You may or may not be aware of a notorious book published back in 2005 that was authored by a staunchly vegetarian “scientist”, Dr. T Colin Campbell. The book came to many dubious conclusions about the “ideal” human diet, which was founded on the goal of demonizing animal protein as an essential component of healthy eating. The book is named after a massive 20-year observational study that Campbell conducted in the rural Chinese population, replete with cherry-picked data sets and wildly distorted conclusions. This type of study generates correlations between variables, but cannot provide evidence of cause and effect. The scientific method, as unanimously agreed upon by the global community of scientists, delineates that correlations only constitute observations and that those observations later need to be tested and verified with experiments, including clinical trials, which has not occurred in respect to the China Study.
All in all, Campbell studied 367 variables and made about 100,000 correlations, out of which only 8,000 were statistically significant. With those kinds of numbers, we would expect to find at least 5,000 correlations that are “statistically significant” just by random chance, so the study provided Campbell with ample means to mine the data however he wanted. In his book, Campbell used the data generated from this study to support his hypothesis that animal protein causes cancer, without any clinical trials backing up this claim. As observations, correlations do not by default equate with causation. Had I constructed my Master’s thesis with this same level of scientific credibility, I would have received a failing grade from my professor! Campbell had to make the connection with six surrogate blood markers that he claimed to be reflective of animal protein intake. His method is buried deep in a footnote, he provides no references supporting his use of these markers, and most of them did not even correlate with animal protein intake within the China Study itself.
At this point, it is pertinent to point out that Campbell serves on the advisory board to the “Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine” (PCRM), an advocacy group of doctors and researchers with strong ties to PETA and animal rights groups. It would certainly not be a stretch to name the author and this group ‘militant vegetarians’ who are in denial of human evolutionary biology based on selective ethics, not science. Also, Campbell openly admits to having examined the data gathered by the China Study with the express intention of seeking to find associations between animal food consumption and disease. In academia, we call such perversion of data ‘confirmation bias‘. When attempting to establish an association between animal foods and disease risk, the only scientifically-confirmed argument which emerges is that processed CAFO meat from animals fed an unnatural pro-inflammatory grain-based diet and administered hormones and antibiotics during their miserable confined existence is the only context within which one can find a valid causal association between meat consumption and chronic disease states such as cancer, which has been identified via both epidemiological and clinical data. On the other hand, the consumption of humanely raised grass-fed cattle, for example, has not been shown to pose the same health risk as processed CAFO meat. The proverbial ‘devil’ is indeed in the details, once again.
So, in conclusion, the true underlying intent of my post today is not to go off on the China Study (I chose it merely as an example), but to encourage us to engage our critical thinking skills whenever we’re confronted with the latest bombshell science news that lands in the laps of our sensationalizing media outlets, social media, or bookstore shelves. Whenever I read or hear of a new study, the very first questions I ask are “Who funded the study?”, “What potential bias is lurking behind the study’s research methods?”, and most importantly: “Who stands to gain the most from broad public acceptance of the study’s conclusions?”.