May 21, 2013
A study claiming that fish oil provides no benefit in heart disease is being hyped as the final word on the issue. But is it? No, it is not. In fact, the study is absurdly blatant pseudo science, with two errors so glaring it’s hard to believe they were made. Why do the researchers do it? Why do they care so little about the truth and your health?
by Heidi Stevenson
A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine purports to show that fish oil provides no benefit whatsoever in prevention of heart disease. At first glance, it would appear to be true. The study is, after all, double blind and placebo controlled, not to mention having a significant number of participants. But is it for real, or is there some sleight of hand at work?
There’s one initial clue that should give pause. The study’s endpoints had to be changed. That’s always a bad sign. In fact, it breaks the rules of good research. But, they had to do it because they found that their study participants weren’t dying as fast as they’d anticipated.
Now, if they’d been interested in the truth, they’d have tried to figure out what was wrong. After all, the odds of dying when people have signs of heart disease are pretty well understood. Otherwise, how could they possibly have anticipated the rate at which deaths would occur?
Of course, they didn’t sit back and wonder what they might be doing wrong. Instead, they just added new end points to their study.
How They Cheated: Basic Trick
There’s a blatantly obvious reason that the death rate was lower than expected, but we’ll get to that in a minute, after demonstrating the study’s primary flaw:
There was no placebo!
Certainly, the write-up on the study claims there was, but the fact is that a placebo, to be legitimate, must contain things other than the active ingredients being tested. So what’s being tested? Eicosapentnoic acid and docosahexanoic acid, two of the substances in fish oil that are believed to be the active properties that provide its benefits.
The “placebo” used was olive oil. What’s in olive oil? Eicosapentanoic acid and docosahexanoic acid, among other substances. Why would anyone expect different results between subjects who took the active ingredients and a “control” group who also took the active ingredients?
How They Cheated: Secondary Trick
The death rate in both the fish oil and fake placebo groups was less than the author anticipated. Why would that be?
In fact, the study did demonstrate something significant. Fewer people in both groups died than the researchers anticipated. Why would that happen? Simple! Both fish oil and olive oil are beneficial in heart health.
Nonetheless, rather than admit the truth—since clearly, these researchers were focused on something other than finding out what’s beneficial to heart health—they refused to ask why there were fewer deaths than anticipated. Instead, they simply ignored the only valid question. Instead, they simply added end points to the trial, such as nonfatal heart attacks and strokes.
And what did they discover from the secondary endpoints? In fact, they learned something that supports the fact that both fish oil and olive oil are beneficial to heart health: The secondary endpoints had the same results in both groups.
What Went Wrong?
Now we need to ask: Why is this pseudo study so embarrassingly wrong? How did the authors get themselves into such an absurdly ridiculous situation? And that can be answered quite simply: Follow the money.
Who paid for this junk science? There were three funders: Pfizer, Società Prodotti Antibiotici, and Sigma-Tau. All three of them are pharmaceutical corporations.
It isn’t in their interest to fund research that elicits the truth. It’s in their interest to fund research that drives potential patients and their doctors to their products. The fact is that fish oil and olive oil are not products that they sell. What they sell are drugs.
Pfizer sells the cholesterol reduction drug, Lipitor. Fish oil and olive oil are both in competition with Lipitor. So, a study that directly debunks claims about the heart health benefits of fish oil and indirectly implies that olive oil is also not beneficial is just the sort of thing they’d want to fund.
What do the researchers know? If they hope to continue to receive research funding, they’d better deliver what the funders want.
So they did.
If it means that your health is damaged, that apparently means nothing to them. If it means you die as a result, they don’t care. As long as they continue to get funded, they’re happy to produce whatever faux results the buyers want.
As to those “experts” who have been promoting the phony results of this study,[2,3] shame on them! The question is, do they prefer to be thought of as just plain ignorant, unable to see how absurd this pseudo study is, or do they want to be thought of as stupid, unable to understand how absurd it is?
1. n−3 Fatty Acids in Patients with Multiple Cardiovascular Risk Factors; New England Journal of Medicine; The Risk and Prevention Study Collaborative Group; DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1205409