Unravelling scientific fraud: Exercise and inflammation

If you’ve been following the blog, then you expected to see the latest installment on inflammation and exercise. However, in an effort to decipher my own data, my research uncovered a disturbing story on one of the world’s leading proponents on the benefits exercise and its impact on inflammatory cytokines. Dr. Bente Pedersen was recently found guilty of scientific fraud, calling into question her research on the impact that exercise has on the chronic inflammation seen with several diseases. In light of this, I plan to dig a little deeper and wrap up my own research before I release that second article. In its place I am going to discuss this issue specifically and the peer review process in research.

The Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty, part of the Danish Ministry of Science, Innovation and Higher Education, found Professor Pedersen guilty of scientific dishonesty on account of involvement in the selective reporting of data and failure to make clear that data had been reused in five separate papers and that one paper incorporated results from a previous study.

She was also deemed to bear joint responsibility for image manipulation. As senior author, she was deemed guilty of gross negligence in overlooking the image manipulation that had been confirmed in one of four other articles.

Science cannot agree on anything

One of the criticisms, actually the major criticism, of science is that scientists cannot agree on anything, therefore we should not believe it until we’re 100% sure. This argument is often made by individuals who espouse the “truths” of their religion (if you’re offended by this, stop reading here). Most often, the disagreement is small or non-existent (e.g. 97-99% of all research clearly agrees that climate change is happening and is strongly linked to man), and that disagreement is on nuances of the data, not the absolute hypothesis. However, here is where science and religion diverge:

  • Religion blindly accepts untestable hypotheses/assertions made by long-dead MEN (ie, half the population). These ideas are never questioned and taken only on faith. In fact, questioning these assertions, even in the face of overwhelming evidence refuting it is considered heresy.
  • Science accepts nothing as 100% absolute truth; nothing is ever proven, we simply test to disprove a hypothesis. Most importantly, we accept when we are wrong and open to new explanations. No scientist has ever been executed for questioning long-held beliefs. 

Peer Review Works

Getting back to the introduction, though, sometimes data are fabricated or manipulated to tell a specific story. It happens, sorry. Science is competitive, like Wall St., and sometimes rules are broken, but often its more about data being ignored in preference to other data (ie, cherry picking). I do not know all the details of Dr. Pedersen’s case, but it appears that another researcher she worked with heavily manipulated data and Dr. Pedersen turned a blind eye to the questionable data even after being warned. She and her collaborators published numerous papers selling a specific message, exercise positively impacts systemic inflammation, and that in turn helps make us healthier. Unfortunately, the connection between inflammation adjustment and health may not be so clear cut. Let me be clear, the information I discussed in the first article is not in questions; systemic inflammation is strongly linked to ill-health. Nor is the evidence that shows exercise improves health. What is in question is whether exercise consistently ups anti-inflammation and that in turn alters the aformentioned inflammatory state. My own data, to be discussed in the near future, suggest otherwise in regards to sprint training.

As opposed to religious dogma, however, members of the scientific community scrutinize questionable data, and in Dr. Pedersen’s case, other researchers reported these inconsistencies leading to a full-blown investigation. It’s also what happened in the case of the fraudulent research linking autism to vaccines; there is absolutely no evidence to support any link to autism. The pessimist might say, …but it took 10 years, or 20 years, or a century, where we got it wrong, while the religious person will, …ah ha! See, we had it all wrong, therefore nothing science says can be trusted. (INSERT SOME RELIGIOUS DOCTRINE TO SUPPORT RELIGION). I say, EXACTLY! We accepted it was wrong, and we applaud those who continued to question it, so the truth could be known, rather than executing them. Seriously, though, the fact that even after decades we can and do correct mistakes shows the true strength of the scientific method, rather than a weakness, as Fox News often suggests.

Learning from our mistakes

One of greatest rewards of science and scientific method is innovation from failure. Failure sucks! I would prefer to fail to reject my hypothesis (we never prove) than to get no differences, but often not finding a difference is important. Remember, a hypothesis is driven by the aim to replace what we think is true. We try to prove that what is known/believed is not actually the case. The more we fail to do this, the closer we get to accepting it as absolute truth, but we can never get there 100%. When we do get a difference, we must replicate it repeatedly before it is widely accepted. When we do not get a difference, though, we are force to create new hypotheses which ultimately drive innovation. So, to bring this back to training and performance, I always questions established training methods. There is no best way to train, only better ways. If a coach simply follows the same training philosophy for 5, 10, 20 years because it works, they’re clients are losing the potential for more optimal performance. In my opinion, which has been heavily influenced by actual research AND experience, HIT is far more effective than base miles or threshold training. I know I am correct on this, but I will continue to look for better ways to train!

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