Monday, August 17, 2015

Is The Obesity Society's Silence on Coca-Cola Due to Motivated Bias?

That was the question I asked on Twitter last Thursday.
My tweets went unanswered, and in case you're not sure what they were all about, last week saw Anahad O'Connor's front page story on Coca-Cola's funding of the "Global Energy Balance Network" (GEBN) make some massive waves and generate huge public interest.

There were stories in (and this is just a small smattering - truly, this was an international blockbuster of a story):

The Washington Post
The Boston Globe
The Guardian
The Independent
The Takeaway
CBC The National
FOX News
The Atlanta Journal Constitution
CBS News
Mother Jones
USA Today

And it wasn't just about covering the news.

Letter writers to the NYTs seemed furious.

So did The New York Times' and USA Today's editorial boards.

Regardless of where you fall in the debate on the messages being put forward by the Coca-Cola funded non-profit, I think it's safe to say that this story is the most publicized story ever written on partnerships between the food industry, scientists, and non-profit, obesity focused, NGOs.

You might think, given the story's topic, size, and importance, that The Obesity Society (TOS), an organization that bills itself as,
"The leading professional society dedicated to better understanding, preventing and treating obesity"
whose strategic plans' mission specifies their desire to,
"lead the cause in advancing the science-based understanding of the causes, consequences, prevention and treatment of obesity"
would feel it important to add its own voice to the discussion - pro or con.

Which brings me to "motivated bias".

Motivated bias refers to the phenomenon whereby,
"When people have a stake in an issue, they tend to process information in a selective fashion that supports their personal interests, a phenomenon known as “motivated reasoning.”
If dollars, partnerships and friendships make up personal interests, The Obesity Society may well have a motivated bias to ignore this story rather than risk criticizing the Coca-Cola/GEBN partnership or its messages. In fact TOS' interest in food industry collaboration is the reason I resigned my membership as I just couldn't be a part of an organization whose, "Guidelines for Accepting Funds from External Sources" position paper refuses to allow even the consideration of funding as a source of bias and,
"expressly eliminates all forms of evaluation or judgment of the funding source"
And then to prove they were serious about it struck a "Food Industry Outreach Task Force", which later morphed into their "Food Industry Engagement Council", the 2014 meeting of which included representatives from Kellogg's, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Dr. Pepper and Ocean Spray.

Friendships may also have a role to play in the silence here - friendships between TOS' leadership and the scientists headlining GEBN (one of who is a TOS past president), as well as friendships between TOS' leadership and Coca-Cola's, whereby judging from their tweets to one another, Coca-Cola's Chief Scientific Officer and one of TOS' current council members are genuine friends. Lastly, given there's no available list of GEBN members other than its executive, it's also possible there are many other TOS members involved.

It's important to note, motivated bias isn't nefarious, it's human nature, and given TOS' silence in the face of this story, along with their stated interest in food industry partnerships, I can't help but wonder if motivated bias is what's keeping them from weighing in.

Motivated biases and motivated silences, whether they're present in this case or not, are undeniably among the primary benefits the food industry enjoys when partnering with public health organizations whose causes may be negatively impacted by the partnering industry's products.

[For an example of what can happen when a public health NGO unshackles itself from the food industry, look no further than Canada's Heart and Stroke Foundation, and if you're interested, here's an opinion piece I wrote for Obesity Reviews on why the food industry is neither friend, nor foe, nor partner.]