About a year ago, the Centers for Disease Control issued a highly publicized report stating that obesity-related health problems kill 400,000 Americans every year — an “epidemic” second only to smoking in causing preventable deaths. The story was big news. A host of outside skeptics, however, such as the Center for Consumer Freedom, questioned the findings, and their efforts eventually forced the CDC to admit that at least part of the study was flawed. Now, despite even more critical evidence, the CDC says its mistakes don’t matter.
In November, the Wall Street Journal first reported that due to a calculation error, the CDC “may have inflated the study’s death toll by about 80,000 fatalities.” That wasn’t all. Shortly after the study’s publication in the March issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), an associate director on science at the CDC wrote an e-mail to his colleagues: “I would never have cleared this paper if I had been given the opportunity to provide a formal review.”
Indeed, the study’s flaws went much deeper than mathematics, and the CDC knew it. A story in the May issue of Science magazine found that political considerations might have influenced the authors’ work. “Some researchers, including a few at the CDC, … argue that the paper’s compatibility with a new anti-obesity theme in government public health pronouncements — rather than sound analysis — propelled it to print,” Science reported. Tellingly, many researchers refused to be identified for the story. Said one, “I don’t want to lose my job.” Meanwhile, CDC researchers released two separate studies over the summer critical of the JAMA paper.
The CDC finally took action months later by conducting its own internal investigation, which released its findings two weeks ago. “While there was at least one error in the calculations … the fundamental scientific problem centers around the limitations in both the data and the methodology,” the report found. By this point, there was enough evidence undermining the original paper for the CDC to retract it. Instead, it has run just a single correction in the January issue of JAMA that cited “an error in [the CDC’s] computations,” while saying nothing of the paper’s flawed methodology.
But apparently the CDC doesn’t consider methodology to be of much importance. Last week, CCF Director Richard Berman wrote an op-ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that was highly critical of the CDC’s conduct regarding the flawed report. In response, CDC chief science officer Dixie E. Snider wrote, “[W]e cannot and should not let this discussion of scientific methodology detract from the real issue.” This is dangerous reasoning indeed coming from a scientist.
It’s clear that over the concerns of its own researchers the CDC shamefully pushed a scientifically flawed study to reach some politically correct end. Since then, it has not given contrary evidence publicity equal to the original report. Nothing less than a full retraction of the original study and an apology to the American people can amend these egregious mistakes.