Talking Point

Distortion in obesity research – your views

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Last week, asked its readers for comments on alleged bias in obesity research, following publication of a paper on the subject.

Researchers from the University of Birmingham at Alabama School of Public Health, Dr Cope and Dr Allison, referred to a phenomenon that they called ‘white hat bias’ (WHB), which they explained is a reference to the do-good characters in Hollywood Western movies, who tended to wear white hats. They defined WHB as “bias leading to the distortion of information in the service of what may be perceived to be righteous ends”.

They said they found many researchers report findings that are skewed because of bias against the food industry and preconceptions of weight and nutrition topics.

You can access our original article on the subject here​.

Below are the responses we received:

“The obesity epidemic call to arms has created two camps those with WHB and those without. The statement made by the Surgeon General that 300,000 deaths per year could be attributed to obesity is similar to the soft drink issue. It was not based on research, but is often cited in the literature. When the analysis of actual deaths was reported in 2006 and it was only 30,000 the “cancer” was already there and almost impossible to remove. The 300,000 number is still being reported by those who believe they are doing good by scaring people because 30,000 doesn’t have the same impact.”

Dr. Wendy Repovich, Director, Exercise Science, Eastern Washington University

“Drs. Cope and Allison do an excellent job of illustrating the fact that personal bias by well-meaning “experts” can influence interpretation of the data. Virtually no topic is immune to this phenomenon and examples range from recommendations for universal sodium restriction and the banning of trans fats to pleas for increased consumption of fruits and vegetables. While such recommendations may indeed improve public health, they may also result in unintended consequences.

“The key to understanding the outcome of such measures is unbiased generation and interpretation of the data – not the application of politically correct filters. It is my belief that sound science will eventually shine through these filters so that public health can be served. Perhaps the paper by Cope and Allison will hasten the process.”

Dr. Guy Johnson, Principal, Johnson Nutrition Solutions, Kalamazoo, MI

The article on White Hat Bias by Cope and Allison has its good points and its problems, as in all research reports.
On the good side, they rightly point out that in citing research, authors must fairly and fully represent research findings and not select particular findings that support one side of an argument.
On the problematic side, they include as an example of miscommunication in press releases a press release and "subsequent news story" about a policy brief presented by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. Cope and Allison characterize statements in the press release and news story as inaccurate and unfair statements. But the press release from UCLA and the policy brief itself carefully limit the study findings to California with no sweeping generalization as implied by Sandra Cooper in her short post on (and we have no way to know if the quote from Dr. Goldstein is complete or even accurate.) This subtle distortion necessarily leads to questions about the reliability and validity of their analysis.
The authors acknowledge their conflicts of interest, with financial ties to food industry companies.
These observations suggest questions about a "Gray Hat Bias," referring to intentional ambiguity and distortion in the literature, equal in its unfairness to the White Hat Bias Cope and Allison describe.

Dr. Henry Herrera, president and CEO, The Center for Popular Research, Education and Policy, Rochester, NY

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