In order to understand the present and what the future might bring, it’s crucial to be aware of what’s happened in the past. History has a tendency of repeating itself, though not always in exactly the same way.
I’m going to relate to you now the story of Ranjit Chandra. Ranjit Chandra was a world renowned professor at Memorial University at Newfoundland. He is rumored to have been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine, twice. He was the recipient of the prestigious Order of Canada, Canada’s highest civilian honor, for a career of medical and scientific excellence. He has been lauded for his brilliance and intellect for over three decades.
There’s a lot of information the Order of Canada probably didn’t know about Ranjit Chandra when they issued that honor.
In 1989 (possibly 1988), Ranjit Chandra accepted money (estimated at over $50,000) from Nestlé to fake a study on their new infant formula, Good Start. (There is no hard proof of this — no one has found a check stub with “Nestlé” made out to Ranjit Chandra –, but there is overwhelming reason to support it, including testimony from Marilyn Harvey, Chandra’s assistant and whistleblower who was in charge of gathering participants for the study.)
Good Start was a formula previously owned by Carnation, but Carnation got bought out by Nestlé in 1989 and Nestlé wanted a way to draw attention to their new investment by citing “scientific” studies in their promotional material that claimed it protected babies against allergies when compared to another formula (Similac). They were planning on making these allergy-protection claims already, but the FDA wanted scientific studies to back these claims up by a certain deadline, so Nestlé “made” the “science” happen toward this end by bribing Chandra.
Those studies were never actually conducted, but they were written up by Chandra and published in several medical journals. They remain there to this day, even though they have been debunked by other scientists, including researchers who were members of a secret panel formed by Memorial University in 1994 (a committee created specifically to address the possibility of scientific fraud committed by Dr. Chandra). Anyone visiting PubMed.org and typing “Ranjit Chandra” and “breastfeeding” and/or “formula” will find studies by him, more than likely faked. Here’s another one that’s fake. It’s a five-year follow-up to the first fake study, which never had any data gathered for it. Notice how there’s nothing denigrating about breastfeeding in either study. (Both studies can be reasonably assumed to have been paid for by Nestlé; the first one definitely was, and the second one — well, Chandra would have had no reason to write it at all if he hadn’t been paid for it, too, so that’s why I think the second one was paid for by Nestle as well.) Not denigrating breastfeeding is not a guarantee that a given study is truthful. These studies Chandra faked, while they say nothing bad about breastfeeding, DO denigrate Similac, a formula competitor, and that got Similac’s attention. A representative of Similac, Mark Masor, investigated to see what the problem was, and he discovered that fraud had been committed.
Here’s some food for thought: If Nestlé should bribe a researcher to denigrate breastfeeding, where is the breastfeeding representative that will investigate the researcher on behalf of lactating mothers? Where is the Mark Masor of breastfeeding? Oh, I see, breastfeeding has no commercial representative to defend it. Breastfeeding has no advocate because breast milk is freely produced by a woman’s body and not by companies that foster perpetual dependence on their product. So, if you think the results of a breastfeeding study (or any kind of study) are suspect, your best bet is to do your own investigating to see if the study is legitimate or not. Remember, even if Ranjit Chandra had collected data for his studies, they would still be fraudulent, because he accepted more money from Nestlé than he did from Similac, so he was inclined to see things Nestlé’s way (hint, hint) at the expense of Similac (Similac did pay Ranjit Chandra $50,000 to conduct a study for them, but apparently Nestlé paid more because Chandra told Masor that Similac didn’t pay him “enough” to “do it right.”)
In probably the most ironic twist ever (in retrospect) one of the people who spoke out against Ranjit Chandra was a certain Dr. Michael Kramer from McGill University. He wrote a three page paper in 1997 to Health Canada (the Canadian government), explaining why one of Chandra’s studies was suspect (for one thing, the control group was almost identical to the experimental group, which in reality is unheard of in a study like the one Chandra was conducting — a virtual impossibility in the real world). The reply Kramer received was that Health Canada could do nothing because it hadn’t funded the study. Kramer thought about pushing it further, but in his own words, “…it just didn’t seem like it was worth doing,” so he dropped it. Lesson learned = it’s too much trouble for any individual acting alone against a prestigious scientist to get the scientist’s studies investigated, even if there is reason to suspect that said prestigious scientist might have committed fraud. At least, that’s what I’m learning from all of this.
From 1989 (when Chandra published the fraudulent Nestlé Good Start study) to 1997 (when Dr. Michael Kramer, independent of Marilyn Harvey’s testimony, took the initiative to report Chandra), is eight long years. Even though Memorial University, Health Canada, Dr. Michael Kramer, Nestlé, Similac, and Marilyn Harvey all knew Dr. Ranjit Chandra was a phony, nobody outside the world of academia was alerted to anything about this. And the Good Start studies remained in circulation. Did I mention they still are? Did I forget to mention that the original fake study has been cited in 83 publications? And that the fake five-year follow-up to the original fake study has been cited in 137 publications? The term “cited,” for those of you who aren’t familiar with it, means “referenced.” These studies are being used, right now, as references to help back up other studies’ claims. The “findings” from them are being taken seriously. Most of the scientific community, even though Ranjit Chandra has been proven without a shadow of a doubt to be a fraud, is not aware that these studies they are citing (or have cited) are fakes. So, imagine if they had actually contained data! Wow, then they’d probably be considered legitimate, right? I guess if you’re not looking deeply enough, yes. But I know better than to trust a study’s conclusions just because it contains real data. It’s not only important to find out if there is data for a particular study. Yes, that’s important. But it’s also important to find out what a researcher’s motivations for conducting a particular study are, what conclusions the researcher is motivated to come to, as well as a thorough examination of the data (which, let’s be real, what government entity has time for that?).
It wasn’t until 2001, when Chandra tried to publish another fraudulent study (not about formula or breastfeeding) in the British Medical Journal, that he caught the attention of then-editor Richard Smith. Smith was alerted to the suspicious study upon its submission by one of his astute statistical reviewers, who said the study had “…all the hallmarks of being entirely invented.” The study was eventually rejected by the BMJ after Smith tried to get in contact with Chandra numerous times and got nothing but vague circuitous answers to his questions (or no answers at all). That didn’t deter Chandra. He submitted the fake study to another journal, Nutrition, and got it published. It stayed published there until 2005, when it was finally retracted due to the overwhelming suspiciousness of the findings (still no hard evidence, though).
It is well-accepted now in certain circles (though not all of academia, unfortunately) that all Ranjit Chandra’s work is under suspicion. It’s hard to know which studies were faked or otherwise compromised by outside interests (bribes and/or pilfered grant money), and which ones were legitimate. Was Ranjit Chandra always a faker? Probably not. He probably published some real studies in his lifetime. It’s even possible that most of the studies he published (upwards of 200) were legitimate. There’s no way of knowing without examining every single one (a daunting task for anyone), but with the conflict-of-interest of receiving money from corporate interests to fake studies (like Nestlé, who apparently “outbid” Similac in the Good Start study), it’s reasonable to conclude that none of his studies (for which he is the principle investigator) should be cited in future publications, and that furthermore, none of the studies he’s published after 1989 should be taken seriously. But they are.
From where I stand, it looks like Nestlé won’t stop trying to convince the world that formula doesn’t cause allergies (or that breastfeeding provides “no protective effect” against allergies when compared to formula — eh, same thing). I, for one, am not buying it. Though I am loathe to use analogies because they are incomplete, I will use one here: I will be the Mark Masor of breastfeeding, even if no one else will be. If I suspect that a study was conducted improperly or if there’s even a hint of a whiff of conflict-of-interest, I will come after you like it’s a murder investigation, because as far as I’m concerned, with formula manufacturers and their marketing tactics, that’s exactly what it is. If no fraud has been committed, if you’ve got nothing to hide, I’ll figure that out — I can give the benefit of the doubt like the best of them. I’ll probably find out either way, so make sure, all you researchers out there (principle investigators, especially), that you cross your t’s and dot your i’s, because I am watching your breastfeeding study “results” and your motivations behind them like a hawk.
By the way, anyone wondering what disciplinary action was taken against Chandra, after so many people in academia discovered that he was a fraud and had taken money from Nestlé to fake formula studies? Well, in a nutshell, none. Nothing happened to him. He was not arrested. He was not fired. He was not even fined or formally reprimanded by anyone. He retired from Memorial University in 2002, just around the time the shit started hitting the fan when the BMJ started asking questions. He moved to Switzerland (or India) and hasn’t really been heard from since. He’s still selling his nutritional supplements, the same ones he claimed in his fake study could cure dementia (the one that got the BMJ’s attention).
You know what I would think if I were a Canadian researcher upon witnessing all of this academic and scientific corruption (circa 1997-2002)? Well, first I’d think: “Man, I work and work and work and am an honest person, an honest researcher, and I don’t make more than $150,000/year. Whereas, this asshole (Chandra) is a dishonest fuckwad, fakes data, and has over $2 million in secret accounts all over the world, in addition to the salary he gets from the university… And NOTHING happens to him!” This would lead me to think one of two things (1) Fuck it, I’ll make some real money too, then, if it’s so easy… But I’ll do it better than him to preserve my reputation and good name and I won’t get caught because I’ll use real data; or (2) C’est la vie. Just ’cause he’s unprincipled doesn’t mean I have to be, no matter how much money is to be made.
I am making it my job to see which of those two conclusions is the right one. Dear readers, you don’t have to join me in my quest. I’m not asking for help (though I welcome any and all kinds of questions, leads, etc., even if they disagree with or contradict my own findings). If you have nothing to contribute, just sit back and enjoy the ride. I think it’s going to be an interesting one.