Quiz Answer: Bad Science Is as Bad Science Does

It seems that yesterday's quiz may have been a bit too easy, as both Jason and Rational Jenn nailed it immediately: in the mid- to late-70's, the government, lead by George McGovern and backed by Ted Kennedy among others, issued a document called Dietary Guidelines that recommended that the entire country adopt a low fat, low cholesterol, high carb diet. After a short, loaded debate, the full force of the various federal agencies got behind it, and soon we had all sorts of bureaucrats urging us to eat more carbs and fewer saturated fats.

The quotes came from Good Calories, Bad Calories*, by Gary Taubes, and in chapter three, he details how the real scientific evidence to support such a diet for the purposes of decreasing heart disease was essentially nonexistent. Badly designed studies were willfully misinterpreted and misrepresented for the sole purpose of toeing the "established" and increasingly buzzworthy dogma about the American diet. Conflicting studies were ignored. Dissenting scientific opinions were stigmatized. The heavy hand of government then politicized the debate and turned a contentious, barely credible conclusion into a consensus. With next to no hard evidence to back it up, the science was nevertheless settled, despite many conflicting studies with better scientific support to show that the opposite was in fact true, and that such a diet was actually harmful.

As I read this book, and as Taubes piles example upon example of how myopic--if not downright malicious--scientists continue to push pet theories regardless of conflicting evidence, how government interferes to not only tip the scale but to knock the damn thing over in favor of those pet theories by throwing funding at the researchers and countless programs, initiatives, policies, and laws to advance them, while a fawning, sycophantic press shouts it all from the rooftops. . .well, it all reminds me of a somewhat more recent phenomenon.

As Jenn mentioned in her comment, this is a dead ringer for the global warming debate. I'm constantly struck by the parallels in the way established, politically connected scientific opinion blithely forges ahead in spite of contradictory evidence, and is used to steer public policy and public opinion toward politically favored stances. The nutritionists used shoddy epidemiological practices, poor scientific controls, elaborately creative statistics, and cherry picked evidence, and then used all of this to state forcefully that the science was settled.

Global warming alarmists use laughable computer models that can't even model current conditions to predict decades in the future, they distort temperature records, fudge evidence, blacklist dissenters, use magical statistics, and cherry pick evidence, and then use all of this to state forcefully that the science is settled.

In the first case, the government pushes a diet that is not just nutritionally neutral, but actively harmful, and most assuredly, many people have died because of it. In the second case, the government has already enacted policies that hamper the economy, and wants desperately to do much more, which most assuredly has diminished the standard of living in this country and will only get worse.

The full scope of the dastardly mess that makes up the history of nutrition science and policy in the last half century is something that is new to me. I wonder how many other areas of government interference in science -- and its predictably disastrous results -- are out there?

*Note to the jack-booted thugs: I bought Taubes' book with my own money, and the only thing I'm receiving in compensation is the satisfaction of attacking government power and stupidity.


madmax said...

Great points. I made the same connections when I read GCBC. The only thing I don't fully get is why this happened in what would seemingly be a boring field - nutrition.

I can see why climate science was perverted. Environmentalism is the clearest expression of altruism and egalitarianism we have seen yet (and the deadliest). But I still can't really put my finger on why a moral crusade for the low-fat diet happened. Is this all just a case of the expansion of the welfare state into essentially every detail of American life? Was this largely accidental and the somewhat random product of the oddities of Ancel Keys and Jean Myer?

In any event, its amazing how the anti-fat, low-fat movement has become such a destructive force in America in particular and the West in general. Obesity and its attendant health problems would not have reached this level in a free society. The free marketplace of ideas would have seen through the nonsense of the low-fat movement.

Burgess Laughlin said...

Laymen, such as I, are in a very difficult position. Experts, or supposed experts, disagree wildly -- at least as presented by journalists (such as Taubes), who might have misunderstood scientists who themselves might not understand correctly the subjects they have researched.

How a layman should go about deciding which diet is the healthiest for him as an individual is itself controversial. "Use reason" is too broad. There needs to be a method.

A second issue is the proper role of government in science. Here I suspect many of your readers, including me, agree: none.

Of course, it does not follow (and you have not implied) that everything a government supports is thereby automatically wrong. Even if a consensus of government scientists support the heliocentric theory, I will still support it.

Stated negatively, there is a pitfall in thinking -- as I have seen some conservatives do -- that if "Big Government" supports theory X, then theory X must be wrong (and probably a conspiracy too).

My purpose here is simply to identify the issues, a task outside the scope of your well written article.

Burgess Laughlin said...

Here is an example of how confusing scientific debates can be for laymen.

At age 30, after always eating a high-fat, high-protein diet (e.g., cream cheese omelettes) that also included a lot of simple carbohydrates (cinnamon rolls, etc.), I developed high blood pressure, high levels of total cholesterol in blood samples, pain on the inside of my left arm when under stress, and pain in my chest when under stress (exercise or emotion). I had been a cyclist for 5 years, developing very large leg muscles from biking in the hills around Palo Alto, CA. But I was also adding fat quickly around my middle.

A doctor offered two choices: eat a healthier diet (he didn't say what) or take medication for the rest of my life. (Heart disease and death from it was rampant in my family, with some striking exceptions -- two women who were also low fat, high vegetable and coarse starch eaters.)

I read various diet books at that time (c. 1975). I followed the Pritikin Program, in Live Longer Now. It was very low fat (<10%), high coarse carbs, no sugar, and small amounts of lean dairy and a variety of meats. It was modeled on the Okinawan Centenarian Diet, (the original one).

All my adverse symptoms went away within 15 months. (I also lost 75 lbs, without even trying.) I followed that low fat, high cc diet until about six years ago when my inflammation problems continued to grow. My diet now is very low fat, low protein and high coarse carbs, about 25% fruit, 25% vegs, and 50% starchy roots.

All my inflammation problems have disappeared -- and according to a recent series of tests, I have no heart disease, no arthritis, no liver disease, etc. -- all at age 65. (My one remaining problem is a 47-year series of lung-collapses, which do not seem to be related to diet, but rather to genetics, according to the many doctors I have consulted.)

So, you can see why when hearing someone saying eating low-fat is dangerous, I have serious doubts that that applies to me. As a layman, I must go with my own experiences as well as I understand them. The problem of course is in trying to sort out which factors were the causes. Clinical studies are better for that, but such studies are often flawed.

The main problem is this: What constitutes proof?

C. August said...

madmax, my wife had the same question about why this happened. One thought I had is that the anti-meat, anti-fat idea meshes well with seeing Americans as gluttonous. In essence, it's an anti-capitalist view.

At the same time, it also took a strong, tenacious personality like Keys to latch onto it and then push it for all he was worth, tying his and many other scientific and political careers to propagating the pet theory. They all had to work like mad to convince everyone that the emperor's clothes were wonderful.

C. August said...

Burgess, you raise some interesting and very important questions, specifically relating to your personal experience. Let me take a step back for context so I can try and get to construct a response.

GCBC, at least the part I quoted, is discussing the issues around the fat-cholesterol hypothesis in relation to heart disease. Taubes shows how the hypothesis was not (and is not) supported by valid science, and yet it became accepted fact, and public health-minded politicians pushed it on the American people.

And this brings up another important point that Taubes discusses later: public health. (from memory because I don't have the book with me) He describes how public health officials and academics took the view that if 1 in 1000 lives were saved by pushing a particular diet--even though the 999 others may live their whole lives on a low fat diet and not see a shred of benefit--then such a program was worthwhile. In other words, they would use government power to push broad plans that might slightly improve health statistically across the population, with no thought or care for what the impact might be on any one individual.

Combining this perspective with the fact that the recommendations were not the least bit proven, it's a recipe for, at best, a lot of wasted effort, wasted money, and wasted enjoyment of life for most people. And at worst, if the intervention (the low fat diet) has greater risks in areas other than heart disease, like increased cancer, then overall the program is destructive for many individual lives.

My take away from that is that government recommendations are wrong, even if they're right. "Public health" is a package deal that ends up being a mechanism for manipulation of individuals by the government. What should be the standard is a free market in medicine, and the free marketplace of ideas that Max mentioned. And relating to your situation, Burgess, there would be no conflict between your search for the optimal diet for you, and whatever the prevailing govt. recommendations might be.

One would hope, that in such a free society, it would be much easier for someone in an uncommon bind to find physicians willing to do the necessary work to solve individual health problems, rather than worrying about government recommendations and accepted wisdom and malpractice, etc.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if it is possible that the agri-business lobby might have had some input into the scientific findings of the high carb diet? That is, many of the subsidized agricultural products are high carb; corn, wheat, etc. The govt in the 70's was dealing with chronic oversupply (big surprise, that, since they were subsidizing it) even to the point of more or less giving massive amounts of wheat away to Russia. Could this have been an approach to reduce oversupply by promoting consumption?

On a second, but anecdotal note. My mother was acquainted with some cattle ranchers and they said that the attack on their industry (the idea that red meat promoted heart problems, cholesterol, high blood pressure) began shortly after they declined gov't "help" in the form of price supports. Could these things be driven by bureaucrats seeking to expand their turf? Or to benefit their rent-seeking clients?

C. Andrew

C. August said...

C. Andrew, I haven't looked into those angles, but your speculations certainly sound plausible. I'd even say probable, based on what we know of government and the slimy politicians and bureaucrats who infest it. Researching all of that would make a good follow-up book to GCBC. If only I had the time and the stomach for it. . .

Bill Brown said...

madmax's question (and your wife's) was the first thought in my mind. I can understand the global warming juggernaut: it's all about expanding political power.

But nutrition and agriculture were already encompassed and regulated. It's not as if farmers rankled at the livestock farmers' freedom and sought to take them down through political means. And both groups were heavily subsidized for decades.

So I just can't see this as pressure group warfare (though I suspect that that had a role).

There was a tectonic shift in diet from the fifties to the eighties. The popular view of Americans as gluttons didn't start (in my memory) until the nineties.

To my mind, prevalent obesity came about as a result of increasing portion sizes and a more sedentary lifestyle. That has demonstrably happened over the period. People are eating more and exercising less. Is that no less plausible an explanation as people are eating more carbs or less fat or some other constituent of their diet?

I eat carbs. I drink a lot of soda. The times when I embiggen are clearly linked to when I snack too much, exercise too little, and eat big meals. I can reduce my weight just by exercising more and eating less (quantity-wise).

(I haven't read GCBC and have no intention of doing so, as an aside.)

C. August said...

Sorry Bill, but your suppositions don't stand up to the actual evidence. You stated up front that you won't be reading "GCBC," which is fair enough. But you're missing the historical evidence as presented in the book and elsewhere, both about the timing and more importantly the makeup of the "tectonic shift" in the American diet, as well as the timing of the viewpoint of Americans as gluttons.

You say people are now eating more and exercising less. But what are they eating? And what does that have to do with the prevalence of the diseases of civilization -- cancer, diabetes, heart disease, etc.?

You give as an example your own diet, and weight gains and losses. But that doesn't address what the fat-cholesterol hypothesis was trying to prove. It wasn't a straight weight loss issue. It was about a supposed heart disease "epidemic." And the scientific proof was simply not there.

If the standard American diet of high-carb, low-fat, and lots of vegetable oils is actually, on average, bad for metabolism and leads to greater mortality from disease--even in people who are not overweight--doesn't it make sense to learn more about it rather than dismiss it out of hand?