Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Sugar Wars: Science's Fierce, Geeky Debate Over Soda


My emphases below:
So what did the audience make of the debate? In a remarkably timid response to the vigor and volume of data on display, the chair, Patrick O'Neill, did not put the motion to a vote among the hundreds of experts and students in the hall. Instead, he asked how many people had changed their minds based on what they heard. A few—but not many—raised their hands. Perhaps the Obesity Society, which had put out a statement in support of Mayor Bloomberg's soda policies, didn't want to risk a vote where the audience, its membership, might be interpreted as disagreeing with that position; or perhaps the academic stakes for publicly confirming where one stood on soda were far too risky for most people who weren't at the top of their careers like Allison and Hu.
This latter hypothesis was partially confirmed when I asked, over the course of the conference, various poster presenters—newly minted and almost PhDs and MDs—what they thought of the debate: all were reluctant to comment and possibly offend one side or the other, without the assurance they wouldn't be named. So, with the promise of anonymity, I can report that some people were already in camp "Harvard" and admitted so on political grounds, or because the search for perfect evidence was a rationale to do nothing; for them, Hu was the clear winner. Others, however, expressed surprise at the dissection of the evidence. "It made me think about the data in a way I hadn't, because I am not that strong on data," said one academic. Another said she went into the debate with an open mind, but with the conviction that telling people what they couldn't eat was not a good idea in the real world; she said what troubled her was that academics have a tendency to go from the hypothesis to the conclusion without analyzing the validity of the data in between, and that the debate, as a consequence, had been eye opening. Another said her coursework in statistical analysis had already been a wake up call to her bias on this issue.
Let me note that this is a debate about soda. Soda. This is not what you'd call an Earth-shaking issue. And it's so politicized that people won't even comment on it because they fear for their careers.


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