Perspectives – growing our knowledge

Researcher profile: Karl Michaëlsson

Karl Michaëlsson gears up for a new battle

“Of course, I understood that it would be big, but not that big! A study into the effect of milk on our health was Karl Michaëlsson’s ticket into the lion’s den. A year and a half later he is back, unharmed and armed with new findings.

Did you read the article in the British Medical Journal of 28 October 2014? The one about the possible risks of adults drinking too much milk. No, you probably missed it the first time, as did most of us. By the next day, however, Karl Michaëlsson’s findings were among the most disputed in science and the author, a professor at Uppsala University, suddenly found himself at the centre of a storm.

“Of course, I understood that it would be big, but not that big. I had to spend the rest of 2014 dealing with journalists and responding to comments about my article. Perhaps I should have done even more, but, as you know, time is limited. The public reaction should be considered fairly natural. Milk is part of all our lives and we’ve learnt since the 1930s that milk is good for you. Then suddenly a study appears which claims the opposite. Of course, people felt it was provocative.”

Karl Michaëlsson’s results divided opinion in a way seldom seen. Many were curious as to what the study actually said, others were sceptical and still others reacted with what seemed almost to be hate – a reaction which seems to have become the norm for dietary discoveries. On internet forums and blogs around the world, people – often anonymously – attacked both the research and the researchers.

“I try to not read what is written about me personally, but I do consider scepticism towards new findings to be a healthy attitude. These days, being able to express our misgivings via the internet has democratised debates but also paved the way for everybody to become an expert. However, as a scientist, I’ve had to learn how difficult it is to judge scientific quality. If we stop listening to those who really know about their subjects, there will be problems,” says Karl Michaëlsson.

But as with most researchers around the world, Karl Michaëlsson’s day-to-day activities do not include fighting trolls, rescuing princesses and killing werewolves. As a Swedish professor of Medical Epidemiology and a chief consultant orthopaedic physician, he should be used to being at the centre of events – our country is, after all, world champion at broken bones!  But the national funding for the subject is small and the research team’s resources limited. A tight budget, however, does not inhibit ideas or ambition and so the team recently applied for funds from the European Research Council for a study into various ways of preventing fractures.

“We know that the risk of breaking a hip increases enormously from the age of 55 up, but the reduced bone density of older people is just a small part of the explanation. I’m convinced that we ought to shift our focus to fall prevention and effective protective aids. Carrying out our project without seeking finance from industry requires a funding grant which we Swedish orthopaedic researchers can only find these days at European level.

Before Karl Michaëlsson’s research team go on to tackle further paradigm shifts, however, there is still another round to get through against the milk lobby. A follow-up study which supports the 2014 findings is edging towards the scientific printing press. The question is whether the team is ready to fight another round or if they will choose to package their results slightly more discreetly?

“When we were about to send off the first article, one of the co-authors suggested that we should divide it up into four, but I feel that it’s more ethical to provide all of the material at once and never to adapt my material to influence the way it’s received. I also have no problem taking on criticism or a debate as long as the discussion is objective and my arguments can help improve public health. On the other hand, I become very irritated if other researchers question my results for subjective reasons. Judging by the evidence, there’s a risk of this if our findings are not appreciated by a major industry which has used nourishing and healthy as the foremost reason for buying its products.

Our allotted time is now coming to an end, but one question still remains: What does it look like inside the Michaëlssonian fridge? Is milk now prohibited or can a visitor still hope for a little splash of white in his coffee?

“Ha-ha, that can be arranged. To be sure, my wife and I don’t drink milk but my children do.  I don’t feel that either recommendations or behaviour should be changed because of individual results. That said, our study is good and the more research which confirms its contents the greater the reason to review our dairy consumption, but that’s for the future to show!”

Magnus Alsne

Published: 2016-05-18

Facts: Karl Michaëlsson

Age: 57
On my bedside table: Homo Academicus by Pierre Bourdieu, a French book about academia which was given to me by my wife.
The last time I was complimented: Yesterday, after a lecture for politicians, doctors and researchers. They were very enthusiastic.
If I get a day off: I go to Malmön on the Swedish West Coast to sand down a wooden boat.
In my fridge: There’s plenty of both yoghurt and cheese but never multivitamin supplements.