Lisa Bero, a University of Sydney professor who specializes in the integrity of research, is one of the most prominent critics of the methods used by Coke to influence public thought. Of course, it’s not just Coke, but the majority of soft drink manufacturers. Of course, it’s not just beverage makers, but the whole food and drink industry. Of course, it’s not just them, either, but the entire research industry, including the sector that publishes biomedical literature.
Bero is co-author (along with Kellia Chiu and Quinn Grundy) of a paper that uses the word “spin,” rather than a more down-to-earth term that is not acceptable for use in academic research papers. Spin is “a biased presentation, intended to ensure that audiences view matters favorably.” In biomedical research, polite and civilized people who are suspicious of spin sometimes define it as the inappropriate overstatement of findings.
These authors really broke it down, classifying spin into four types:
(1) reporting practices that distort the interpretation of results and create misleading conclusions, suggesting a more favourable result; (2) discordance between results and their interpretation, with the interpretation being more favourable than the results; (3) attribution of causality when study design does not allow for it; and (4) overinterpretation or inappropriate extrapolation of results.
“Showing an effect” is a way of saying that while results may be intriguing, they border on the statistically non-significant. While secondary outcomes may be interesting and hold a hint of promise, emphasizing them can disguise the fact that the primary outcome is a dry hole, as they say in the oil business. Spin tries to paint as significant results that are not, and endeavors to distract attention from non-significant results. It implies causality where none is to be found.
Effective spin can be accomplished in a number of ways, including inappropriate or unwarranted interpretation, out of proportion with the study design. Another way is to project fanciful extrapolations which can falsely excite fellow scientists and needlessly frighten or reassure the public. Overenthusiastic spin can lead to inappropriate recommendations for clinical practice, and that hurts everybody.
Selective reporting is an old standby in the spin game. When a parent asks, “Did you clean your room?” and a child says, “I put my shoes in the closet,” that is selective reporting. In the science realm, it is sometimes called “cherry picking.” Here, the authors explain undeservedly favorable data presentation:
Researchers used a variety of general spin practices to present study results as being more favorable than data warranted… This category of spin included writing an overly optimistic abstract; employing an extensive rationale to explain away non-significance (for example, describing nonsignificant results as ‘trends’); misleadingly describing the study design (to present it as more robust); and underreporting or ruling out adverse events.
Yikes! As poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning did not say, “How do I fool thee? Let me count the ways…” In the mundane life of everyday people, someone might say about a criminal that if he or she had devoted a fraction of the energy to legitimate work as he did to criminality, he could have been massively successful. It is tempting to remark that if shady researchers would put as much dedication into the work itself as they did into the spinning of it, the health landscape would look considerably different.
And then, there is the whole realm of conflict of interest, which usually boils down to someone being paid for activity that it is not appropriate to take money for; or at the very least, omitting the disclosure of such payment. In biomedical literature, clinical trials are notorious for spin.
Before proceeding into a deeper look at Coke and spin, please enjoy some relevant previous posts:
- Activists vs. Big Soda
- Coke Spends Its Money Widely
- How Coke Comported Itself Last Year
- “Value-Added Water” — What the Heck?
- Laugh Your Way to Thin, Says Coke
Your responses and feedback are welcome!