A Look Back
A little more than a year ago, a then obscure blog with the rather narrowly focused title of Raw Food SOS: Troubleshooting on the Raw Food Diet experienced a viral renaissance. Its webstat numbers went from just a few hundred visitors to well over 100,000 visitors in the span of one month.
That uptick in July of 2010 marked the beginning of the end of T. Colin Campbell's much vaunted reputation as the defender of a 100% plant food diet.
It marked the beginning of the end of T. Colin Campbell being known as a reputable scientist beyond dispute.
It began the phase where it was demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that in some instances, at least regarding his pet theories on the impact of animal foods on human health, T. Colin Campbell wasn't interested in actual evidence.
It put into bold relief what many of us had learned from Chris Masterjohn's previous interaction with the learned and highly credentialed Mr. Campbell over a half decade before, that here was a man who wasn't really interested in the issues, or fine tuning his thesis, or anything else that would indicate he had an open mind to learning and growing beyond the flawed hypothesis he had advocated over the years regarding the consumption of animal products and their place in the etiology of human disease.
This marks the beginning where it was discerned, once and for all, that many of his followers were simply uncritical apologists who for years had been fooled by the wrong but high handed use of uncorrected evidence by Campbell in defense of his theory regarding the harmfulness of the consumption of animal products.
It presaged the moment when the world of academia fully discovered that the
Scorpion Plant Food King truly was wearing no clothes.
It marked the final nail in the coffin of a lifetime of work from Campbell by a then 23 year old non-credentialed woman named Denise Minger, who simply by remaining true to the standards of Campbell's own discipline demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that the King had erred, dramatically so.
I am sure when Denise Minger wrote the definitive critique of the China Study that Campbell, upon becoming aware of its existence, thought of her as nothing more than a pesky gnat, easily crushed and even more easily ignored. Little did he know that with the substantial help of the very popular blogger Richard Nikoley of Free The Animal and his blogging partners in crime that her critique would gather wings and go viral.
In 2005, when Chris Masterjohn, also at the age of 23, inflicted his mortal wound on the work of Campbell, the blogging sphere, while growing, had not attained the dizzying heights of today. But in 2010, when Minger wrote what I now consider to be the definitive critique of the China Study, it wasn't only the Weston A. Price crowd that took notice, but the "paleo" crowd as well, which was growing and enjoying its own surge in popularity. Thus not only did Minger write the definitive critique, she also was exposed to a much larger audience.
Of course, as evidenced by many interactions over the years on various places in cyberspace, Campbell's defenders wouldn't take this lying down. They showed up in droves trying every imaginable hit and run on Minger and anyone who dared to acknowledge her work, spewing forth all sorts of ad hominems, specious appeals to authority, and a whole host of other logical fallacies in an attempt to ward off the attack of the "Mingerites."
The Heart of the Matter
Some of the "Campbellites" were pasting and copying the same responses to various blogs all across the web, but in the end it was really to no avail. The evidence was too strong and the arguments too tight. Why? Because Minger simply pointed to one thing that was and is incontrovertible:
The use of raw uncorrected data can be misleading because of the influence of other variables implicated with disease.
That is it. Plain and simple. Campbell's conclusions make sense when the raw uncorrected data is viewed, conclusions that Minger herself draws based on the same data. But when the raw data is analyzed rigorously, taking into account numerous confounding variables, the conclusions from the corrected data simply do not support what the raw uncorrected data appears to show.
But that wasn't the only thing she did. The decisive blow to his body of work was made when she demonstrated that Campbell's claims regarding the ability of milk protein (powdered casein) to cause cancer (which Campbell then, without warrant, extrapolated to all animal protein) was true, under the experimental conditions he created, of all proteins both plant and animal when in complete form.
While this aspect of her thesis is less well known, it was the dagger in the heart that finally put the twitching corpse of The China Study to rest, since it was the primary basis for his recommendation to avoid all animal nutrients (not just animal protein).
For all the comprehensiveness of Minger's work, these two items are what the issue keeps coming back to and what Campbell can never really overcome, short of redoing a lifetime worth of work, which, in the twilight of his career, he most assuredly is not about to do. In fact what he does is introduce us to a heretofore unknown "new" approach to science:
I agree that using univariate correlations of population databases should not be used to infer causality, when one adheres to the reductionist philosophy of nutritional biology and/or when one ignores or does not have prior evidence of biological plausibility beforehand.
In this case, these correlations can only be used to generate hypotheses for further investigation, that is, to establish biological plausibility. If in contrast, we start with explanatory models that represent the inherent complexity of nutrition and is accompanied by biological plausibility, then it is fair to look for supportive evidence among a collection of correlations1…
Denise's own words, in response to a comment on her blog, pretty much sums up the credibility destroying nature of this "new" science:
I think he’s probably done with me, to be honest. His “new and holistic approach” to science is fairly immune to hard facts and statistics [NB: emphasis mine], so I doubt anything I’ve written here will have much impact — its main purpose is just to collect all the criticisms in one document…
*photo courtesy of Jimmy Moore
Back in the Saddle Again
However, as Minger notes in her latest review:
With the release of the movie Forks Over Knives, Campbell’s recent appearance on the Bill Maher show, and continued Wikipedia drama about the peculiar lack of criticism on its “The China Study” page, it seems The China Study is back in the spotlight for awhile.
Since I’m not a vegan anymore, I figure it’s okay for me to beat dead horses. And also to resurrect the ones I buried last year and wallop on their half-rotten, fly-infested carcasses with my fists a few more times. So wallop I will: This post is dedicated to driving a couple more nails into the China Study coffin—and is aimed particularly at the folks out there who would rather listen to peer-reviewed research than some girl with a blog.
That's right. The "girl with a blog" is back at it again. And this time, research wise, she is highlighting a few of her friends at the rodeo. Whereas the last time she blew Campbell out of the water by showing the deficiency of his own research, this time she blows him up by showing, through peer reviewed studies, including some of Campbell's own, that he is wrong. I won't cover any of that here. She does a splendid job of that in her own review.
Now lest you think Minger has some special antipathy toward T. Colin Campbell, here is what she said about Mr. Campbell before she wrote her first full critique of The China Study:
As promised, it’s time to unveil all this China Study business. Grab a raw, nonalcoholic drink and make yourself comfy! [NB: I will stick with the health giving benefits of my glass of scotch and the mental enhancing abilities of my contraband Cuban Romeo and Julieta cigar, thankyouverymuch]
Let me start by saying that this isn’t an attempt at “debunking” the China Study or discrediting T. Colin Campbell. Quite the contrary. “The China Study” book is excellent in many ways, if only to underscore the role of nutrition in health. If I ever met Mr. Campbell in person, I’d give him a jubilant high-five and thank him for fightin’ the good fight—for exposing the reality of Big Pharma, for emphasizing the lack of nutritional education most doctors receive, for censuring the use of scientific reductionism, for underlining the importance of diet in disease prevention. Campbell and I are on the same page in many ways. His scroll of accomplishments is impressive and I sincerely believe his heart is in the right place, even if I don’t agree with all of his conclusions.
My goal here is solely to look at the original China Study data and see what it says. When Campbell’s conclusions seem valid, I’ll point it out. When Campbell’s conclusions seem awry, I’ll point it out.
And again in her full formal critique of The China Study:
I would like to thank Mr. Campbell for his cordial response to my critique, as well as for the time he has taken to elucidate his philosophy of nutrition and his approach to research. While I do not agree with some of his conclusions, I honor his contributions to the field of health and nutrition, and deeply admire his courage to promote an unpopular message amidst a research sector dominated by special interests and opposing views.
Clearly Minger was not out to "get" Dr. Campbell, but simply followed the evidence to where it led.
A Nagging Issue
There is one issue that kept coming up over and over again in the various comments left on the blogs from the "Campbellites" be they original or pasted, and this issue was expressed in several different ways through questions/statements like:
- But she isn't credentialed
- She is only 23 and untrained
- She is a plant of the Western A. Price Foundation
- Why didn't she approach him privately via email?
- She has no peer reviewed work
or to state it another way:
- Campbell is a credentialed and well respected scientist
- He has spent his adult lifetime (over 50 years) as scientist
- He has peer reviewed work
- He is a noted authority in his field
In other words, where does this "girl with a blog" get the gumption to take on a giant in the field when she has neither the training, expertise, wisdom, and/or authority that Campbell has earned and received over the years?
Good question, and the answer is best summed up in a title of a piece Dr. Gary North wrote about a year ago:
And instead recommends an alternate action:
Blog it instead…It's free. It's fast. It's the way to go. Ask Matt Drudge. He didn't send an email to Newsweek deploring the spiking of an article. He posted his report — without objections — on his blog in 1998. This eventually got a President impeached. His site gets 6 million visits a day. Meanwhile, Newsweek is up for sale. Here is the great irony: DrudgeReport.com (two employees) is worth more than Newsweek.
A Step By Step Strategy
North goes on to list 10 different reasons (actually there are 11 in the article) for not sending that email when you come across a well known personality who has written a boneheaded article (or book). Lets look at a few of them and see how they relate to The Denise Minger story (and I would highly encourage you to read the full article by Dr. North as I will only be highlighting a few things here).
YOUR TARGET HAS NO PUBLIC EMAIL ADDRESS
This seems obvious. The author is someone famous. He doesn't list his email address. You will have to find ways around this.
One way around this is to post your email as an article on your blog site…
…If you post your critical letter on your blog, Google is likely to pick it up and list it.
Famous people tend to be egomaniacs. They use Google searches on their names to see what people are saying about them. If your critical response to his bonehead article is posted on your site, he may find it.
If he sees it on a public forum, he is more likely to read it than read an email from a stranger. When our ideas are online, they can do him more damage.
I am still awaiting confirmation of this from Denise Minger, but I seem to recall a comment where she mentioned sending Campbell an email before publishing her critique, and in typical fashion he ignored it (or it got caught up in his spam filter and Campbell deleted it. See #2 in the North article).
[addendum: Denise Minger confirmed that she did not send an email prior to publishing her critique, and that her only contact with Campbell via email came after his first response and was met with "stony silence."]
NUT-CASE . . . BLIP!
The famous author long ago learned that the world is filled with jerks, big-mouths, ill-informed blow-hards, and nut cases. These people have these things in common:
1. Time on their hands
2. Strong opinions
3. An inflated self-opinion
4. A desire to show off
5. A limited audience, constantly shrinking
Their friends have grown tired of listening to them. They find that nobody takes them seriously. This does not produce self-examination on their part. Rather, it produces a growing resentment against all those people who do not share their views and listen to them. This persuades them to go looking for other people who will pay attention to them. Any famous author becomes a target.
Famous people get emails all day long from critics. The easy response is to take one look at the first sentence and come to a judgment: "nut-case" or "serious critic." If the recipient decides on the first, it's instant DELETE. He may read another few sentences if the letter sounds half-way coherent. But he probably won't. What's in it for him?…
In short, a critical email from a stranger is considered guilty until proven innocent. It is likely to get blipped.
Don't waste your time.
But what if you included a brief note in your email. "I have posted a detailed critique of you recent article on ….. You may be especially interested on the document you either are unaware of or conveniently failed to mention."
Accompanying that cryptic comment is a link to your article, which is posted on your blog.
He is more likely to read the article on your blog than read a long e-mail.
Campbell certainly has been exposed to this. He acknowledges the problem in his first response to Denise Minger:
I also know that critics like her (editor: emphasis mine) would like nothing better than to get me to spend all my time answering detailed questions, but I simply will not do this.
TAR BABY . . . BLIP!
Even worse than a nut-case, from the point of view of the recipient, is a tar baby…
An email tar baby is a person with a hobby horse. He wants to ride. He takes every opportunity to ride. He has alienated his friends, who don't want to hear about it any more.
He could write a book on this, and get it out of his system. But that would take work. He does not want to devote that much effort.
It could be worse. He has written a manuscript, but no publisher will touch it. This really has him in a snit. He goes looking for someone — anyone — to interact with him. He'll show them.
The recipient has two choices. Remain mute, and become a tar baby for the heckler, or respond, and become enmeshed in a lifetime of emails.
The fanatic will not stop. At last: someone has responded! Someone famous! He will not let go. The famous author has a new pen pal — pen enemy — for life. He's doomed…
For my full views on the tar baby phenomenon, click here.
There is more…
A PUBLIC DISEMBOWELING
You are convinced that he has laid a gigantic egg in full public view. This gives you an opportunity to respond in public. This is part of the Web's system of etiquette. It is considered legitimate to disembowel someone in full public view if he has posted his opinions on the Web.
The Web in fact encourages debate. It thrives on it…
If you really do have the goods on the guy, get this in front of others. As long as you are going to go to the time and trouble of composing a response, do it for the whole world. You never know who is going to show up on your critique. Google pulls in people from all over the world. You cannot know who will show up.
Besides, if you are going to rant at the article, you will find it far more fun to twist the guy's tail online than in private.
If you really do draw blood, he will be tempted to respond. He may be so tempted that he provides a link to your article in his response. This is another way to draw traffic to your site. If he writes for a large-traffic site, so much the better. The link will count for more in Google's "importance factor" algorithm.
Why limit the effects of exposing the author's errors? Share the wealth!
Draw blood? Mr. Campbell was hemorrhaging. He responded twice. He was already on life support from his previous encounter with Chris Masterjohn where he was wise enough to respond only once. The second response by Minger could easily be titled, T. Colin Campbell R.I.P.
It was that good.
If you think someone is wrong about this or that, and the author has gone public with his idea, you might as well get maximum leverage for your written response. Why not let it become part of the public record? Why not let it stay public long beyond your death? Don't do things halfway. Do them right from the beginning.
As long as you're committed enough to mail a bonehead a corrective email, you might as well inflict some real damage.
Ladies and gentleman, the Denise Minger story!
And goodbye T. Colin Campbell. You had a very nice run. Oh sure, you are still popular among your followers and your recent activity as noted above will certainly keep you in the spotlight for a little longer. But those willing to follow the story and heed the evidence regarding your deprecation of animal foods, including some of your academic colleagues, know the jig is up.
In the twilight of your career a whipsmart beautiful young lady with only an English degree takes you out with sniper like precision, completing the work of Chris Masterjohn who at the time also had no formal credentials. Now he will soon be awarded his Ph.D but lets not put the cart before the horse.
Talent always displays itself before it is officially recognized. I was playing basketball with NBA professionals at the age of 14. So it was no surprise to those in the know when I "suddenly" blossomed in high school and went on to become only the second player (at the time) from my school awarded a major college basketball scholarship. That's the way talent works. Beware if you get caught on the wrong side of it at the end of your career.
In your case you made a huge analytical error and calculation in terms of explaining that error (re: your definition of a "new" approach to science above), one that others saw previously but was finally put to bed by Minger. Now she didn't prove that 100% plants as a diet was ultimately flawed, just that your defense of it using the raw data from the China Study (and your cancer/protein experiments, which actually demonstrate something entirely different from what you claim2) was incredibly off-base.
And there is more to come, as Minger now has a contract for a book (published by Mark Sisson) currently titled, Death By Food Pyramid, due out in mid-2012. If I am a member of the committee that put those guidelines together, I would be shaking in my boots right about now.
1 An astute reader translated Campbell's quote into basic English, "Read that last sentence carefully. Here’s a translation, in case you had some trouble parsing that sentence: “I believe it’s OK to start with my own beliefs and cherry-pick the data to support them.”
2 I do think Campbell's study in this area is important research that is actually born out in the alternative health world in the treatment of cancer, at least anecdotally, where most protocols, consciously or not, minimize protein.