Is science really about evidence? How convention trumps new findings on obesity and health

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Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images

In 2005, Katherine Flegal, a senior scientist studying obesity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published a counterintuitive paper in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association… While the researchers found that obesity was indeed linked to excess deaths, it turned out that people who were merely overweight — plump, perhaps, but not obese — were at less risk of early death than those of so-called normal weight.

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Believing Flegal’s findings to be not only wrong but dangerous, [epidemiology professor Walter] Willett and a handful of his Harvard colleagues saw it as their mission to prevent the paper — which Willett deemed “really naive’’ and “deeply flawed’’ — from being taken seriously by other scientists, practicing physicians, or the public.

For more than a decade, Flegal writes, she would find herself the target of “an aggressive campaign that included insults, errors, misinformation, behind-the-scenes gossip and maneuvers, social media posts and even complaints to my employer.’’ Her [upcoming] essay offers an inside look at the sometimes political nature of science — and at how hard it can be for some scientists to consider changing their minds in the face of new data. 

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