Finding effective methods to reduce obesity is an important goal and appropriate evaluations of the strength of the evidence supporting procedures under consideration are vital. Sound evaluations critically depend on evidence being presented in non-misleading ways. Alarms have been sounded about dramatic rises in obesity levels, not without justification. And yet these alarms may also have roused passions. Certain postulated causes have come to be demonized (e.g., fast food, NSBs, formula feeding of infants) and certain postulated palliatives (e.g., consumption of fruits and vegetables, building of sidewalks and walking trails) seem to have been sanctified. Such demonization and sanctification may come at a cost. Such casting may ignite feelings of righteous zeal.
Some authors compare NSBs, fast-food, and other food and restaurant industry offerings to the tobacco industry [e.g., 10
], suggesting for example comparisons between `Joe Camel' and `Ronald McDonald'5
. To the extent that such comparisons inform us about important causes of obesity and how to reduce them, this is all to the good. But to the extent that such comparisons and other appeals to the passions inflame rather than inform, they may cloud judgment and decrease inhibitions against breaching ordinary rules of conduct. Historians indicate that during times of war, propagandists demonize (i.e., dehumanize) the enemy to inflame spirits and this facilitates some breaches of codes of conduct such as massacres [11
]. Though inflaming the passions of scientists interested in public health is unlikely to provoke bloodshed, scientists have as a discipline our own code of conduct. Central to it is a commitment to faithful reporting, to acknowledging our studies' limitations, to evaluating bodies of evidence without selectively excluding information on the basis of its desirability – in short, a commitment to truthfulness. The demonization of some things and sanctification of others, though perhaps helpful in spurring social action, may be more harmful to us in the long run by giving unconscious permission to breach that code and thereby eroding the foundation of the scientific discipline.
Evidence presented herein suggests that at least one thing has been demonized (NSB consumption) and another sanctified (Breastfeeding), leading to bias in the presentation of research literature to other scientists and to the public at large, a bias sufficient to misguide readers. Interestingly, while many papers point out what appear to be biases resulting from industry funding, we have identified here, perhaps for the first time, clear evidence that white-hat biases can also exist in opposition to industry interests.
Whether WHB is intentional or unintentional, stems from a bias toward anti-industry results, significant findings, feelings of righteous indignation, results that may justify public health actions, or yet other factors is unclear. Future research should study approaches to minimize such distortions in the research record. We suggest that authors be more attentive to reporting primary results from prior studies rather than selectively including only part of the results, to avoiding PB, and to ensuring that their institutional press releases are commensurate with the studies described. Journal editors and peer-reviewers should also be vigilant and seek to minimize WHB. Clinicians, media, public health policy makers, and the public should also be cognizant of such biases and view the literature on NSBs, breastfeeding, and other obesity-related topics more critically.