Monday, October 15, 2007

Fast Facts Nation Redux

In July I posted on a lengthy article by Gary Taubes exposing the pseudo-science behind the anti fat campaign that inadvertently ignited an obesity epidemic in the US. John Tierney follows up with an article in the New York Times chronicling the shameful collapse of scientific peer review and the strong-arming of medical experts by political pressure groups that led to one of the costliest abuses of science and the public trust in US history.

In 1988, the surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, proclaimed ice cream to a be public-health menace right up there with cigarettes. Alluding to his office’s famous 1964 report on the perils of smoking, Dr. Koop announced that the American diet was a problem of “comparable” magnitude, chiefly because of the high-fat foods that were causing coronary heart disease and other deadly ailments.

He introduced his report with these words: “The depth of the science base underlying its findings is even more impressive than that for tobacco and health in 1964.”

That was a ludicrous statement, as Gary Taubes demonstrates in his new book meticulously debunking diet myths, “Good Calories, Bad Calories” (Knopf, 2007). The notion that fatty foods shorten your life began as a hypothesis based on dubious assumptions and data; when scientists tried to confirm it they failed repeatedly. The evidence against Häagen-Dazs was nothing like the evidence against Marlboros.

It may seem bizarre that a surgeon general could go so wrong. After all, wasn’t it his job to express the scientific consensus? But that was the problem. Dr. Koop was expressing the consensus. He, like the architects of the federal “food pyramid” telling Americans what to eat, went wrong by listening to everyone else. He was caught in what social scientists call a cascade.

We like to think that people improve their judgment by putting their minds together, and sometimes they do. The studio audience at “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” usually votes for the right answer. But suppose, instead of the audience members voting silently in unison, they voted out loud one after another. And suppose the first person gets it wrong.

If the second person isn’t sure of the answer, he’s liable to go along with the first person’s guess. By then, even if the third person suspects another answer is right, she’s more liable to go along just because she assumes the first two together know more than she does. Thus begins an “informational cascade” as one person after another assumes that the rest can’t all be wrong.


I think we need a wall of separation between science and state.

4 Comments:

Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Duck:

Will you please send me your email address?

October 15, 2007 11:23 PM  
Blogger erp said...

I suspect smoking isn't as harmful as hyped and second smoke even less so. Although I'm glad now that smoking isn't allowed in public places, I still don't like the fact that the guvmint decreed it . . . the camel's nose, ya know.

October 16, 2007 4:50 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

You guys would have had your blood pressure go up 20 points if you'd heard today's report on FSN News from the UK.

They've declared an obestiy epidemic there, too, and furthermore, 'only government can stop it.'

While I am not as antigummint as the norm, I don't think government can eat for me.

October 17, 2007 10:54 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

No, but it can stop you from eating when you want to. I guess the British Government is feeling flush with its wild success at stopping excess drinking and is moving onwards with its campaign to ensure everyone dies in perfect health.

But to address Duck's point, I certainly have been struck by the number of articles in the past several years that begin with "Scientists have discovered..." or even "Science has found..." suggesting a collective authority that must make Rome very jealous. The modern world really is quite bizarre. Religion is supposed to address eternal, immutable truth, yet overall in the West has become extremely tolerant of the competition and far more sensitive to what it doesn't know or understand. Science is by definition self-correcting and therefore subject to change or even reversal tomorrow, but boy can they get nasty if you challenge what they have to say today.

October 18, 2007 2:18 AM  

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