April 1, 1997
Dr Jarvis explains that "research into vegetarianism by vegetarians always involves at least unconscious bias" and explains what to be careful of.
Why I am not a vegetarian
Research into vegetarianism by vegetarians always involves at least unconscious bias. All humans have entrenched beliefs beliefs whose rootedness makes doing related scientific research unwise. Kenneth J. Rothman, Dr.P.H., referred to SDAs in a recent discussion of conflicts of interest in research:
We might expect conflict of interest concerns to be raised, for example, about Seventh Day Adventists who are studying the health effects of the comparatively abstemious lifestyle of their fellow Adventists. Whereas policies at [the Journal of the American Medical Association] and The New England Journal of Medicine emphasize financial conflicts, Science asks authors to divulge "any relationships that they believe could be construed as causing a conflict of interest, whether or not the individual believes that is actually so." In other words, to comply with disclosure policies at Science, authors might need to disclose to editors their religion and sexual orientation along with their financial portfolio. 19
Although Rothman argues for letting work standing on its own merit rather than judging cynically any possible connection to a funding source, his example makes the point that motivations more powerful than money can distort data. Science fraud can be extremely difficult to detect, because the perpetrators control the information. As Mark Twain observed, "Figures don't lie, but liars figure!"
I don't believe that all research done by vegetarians is untrustworthy. My experience with the ongoing Seventh-day Adventist Health Study (SDAHS), a series of studies conducted from LLU School of Public Health, has been largely positive. Its chief researcher, the late Roland Phillips, M.D., Dr.P.H., was an outstanding scientist in whose objectivity I had the utmost confidence. He recognized the problem of the influence of social expectations on SDAs responding to questions about their lifestyle. Adventist groupthink makes it likely that SDAs will underreport activities disfavored by the church community (e.g., meat-eating, coffee drinking, and imbibing) and over-report those that are approved (e.g., dining meatlessly and exercising). Phillips seemed to feel that the benefits of vegetarianism per se were limited, and that one must take account of heredity, socioeconomic status, and the total SDA lifestyle. Abstention from smoking, access to state-of-the-art healthcare, and strong social support probably are responsible for most of the health benefits SDAs enjoy. The main problem with SDA vegetarian science is how the scientific information is used. To paraphrase an old Pennsylvania Dutch saying: Among SDAs, when the news about vegetarianism and health is good, "we hear it ever" ; when the news is not good, "we hear it never."
I have received numerous reports from SDA health professionals, and have personal knowledge of other cases, in which church members' overconfidence in vegetarianism prevented them from obtaining effective medical care. Some reports have involved true believers in vegetarianism who were members of physicians' families. Some denied symptoms, and their denial kept them from seeking effective intervention in time. Others rejected medical care for "natural remedies" that emphasized diet. The attitudes evidenced are consistent with those identified in cancer patients who had turned to quackery because they believed they had brought the disease upon themselves and could cure it by "natural" practices. 20 The SDA Church has bent over backward to document the benefits of the SDA lifestyle and to persuade members to adopt vegetarian diets. I would like to see the church seek earnestly to expose the harm that its vegetarian teachings have caused its members. Alas, there's the rub with ideologic vegetarianism: Objectivity always takes a back seat to proselytism.
The data suggest that most SDAs are reasonable in their approach to vegetarianism. In the 1970s, the SDAHS revealed that only one percent were vegans. 21 This may change as vegetarianism becomes more popular in the general population. SDAs tend to be overachievers. If we regard something as "good," we strive to adopt it completely. If we consider something "bad," we avoid it completely. SDA vegetarian evangelists have become more aggressive in recent years because of the widespread belief in the SDA community that doomsday is nigh.
I recall an SDA church leader's fitting reply to the question of whether he ate meat: "I eat just enough to keep me from becoming a fanatic!"
One Less "Ism"
I gave up vegetarianism because I found that commitment thereto meant surrendering the objectivity that is essential to the personal and professional integrity of a scientist. As a health educator, I feel I have an obligation to endeavor to stick to whatever unvarnished facts scientific research uncovers. I can support pragmatic vegetarianism, but I believe that crusading vegetarian ideologues are dangerous to themselves and to society.
ACSH advisor William T. Jarvis, Ph.D., is a professor of public health and preventive medicine at Loma Linda University, founder and president of the National Council Against Health Fraud, and coeditor of The Health Robbers: A Close Look at Quackery in America (1993). This article is an adaptation of one published by Prometheus Books (Amherst, New York) in the November/December 1996 issue of Nutrition & Health Forum newsletter.
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(From Priorities, Vol. 9, No. 2)