June 20, 2018
Tyler Mulhearn, PhD
Diets have never been of much interest to me. For much of my life, people have told me that I am fortunate to have a fast metabolism or that I could afford to eat an extra serving of dinner. Personally, I have tried to maintain a healthy diet by eating balanced meals and limiting sugary or processed food. My love for good barbecue and sweet tooth does get in the way from time to time. My newfound interest in diets—the public’s obsession with them, the history of dieting, the variety of diets—stems from two recent events.
The first event involves the most recent episode of my latest Netflix addiction called Explained. In this series, popular topics and phenomena are explained, as the title suggests, by experts in a bingeable 15 to 20-minute format. The most recent episode tackled “Why diets fail” and provides a history on the varied diets going back to the 1960s. The short synopsis is that many diets are marketed with lofty claims that often fall short due to biological and psychological factors. At the same time, the food industry pushes customers to consume more and more food. The battle between these two heavyweight industries, dieting and food, has weighed heavily in the favor of the food industry for several decades.
The second event occurred later that evening when I came across an article discussing recent problems related to the popular and widely supported Mediterranean diet. The diet, which involves heavy consumption of fruits, vegetables, and nuts, had shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke in a 2013 study. This very same study came under fire recently. Specifically, the study was retracted due to concerns regarding how the study was conducted. Study retractions occur when there are concerns that the study results are flawed or even made up. In this case, the study involved two problems that could have affected the results. The first problem involved how participants were assigned to groups. The study claimed to use random assignment, a procedure used to make the results of groups comparable, but did not in reality. The second problem involved providing olive oil to a group that was not supposed to receive it according to study protocol. Overall, this study suffered from problems relating to directly comparing participants on their diets. A failure to appropriately compare study groups can potentially lead to flawed or inaccurate study results. In this case, the study investigators re-analyzed the data and arrived at the same general conclusions—the Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke by about 30 percent.
The two events discussed above extend beyond dieting and living a healthy life. Broader conclusions can be drawn to ethical issues on two levels. First, study retractions and poorly conducted studies matter. They matter not only for science, but also for the public at large. Science is rarely conducted for the sake of scientists alone. Typically, there is a larger goal that is trying to be achieved—help people lose weight safely and effectively, eradicate cancer or other leading causes of death, create more ethical organizations. When scientists conduct sloppy research, it affects us all. In the case of the Mediterranean diet study, the researchers were lucky that the results did not shift dramatically. However, consider the implications of a flawed study in the $60 billion diet industry. A flawed study in this case can result in a lot of wasted money and many irritated customers. Science is a complex endeavor, and any misstep can result in a poorly conducted study and inaccurate results. This is why Ethics Advantage prioritizes rigorous science in the assessments and interventions built for clients. When people spend money on a product, whether it is a diet plan or an ethical intervention, they expect it to work. It is our job at Ethics Advantage to ensure that a product is high-quality and exhibits sound scientific support before launching.
The second conclusion that can be drawn concerns ethical interventions in the workplace. Similar to dieting, ethical interventions should be based on sound science prior to being implemented. Would you swear by a diet that your crazy neighbor tells you about without providing any proof of how, why, or if it works? Of course not! The same attitude should be taken towards improving ethical cultures in organizations. Would you implement an ethics training program simply because it sounds fun and flashy and other organizations are doing it? I would hope not! Unfortunately, the world of business is full of trendy assessments and interventions that have little to no support for their impact. Similar to dieting and other health decisions we make every day, we should evaluate the scientific evidence of any organizational intervention before implementing. Otherwise, we are just hopping on board the latest fad that could be a joke in just a few short years.
The Ethics Advantage Team