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183 scientists sign letter asking BMJ to retract its bogus nutrition investigation

183 scientists sign letter asking BMJ to retract its bogus nutrition investigation


The investigation has 'no place in the pages of a prominent scientific journal'

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Photo illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

More than 180 scientists from around the world have signed a letter urging the British Medical Journal to retract its bogus investigation of the 2015 US dietary guidelines report. As The Verge previously reported, the investigation contains multiple misleading statements and factual inaccuracies. But today's letter, which was sent to the BMJ this morning, doesn't mince words. It outlines the many problems with the article, and states that the investigation is "so riddled with errors" that it has "no place in the pages of a prominent scientific journal."

Among the letter's signatories are more than 10 Harvard University scientists, including the chair of Harvard's Department of Nutrition, Walter Willet. Other prominent names included in the letter are Richard Decklebaum, director of the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University; Boyd Swinburn, director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia; and Antonio Gotto, former dean of Weill Cornell Medical College. Together, the letter's 183 signatories state that a retraction should take place "not only to inform your readers, but also to protect the BMJ’s credibility."

A retraction should take place "to protect the BMJ’s credibility."

The Verge has covered this controversy extensively, so here's a quick breakdown: The US government publishes a revised set of dietary guidelines every five years. These guidelines are very important; they affect how companies label food, what scientists focus on in their research, and what students eat in school. But in September, the BMJ published an investigation that went after the report that informs those guidelines; it was written by Nina Teicholz, author of a book entitled The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet. The article suggested that the committee responsible for the report "abandoned established methods for most of its analyses," overlooking a number of important studies in the process. The article also stated that the committee had "deleted meat" from its list of recommended foods. However, both these statements are untrue.

Unless the BMJ retracts the investigation, many of these errors will likely still be used by the meat industry to suppress the committee's advice on lowering the consumption of red meat. When asked about the letter, the BMJ told The Verge that "the BMJ is continuing to review this matter and will respond more fully when our further enquiries are complete." Teicholz responded to The Verge's request for comment by stating that she was working on her own reply to the letter. "I do not have time to do this research and write a reply by your deadline," she says. We will update this story when her response is published.

"It's mind-boggling that the BMJ would publish this article."

"A number of scientists have told me that it's mind-boggling that the BMJ would publish this article critiquing a report by a panel by well-respected scientists without even asking the panel to respond," says Bonnie Liebman, the director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the person spearheading the effort to get the journal to retract the investigation. It took the BMJ two days to publish a response from the panel. To many, this was far too late. "It's really stunning," Liebman says.

In September, a number of news outlets — including Time, Newsweek, and Mother Jones reported the story without questioning the investigation's faulty reporting. The fact that both the BMJ and Teicholz said that they stood by the article surely did not help. That said, the BMJ did publish a "clarification" about a week after the story first appeared. This clarification outlined how some of the "facts" in the story could have been presented differently; it did not change the language in the article, however. Then, two weeks ago, the BMJ issued a correction that altered one of the inaccuracies of the investigation, while leaving all others intact. If you're keeping count, that means that it took the BMJ more than a month to address this one, single error.

"My reaction to the correction was 'well that should be the first of many corrections that this article requires.'" Liebman says. She was the person who convinced the BMJ and Teicholz to publish the correction in the first place. Teicholz wrote in a response on the BMJ that Liebman was "correct to point the error out"; she also dismissed many of the other critiques of her article.

The letter published today contains an in-depth breakdown of the many factual errors contained in Teicholz's story. You can read it in full here.