Update - March 2016

Vibram has settled a class action suit brought against them for false and misleading advertising. The users of Vibram Five Fingers shoes can receive compensation. It has only been perhaps six years since Daniel Lieberman appeared on YouTube, subtley flogging Vibram Five Finger Shoes. This advertising was in the form of a independent interview, but the Vibram logo appeared prominently in the background, therefore it was another expression of clientelism. It also has been six years since he was informed that his promotion of Vibram barefoot shoes as protective devices makes him accountable for many injured runners. 

Update - October 2011

I predicted greater than one year ago that minimalist shoes would behave as any other expensive shoe in protecting against injury because of the plantar sensory environment associated with their use. Now reports are appearing, and sports medicine physicians are seeing injured patients  suggesting that minimalist shoes (particularly Vibram Five Fingers) are associated with frequent injuries, and they often occur shortly after commencing use. The pattern of injury resembles that of injuries with traditional running shoes, with frequent metatarsal head damage. Since sparing of the metatarsals has been shown to be associated with barefoot locomotion, minimalist shoes fail to resemble the bare foot in protecting against injury.

Despite considerable experimental data to the contrary, Daniel Liberman suggested that minimalist shoes closely resemble barefoot locomotion, thereby suggesting that they protect against injury similarly. How many injuries can be accounted for by his report which may have resulted in a false sense of security in users of minmalist shoes, and particularly wearers of Vibram products?

Giulliani j, Masini B, Alitz C, Owens BD. Barefoot-simulating footwear associated with metatarsal stress injury in 2 runners Orthopedics, 2011 jul7;34(7):e320-3

Robbins S, Waked E. Hazard of deceptive advertising of athletic footwear. Br J Sports Med. 1997 December; 31(4): 299–303.

Robbins S, Gouw GJ, McClaran J, Waked E. Protective sensation of the plantar aspect of the foot. Foot Ankle. 1993 Jul-Aug;14(6):347-52.

Zipfel, B. & Berger, L.R. Shod versus unshod: the emergence of forefoot pathology in modern humans. The Foot:  The International Journal Of Foot Science - Volume 17, issue 4 - December 2007) 

 Why we should all be concerned about Lieberman's scientific misconduct

  1. Clientelism is a form of scientific misconduct. Framing research a priori to have a positive outcome with respect to products manufactured by a source of funding is in itself scientific misconduct, as it consists of an exchange of positive results for funding on a quid pro quo basis.

    Clientelism when dealing with matters of health can endanger the public. In this case, Lieberman was aware of reports indicating that creating a false sense of security through suggestion of protection through footwear can account for injuries, and that no footwear can provide protective sensory feedback of the bare foot in direct contact with a substrate. He nonetheless proceeded in portraying a footwear as simulating in many ways the bare foot in eliciting protective behavior without appropriate caveats regarding risk, therefore he can he held responsible for many subsequent injuries.

     ( see  Hazard of Deceptive Advertising of Athletic Footwear 1997-3.pdf  )

  2. Scientific misconduct in the form of clientelism discredits the scientific journals in which it was published and institutions which the offending investigators belong. 

  3. Scientific misconduct in the form of clientelism interferes with normal scientific discourse therefore slows the advancement of our understanding of the world around us. 
 Daniel Lieberman - Clientelism through pseudoscience to sell shoes
AUGUST 16TH 2010, I wrote:

Dear Daniel:

I was disappointed by your response to my concerns about your publication in Nature.  Rather than dealing with my specific points through either refuting my references or presenting reports adding support to your position, you invented questions I never posed that presumably were more to your liking, and responded to them.  This defensive technique of avoiding issues rather than reaching understanding is sometimes referred to as “moving the goal posts”. It is a tactic often employed by clever trial lawyers with weak cases, but has no place in advancing scientific discourse, which your response indicated was not your intent. It does raise my concern about your integrity.

I will make another (perhaps final) attempt to direct you to the concerns I raised. I will restrict myself to my first difficulty with your publication which you avoided, because in some ways it is most important insofar as it also deals with your ethical standards.

You state:

“For most of human evolutionary history, runners were either barefoot or wore minimal footwear such as sandals or moccasins with smaller heels and little cushioning relative to modern running shoes.”

I provided arguments replete with references indicating that the only supported evolutionary argument that relates humans to footwear is that footwear were an evolutionary imperative to man for perhaps the most recent 25,000 in preventing foot damage as humans migrated to more northern latitudes.  Recent discoveries of the mukluk date from perhaps 10,000 years, making it the oldest leather footwear available.  This was not a minimal shoe because insulation was provided by a considerable amount of yielding material (straw, feathers,fur, etc) that trapped air so as to provide insulation. These footwear functioned poorly when running, therefore it can be assumed that surviving cold was an evolutionary imperative in the North, and the ability to run was not.

As an evolutionary anthropologist you know, or should know that shoes that allow reasonably efficient running are modern inventions, dating back no further than Victorian England. Humans evolved barefoot or with footwear that were inefficient for use in running and were not minimal.  Humans did not evolve running with sandals and moccasins as you claim, since early examples of them show no effective means of firmly attaching foot to shoe.  You try to find support through the Tarahumara Indians found in mountains of Chihuahua, Mexico, following the “red herring” deceptive argument technique. They run with a sandal made with automobile tire soles lashed to their feet. This adds nothing to your evolutionary arguments in relation to footwear.  You provided no references or data to counter my arguments presumably because none are available.

Your insistence in retaining this obviously erroneous statement, together with using defensive techniques to avoid discussion of issues, suggests that your intention in writing the Nature publication was not to advance scientific discourse. You properly disclosed a conflict of interest with a manufacturer of minimal shoes named Vibram, as they supported your research at least in part. Part of reason for disclosure rules is that they warn readers about potential bias. Because of this, the prudent investigator in a disclosed conflict of interest might go to great lengths to appear objective. This was not the path you took.

It becomes clear that the reason why you are unwilling to correct the erroneous statement regarding humans wearing minimal shoes while evolving is that it constitutes the only justification for mention of “minimal shoes” at all in your report. These pseudoscientific evolutionary arguments of yours not coincidentally are consistent with the program employed by manufacturers to sell minimal shoes, which suggests gratuitously that running with them resembles barefoot locomotion. It is clear that satisfying the manufacturer of minimal shoes that supported your research seems important to you.

The most obvious example of this was your testing of a single “minimal shoe” in published supplementary information. I can see no reason why inclusion of this material was relevant to your research at all. The product you tested, not surprisingly was made by Vibram. This did not objectively provide information about minimal shoes because you did not provide precise parameters of this class of products, nor evidence the Vibram product was representative of the group. This simply has the stench of a footwear marketing commercial - not science.  The gravitas of Nature and Harvard appears to have assisted you in convincing many from the non-scientific majority that minimal shoes in general, and Vibram products specifically may be a safer alternative to more traditional products, without a datum to support this notion. Did you cynically believe that advertisement parading as science would go totally un-noticed?

How do you plan to correct your errors?  I have generously given you an opportunity to start rehabilitating your personal and scientific integrity.  You should take advantage of it.