Friday, 25 March 2016

Study claiming moderate drinking has no health benefits torn apart

Hello irony, my old friend, I'm here to facepalm with you again

Tim 'merchant of doubt' Stockwell made yet another attempt to muddy the waters on the benefits of moderate drinking this week (for background on Stockwell's one man crusade, see here, here and here). Headlines like 'Evidence that alcohol lowers heart disease and extends life 'flawed and shaky at best'' are all part of his drip-drip campaign to undermine decades of scientific evidence.

Of course, it is possible that Stockwell is onto something and has found compelling new evidence to support the 'no safe limit' narrative.

Only kidding. Stockwell doesn't do much in the way of original research. His modus operandi is to trawl through the epidemiological evidence, chucking out studies that don't suit his theory (ie. most of them), hauling out zombie arguments and making generic criticisms of epidemiology.

His latest study is no different. You can read it here. He concludes:

Estimates of mortality risk from alcohol are significantly altered by study design and characteristics. Meta-analyses adjusting for these factors find that low-volume alcohol consumption has no net mortality benefit compared with lifetime abstention or occasional drinking. These findings have implications for public policy, the formulation of low-risk drinking guidelines, and future research on alcohol and health.

The reference to 'public policy' indicates what Stockwell is really about. The fringe views of this activist-academic were highly instrumental in changing the UK's alcohol guidelines recently.

If you want a flavour of how Stockwell goes about his 'research' have a read of this unusually brutal critique of his latest study from a group of scientists who specialise in alcohol research.

Here are a few key passages...

“In this new paper, Stockwell et al have again biased their meta-analysis by ‘cherry picking’ a small number of studies for their meta-analysis – they discarded 2,575 studies and analysed only 87. The studies that they analysed related reported intake to disease, but they carefully avoided hundreds of validated studies that showed reduced disease among moderate drinkers."

“Stockwell et al seem to have deliberately pretended that the many animal and human studies over the past four decades that have provided extensive evidence for the biological mechanisms supporting the findings that light to moderate alcohol consumption is cardioprotective do not exist.”

“Science should serve the truth and to do it needs to take due account of all of the evidence, including controlled clinical trials in humans and animal models. What I find more disturbing in this paper is the lack of an overall vision, missing the opportunity (that is at the heart of the meta-analysis) to learn and build an overall view from the accumulation of collective scientific expertise. This setting, incompatible with the selection of convenience (cherry picking) leads unavoidably to repeat, with monotonic obstinacy, the same mistakes and the same misdeeds.”

“We are all tired of having to counter the same self-serving polemics over and over again with unperturbed demeanor.”

“Science happens when you examine a hypothesis and use experiments to contest it. Non-science is what happens when you believe a hypothesis and quote all the evidence you can to support it, while ignoring the rest."

In the opinion of Forum members, the present paper markedly distorts the accumulated scientific evidence on alcohol and CVD. As stated by one Forum member, “The biased selection of studies that are included undermines the value of the paper, but more importantly promulgates misinformation in the name of appropriate scientific method. Failure to acknowledge the robust body of knowledge that supports the opposite conclusion, and disqualification of extensive animal and cell culture studies that offer plausible biologic explanation of observed benefits, is unconscionable.”

The Forum concludes that the overwhelming body of observational scientific data, as well as an immense number of experimental studies, support the contention that, for most middle-aged and older men and women who choose to do so, the regular consumption of small amounts of an alcoholic beverage can be considered as one component of a “healthy lifestyle.” Such a habit has been shown to be associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and of total mortality.

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