‘White-hat bias’: Journalists need to watch for more than financial conflicts

While most people are familiar with the idea that financial conflicts of interest may lead to bias in scientific research, awareness is far less when it comes to another important type of bias discussed in “The Gluten Lie” by Alan Levinovitz.

The book discusses the harm that results from what biostatistician David B. Allison has described as “white-hat bias.” The term is defined as bias leading to the distortion of information in the service of righteous ends.

“White-hat bias … continues to motivate media, health authorities and the scientific community,” Mr. Levinovitz says.

David B. Allison

Dr. Allison, in a 2009 paper published in the International Journal of Obesity, demonstrated the mechanism of white-hat bias in a review of research on sugar-sweetened beverages.

In his research, Dr. Allison looked at two earlier papers assessing the effects on obesity by reducing consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks. Looking at how the two papers were subsequently cited by researchers, Dr. Allison found that the strength of the evidence was exaggerated by making it look as though reducing soda consumption was helpful beyond what was suggested by the actual findings.

“This is known as ‘citation bias,’ which obesity researchers now acknowledge as a problem in their field,” Mr. Levinovitz says.

As an example, Mr. Levinovitz looked at one of the “facts” published on the “Fed Up” web site: “One soda a day increases a child’s chance of obesity by 60%.” “Fed Up” was a 2014 documentary film” starring news anchor Katie Couric and prominently featuring the well-known sugar critic Robert Lustig.

The statement about soda and childhood obesity was based on a 2001 study published in the British journal The Lancet. In addition to finding interesting white-hat bias in the survey questions used as the basis for the study, Mr. Levinovitz raised questions about whether the findings, based on self-reported consumption of a fairly small group of eleven-year-olds ought to be described as an established fact.

“In science, real science, one thirteen-year-old epidemiological study does not make a fact,” he said. “The designers of most studies recognize this … Responsible journalists should follow their lead. But they don’t. As Allison points out in his paper, media is often guilty of white-hat bias.”

Speaking with Mr. Levinovitz, David Katz, a nutritionist at Yale University, gave the makers of “Fed Up” high marks for good intentions.

David Katz

“But they are caught up in ‘Here we are to save the day,’” he said. “And they make the classic New Age mistake with nutrition. There’s a colossal problem with focusing on one macro-nutrient, and with the ‘everything you’ve heard up to now is wrong’ message. It perpetuates a vast confusion.”

The confusion was worsened by “Fed Up” and undermines the credibility of true science, which is “humble, cautious and suspicious of zealotry,” Mr. Levinovitz says.

Advocates of better eating need to offer a viable alternative, Mr. Levinovitz says.

“Demonizers of foods don’t do that,” he says. “Instead, they create a hellish world with which we are all too familiar: every food is a potential demon — first fat, then sugar. What next? Talking about food this way is harmful. It creates neurotic eaters who see foods as pure or impure, natural or processed, good or evil.”

Ultimately, Mr. Levinovitz says there is no scientific evidence that living in this food “hellscape” of “demonized macronutrients and toxic chemicals does anything more than make you feel holier-than-thou.”