than once in that it ridicules 50 years of work by world leading nutrition scientists: “Did you know that the Seven Countries Study that actually had a straight line between fat intake and CVD is fudged? I am using the word fudged because 23 countries participated in that study and they took the 7 best that fitted that line and that is what’s true. If you go through the literature you will find that they chose the 7 best that fitted the line. The nutrition field has been distorted.” Fudged is a bit of an ironic choice of words in a talk about excess sugar in the diet but he was not referring to creamy sweets. He was talking some of the most famous scientists lying and covering up data. The Oxford University Dictionary defines “fudged” as “present or deal with (something) in a vague or inadequate way, especially so as to conceal the truth or mislead”. His assertion is that not only did authors of the Seven Countries Study “fudge” data, but that they had data from 23 countries and suppressed the data from 16 of them to publish only the 7 that fit a line. While you may not be familiar with the Seven Countries Study (SCS), there is ample information about it accessible to all online. Although it is beyond the focus of this study, the SCS was the first major study to investigate diet and lifestyle along with other risk factors for cardiovascular disease, across contrasting countries and cultures and over an extended period of time. This pioneering effort to understand the root causes of CVD began in 1958. The initial findings were published in 1970 by Harvard Press and the study continues with 50 year follow-up data recently published. The SCS was a collaboration of many leading nutrition scientist worldwide including Ancel Keys, Ph.D and Henry Blackburn, M.D of the University of Minnesota, Professor Allesandro Menotti, MD of Rome, Italy, Professor Daan Kromhout of the Netherlands, and 14 other worldwide experts. The importance of Dr. Keys, his co-workers, and the SCS is something I have written about before at this site. The matter is whether the 18 primary researchers constituting the SCS team of experts suppressed data from 16 countries as was clearly claimed by Dr. Yusuf in his assertion that they “fudged” the data.
Dr. Yusuf is simply wrong and anyone visiting the website for the SCS can verify that. The SCS was a novel, intensive and expensive research project putting investigators into many communities several times over a year to make careful measurements of nutrition and health measures. It is only the sheer fanatasy from Dr. Yusuf’s presentation that these SCS experts took the trouble and expense to visit 16 other countries and suppressed that data that would be known to dozens if not hundreds of research associates. I have verified with both Henry Blackburn, MD and also with Dr. Ancel Keys’ son Henry Keys, MD that this slanderous statement by Dr. Yusuf was completely in error. Dr. Blackburn has written before about unfounded attacks on the work of Dr. Ancel Keys and the SCS. He has also written about the trips to these 7 countries in the SCS and the challenges visiting and accumulating the data beginning in the late 1950s and 1960s.
So why did Dr. Yusuf stoop to perhaps the lowest level of his long career by slinging mud at dead and retired colleagues? In a bizarre twist in his presentation in Zurich, Yusuf fawns over the work of journalist Nina Teicholz and it is possible he simply adopted views from her writings without fact checking them. However she is a journalist and he is a world famous physician and, while she can and should be ignored, his actions cannot. There were never 23 countries in the SCS, or 22, or whatever number other than 7 one wants to fantasize about. Dr. Yusuf could have and should have verified that fact before his accusations were made and the careers and serious academic work of so many prominent researchers were smeared by his words in a manner that will be shared all over the world with the speed and access of the Internet. At a minimum, Dr. Yusuf owes many an apology and should immediately distance himself from the journalist Teicholz whose writings may have misled him. Whether actions to sanction him further for his irresponsible attack are possible are being explored by his peers.