From time to time, I throw out the phrase PubMed Warrior. It is a term I coined to describe those health bloggers and commenters that pour through research studies to find evidence to support their nutritional views. Once they have their references they race into battle determined to squash their opponent or convince others of their superior research skills.
But wait a minute, nutrition is science! This isn’t a political opinion. What bias? The problem is you have rampant disagreements in nutrition and each side has studies to support their opinion. So the PubMed Warriors take the studies that conform to their opinion and rush to the battlefield. They brush off attacks by stating their opponents’ studies were flawed or inconclusive. And when that fails, they question the integrity of the researcher and unleash a personal attack.
Warrior by John Wedin
Although I’m certain there are many researchers that approach nutritional research with an open mind that they might be wrong, many aren’t. We, humans, love to seek out data that supports our view. This is called confirmation bias. If you’ve made a career attacking some aspect or group regarding your nutritional beliefs, then how likely is going to be that you admit you were wrong? Not only will your critics eat you alive, but your supporters will too. Still have to pay your rent. Better to defend the dogma, sell your books and carry on.
I am not a PubMed Warrior for several reasons. To start, I am not qualified to read a nutritional study. I’ve never received training, nor do I care enough to pursue that knowledge. Also, I have no way of knowing if a study is good or poor. Just look at the debate The China Study has caused. It has both brilliant critics and supporters. About a year ago, I decided I would no longer post anything about nutrition that required a link to a medical study. Instead, I would post links to analyses that I found compelling or interesting.
I’d also like to point out that many studies can not be replicated. From In cancer science, many “discoveries” don’t hold up:
During a decade as head of global cancer research at Amgen, C. Glenn Begley identified 53 “landmark” publications — papers in top journals, from reputable labs — for his team to reproduce. Begley sought to double-check the findings before trying to build on them for drug development.
Result: 47 of the 53 could not be replicated.
Think about that the next time someone mentions that such and such a study shows that something causes cancer. Amgen couldn’t reproduce the results in almost 90% of the landmark studies.
Another reason I am not a PubMed Warrior is I think it can be a form of intellectual bullying. By keeping the discussion of nutrition at a high academic level, you can spout off your position knowing that most people will not be qualified to respond in agreement or disagreement. The masses will just nod their head and think you are smart or a pompous ass or both.
About a year ago, I was deep into a nutritional discussion when a friend of mine stopped me and said “Talk to me like I’m a 5 year old.” It was an extremely powerful moment for me. It made me realize that whatever I knew about nutrition that I wanted to share with others needed to be communicated in a respectful and helpful way and not in a manner that made me feel smart. This I believe is what is missing from most of what I see in nutrition today. The messenger has become more important than the message.
Better Than PubMed
If you have brilliant individuals who disagree on nutritional issues and they each have mounds of research to support their case, where is the truth? I remember reading the wonderful history of saturated fats and cholesterol in the book Good Calories, Bad Calories thinking how misguided they were back then. (UPDATE 2023: That book is less credible to me today.) Well, I suspect we are equally as misguided today, but just about different things. I think we need to assume that nutritional science is still in its infancy and we know a lot less than we think we do.
What is an average person supposed to do? For myself, I like the Paleo/WAPF framework. What would a caveman or traditional culture do? That may not be the end of the discussion, but it is a sound place to start. We are here because our ancestors figured out how to survive and thrive in harsh environments without the guidance of PubMed. They were real warriors, not PubMed Warriors. We can do the same. Granted if you are sick and need the assistance of modern research, then by all means use that information, but for most of us it is probably not necessary, and worrying about some perceived health risk is likely worse than the health risk itself.
When someone tries to scare me with a nutritional study, I just try to use common sense. I do what makes sense to me. If an idea is compelling but unconvincing I’ll run my own personal experiment. In my next post, I’ll provide a few examples of how I personally resolved a few nutritional disagreements using common sense and experimentation.
Nov 5, 2012 — 5:50 pm
I’m not a PubMed Warrior either. Or any kind of warrior for that matter.
Common sense. Yes, that’s where it’s at. Unfortunately, a lot of people would rather just be told what to do rather than actually take the time to rub two neurons together. Case and point … vegetarianism. Common sense should tell you that having animal products in our diets is a good idea. Yet, most people associate red meat and animal fat with heart conditions – because that’s what they’re told. People are too insecure to trust their common sense anymore.
Nov 5, 2012 — 7:57 pm
Wait, you are interested in finance, something I find inscrutable, but don’t want to learn how to read studies? I mean, I would understand if you were really an average person, but I suspect you and most people I interact with on the internet are a bit towards the smart end of the bell curve. I mean c’mon, you deal with computer code, which most scientists are incompetent with to the point where they have mid-level IT professionals like me come and teach them how to decipher basic unix commands. I did take a class on how to read papers in college and it was not difficult. Science journalists are held to a even less rigorous standard. You need some very basic statistics, epidemiology, and biology. Statistics in Plain English is good enough. Depending on the type of studies you want to read, you can get some good textbooks in that field. You’ll probably actually learn more than most undergraduates in science and possibly more than many graduate students. This should teach you the major methods in that field and how strong they are. The major problem now is that most journals are paywalled, but a growing number are open source. One day you’ll open up a paper and be able to comprehend it the way you can comprehend a .php or .css or whatever code file.
Remember the day you first were really able to read code without having to look a bunch of stuff up? It felt awesome right? This feels awesome too. And in the end you won’t be like those pubmed warriors, you’ll be their opposite, educated on the complexities of science and unable to be wowed by the false narratives they and their more evil powerful counterparts, the bad science journalists, weave. Half the time, I just open up the file and it’s just clear that what the journalist/author/pubmed warrior wrote isn’t even in the paper, which is enough to snuff their arrogance. The other quarter, it’s clear that while the paper is interesting and provides some new research directions, it’s nothing to build your life around, a la the people who live miserable lives of extreme calorie restriction based on a handful of worm studies and some very preliminary mammal research. Common sense is cool, but reading statistics is a bit more accurate. This ability is worth it and I think it’s a crime that reading basic research papers isn’t talk in high school, but I think it’s a skill that any nutrition blogger can and should pick up, if only to see through a scanner darkly.
Nov 5, 2012 — 8:32 pm
@Aaron – I guess it all depends on where you are starting from. I can see and have seen people benefit from switching to a vegetarian diet. It may not be optimal, but for many it is a positive step. The problem I see with the vegetarians – of which I was guilty – is they lose that same openness to try something new when their veggie diet starts to fail them.
@Melissa – I guess I just don’t care enough anymore. I’m so glad you mentioned finance. One of the reasons I stopped my study into finance is that I realized the more time I spent learning about it – didn’t make me a better investor. It was just wasting my time with the promise that if I spent more hours reading and researching that my commitment would yield greater returns. It didn’t. I feel the same way about nutrition now. I’m a hobbyist. This isn’t my career. I don’t believe that taking the time and effort to become a skilled PubMed Warrior is worth my effort.
I decided earlier this year that the highest return I could get on my health investment was to back off from nutrition and instead spend that same time learning more about traditional cooking. I think that will benefit me and those around me the most.
Nov 5, 2012 — 8:56 pm
I agree with you MAS, though Melissa makes good points. I think she’s mentioned some health problems that she worked hard to resolve, and from that starting point, I’d also agree that it’s worth learning how to get the most out of Pubmed.
For me though, the main problems I wanted to solve were my slowly growing gut and feeling run down all the time. Lo and behold, eating a higher quality diet, getting back into strength training and sleeping more worked wonders, so your point about how far you can get with common sense is well taken.
I also really liked the line: worrying about some perceived health risk is likely worse than the health risk itself. I used to be one of them, but now when somebody explains some convoluted theory about why you need to eat this or not that, or supplement with some berry extract, I’m really comfortable smiling nodding and then ignoring them, which has been great for my health.
Nov 6, 2012 — 7:19 am
I started reading science on nutrition a long time ago, worked my way through a book on minerals and what they do, and realized that most of the time, scientists still don’t know. You know when they’re saying “this study found this, this other study found that” that they’re still feeling their way. After that I gave up on research, but do read books for the general population, mostly to get ideas.
On the other hand, as someone who has published research, I was mighty glad when I got a signal boost from journalists. But my research was fairly simple, and also somehow groundbreaking. Shouldn’t have been.
I do read research in psychology from time to time, from Academic Search Complete. Does that make me an ASCWarrior? I used to rant about autism research until I couldn’t take reading the research any more, so maybe I was. (Actually, many autistic people who expound on research on autism often have a lot to offer, but I think that’s a different situation. I mean, we’re autistic. We’re genetically bred for research. 😉 )
Nov 6, 2012 — 3:23 pm
Some people call them “PubMed Ninjas”.
Nov 6, 2012 — 3:46 pm
@Garymar – Ninjas are quiet. I prefer Warriors. 🙂
Nov 8, 2012 — 12:07 pm
Ninjas aren’t quiet: