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Food science vs government

Terence Kealey has a policy analysis on the Cato Institute entitled Why Does the Federal Government Issue Damaging Dietary Guidelines? Lessons from Thomas Jefferson to Today. I found this from a comment by ‘Bloke in North Dorset’ from Tim Worstall’s blog.

It is a very good document. It begins with a history lesson on government food advice. In 1953 people were having heart attacks so the government had to Do Something about it. Ancel Keys said it was caused by eating too much fat. But science is never that easy.

As Yerushalmy and Hilleboe pointed out at the 1955 WHO seminar, and as they expanded in their 1957 paper, the data thus suggested the citizens of poor countries (who largely ate vegetables, including starchy vegetables such as maize/corn, rice, and potatoes) didn’t die much of heart disease (but they were vulnerable to other diseases); while the citizens of rich countries (who ate a lot of meat, which includes much fat) died largely of heart disease (but were protected from other causes of death).

The document explains how understanding gradually increased but that even today the relationships are not fully understood. Adding government to the debate was not helpful.

On being challenged on the incompleteness of the science, Senator McGovern said “Senators do not have the luxury that the research scientist does of waiting until every last shred of evidence is in,” which is the opposite of the truth: research scientists are at leisure — and are perhaps even obligated — to explore every possible hypothesis, but senators should not issue advice until every last shred of evidence is in, because they may otherwise issue misleading or even dangerous advice. As they did in 1977.

In fact the government advice was out of date for 60 years:

Although by 1955, within two years of originally proposing it, Keys had abandoned the dietary cholesterol hypothesis, for another 60 years the federal government continued to warn against consuming cholesterol-rich foods. It was only in 2015 that its Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee classified high-cholesterol foods such as eggs, shrimp, and lobster as safe to eat: “cholesterol is not a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.”

This 60-year delay shows how asymmetrical the official science of nutrition can be: a federal agency can label a foodstuff dangerous based on a suggestion, yet demand the most rigorous proof before reversing its advice.

This is the sort of thing that comes from applying the precautionary principle. But taking precautions turns out to be risky action.

To Mark Hegsted’s question in his introductory statement to the Goals — “What are the risks associated with eating less meat, less fat, less saturated fat, less cholesterol?” — we can now reply that if, in consequence, people were to follow his advice and eat more carbohydrates and more trans fats in compensation, the risks are of precipitating early death from atherosclerosis. Irony of ironies.

The document describes multiple causes of the disconnect between the real understanding and the public policy. Scientists are not perfect:

The popular view is that scientists are falsifiers, but in practice they are generally verifiers, and they will use statistics to extract data that support their hypotheses. Keys, for example, was not a dishonest man, he was merely a typical scientist who had formulated a theory, which — by using poor statistics — he was able over the course of a long career and many publications to appear to verify.

And the government makes things worse:

Governments may be institutionally incapable of providing disinterested advice for at least four reasons. First, the scientists themselves may be divided, and by choosing one argument over another, the government may be making a mistake. Second, by abusing the precautionary principle, the government may be biasing its advice away from objectivity to risk-avoidance long before all the actual risks have been calculated. Third, because of public pressure, it may offer premature advice. And fourth, its advice will be distorted by lobbying.

I imagine that much of the story described here, at least the science history part, is well understood in retrospect and uncontroversial. Its lessons might be applied elsewhere. What currently controversial science suffers from poor statistics and is being distorted by government involvement, I wonder?

30 comments to Food science vs government

  • Paul Marks

    Diet is very important – for example people (especially children) consume far too much sugar. However, we all die of something – and no diet is going to prevent us aging and dying.

    Diet is not something for the “Sword of State” – the government.

  • Runcie Balspune

    Government and science? It’s a well established fact the best place to launch rockets from is nearer the equator, only yesterday did the government announce the site for the UK’s first space port – go on, have a guess?

  • Ellen

    Runcie Balspune – Government and science? It’s a well established fact the best place to launch rockets from is nearer the equator, only yesterday did the government announce the site for the UK’s first space port – go on, have a guess?

    The closer to the equator, the better it is for launching satellites which are to orbit at low latitudes. The rotational velocity of the Earth adds to the velocity provided by the rocket, so the rocket needn’t be as powerful.

    To launch into a polar orbit, as the linked article suggests they will, the closer you launch to the equator, the worse it is. The rocket not only has to lift the satellite into orbit, it has to cancel out the rotational velocity of the launch site. Otherwise, it won’t end up in a polar orbit.

    The UK, in short, has noticed a vacant niche in rocket ecology. They’re filling it.

  • RRS

    Y’know the great fallacy in this discourse, like so many:

    The reification of Government.

    It is not the mechanism, Government, it is the humans using the mechanism, that give rise to the actions concerned.

    Government is not a person, or even “a thing,” except as an instrument or set of facilities.

    The deficiencies arise from the social structures or procedures that assign the use and powers of those facilities.

  • Deep Lurker

    I can’t shake the suspicion that the “less fat/less saturated fat/less cholesterol” advice got a big push – and thus went further and lasted longer than it otherwise would have – from the folks pushing low-meat and vegetarian diets for “Population Bomb!”/”Ecological Disaster!” reasons.

  • Nemesis

    Since I assume most science is funded by government, you would get policy driving science rather than science driving policy.

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker) Gray

    We have never had ‘Free’ science, unless you mean people like Isaac Newton, who used their own funds. Universities are presumed to be at the fore-front of scientific research, but Governments tend to subsidize Universities. Any rich philanthropists funding ‘pure’ research anywhere?

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker) Gray

    And have people forgotten about ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!’ Wasn’t that a government project gone wrong?

  • Fraser Orr

    I think the obvious question hasn’t been asked. Exactly why is the government issuing diet advice? I find it bizarre that people even think that that isn’t strange. I mean what will they be doing next? Advice on when to get up in the morning, or what color of pants to wear?

    Can you imagine:

    “In a latest press release from Number 10 Downing Street the government has indicated that wearing checks with stripes is considered the very worst of poor taste. The Prime Minster has proposed a white paper introducing the criminal charge of Malicious Facilitation of Shabbiness for any clothier who should, wilfully and with careless disregard for fashion, sells inappropriately contrasting clothing to their customers.”

    “We welcome the long overdue action from the government on this. Don’t you realize how many people are rejected at job interviews, or how many men are robbed of their romantic opportunities due to this scourge of unfashionability? The unemployment and heartbreak caused by this glut of tastelessness is a scourge” said the national spokesperson for BAANG (British Association Against Non Gaudiness.)

    I certainly understand someone like the BMA or AMA issuing diet advice, but I am utterly baffled by what it has to do with the government.

    (Perhaps it is different in Britain where “healthcare costs” paid by the government, may be used to justify invasions into the most intimate and perfunctory minutia of one’s life. God help the Americans if we get our own NHS.)

  • The Neon Madman

    “What currently controversial science suffers from poor statistics and is being distorted by government involvement, I wonder?”

    My candidate would be the whole climate change / global warming thing, but I am sure that there are others.

  • John Duckett

    In the news here in New Zealand we have just been told that consuming full fat milk and products now help prevent Strokes.Since I insist on whole milk and as much cream as I can get away with, I feel vindicated at last. However I understand that meatless meat which oozes “blood” is now the way to feed the starving masses. Can’t wait for the discovery that one of the ingredients causes cancer.

  • Stonyground

    ““What currently controversial science suffers from poor statistics and is being distorted by government involvement, I wonder?”

    My candidate would be the whole climate change / global warming thing, but I am sure that there are others.”

    I had just assumed that climate change was the matter that was being referred to.

    With reference to the government giving out dietary advice, our socialised healthcare system has to be at the root of the problem surely. If you plebs don’t do as you are told and eat the government approved diet then you are costing the NHS money and need to be ashamed of yourselves. In any case, eating a healthy balanced diet is hardly rocket science. A good starting point is to totally ignore government guidelines.

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker) Gray

    I think that someone in Britain (I live in Australia) could right an all-too-plausible thriller about a future Britain being run by the well-meaning NHS. Cabinet meetings being interrupted for anti-stress medication sessions, pills being distributed ‘freely’, etc.

  • Pills won’t be distributed. Look at the opioid “epidemic” here in the US, and how the government goes after doctors who prescribe “too many” pills.

  • Cabinet meetings being interrupted for anti-stress medication sessions, pills being distributed ‘freely’, etc.

    Ah I see you’ve also been playing We Happy Few

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    Yes my last line was about climate science but I am sure there are others, too.

    RRS: “Government is not a person” — yes, of course. It is people using force to centralise decisions. Centralised scientific research funding and advice giving is probably prone to all kinds of systematic problems, just as centralised price fixing is. The linked article has mention of a “free market of ideas” being likely to lead to better understanding of the relationship between diet and health.

    Fraser Orr: “utterly baffled by what it has to do with the government…Perhaps it is different in Britain where “healthcare costs” paid by the government” — I think state healthcare is partly it, but also the idea that no matter what the problem, the first question reflexively asked by much of the media and most of the people seems to be, “what is the government doing about this?”

  • Itellyounothing

    Y’know the great fallacy in this discourse, like so many:

    The reification of Government.

    It is not the mechanism, Government, it is the humans using the mechanism, that give rise to the actions concerned.

    Government is not a person, or even “a thing,” except as an instrument or set of facilities.

    The deficiencies arise from the social structures or procedures that assign the use and powers of those facilities.

    RRS

    Except in the context of our lives on Earth, there are only humans with the flaws to operate government. If the tool is unsuitable for the user, don’t use the tool. If you have no substitute for the tool, bind it up in rules to limit it’s worst effects….

    I wouldn’t give a veloci-raptor hand grenades either. Giving humans governmental power leads to a lot of pollution for other humans without it.

  • I can’t shake the suspicion that the “less fat/less saturated fat/less cholesterol” advice got a big push – and thus went further and lasted longer than it otherwise would have – from the folks pushing low-meat and vegetarian diets for “Population Bomb!”/”Ecological Disaster!” reasons. (Deep Lurker, July 17, 2018 at 9:38 pm)

    And for “I’m better than you” reasons – so much less important to saving the world but so much more important to flattering one’s ego. When I was in university, becoming a vegetarian was a well-known way to virtue-signal. Gradually, “Hitler was a vegetarian” became a sufficiently common mocking response that it was replaced with becoming a vegan – the key difference being that Hitler never said he was a vegan.

  • staghounds

    Frances Kathleen Oldham Kelsey remains the greatest heroine of the bureaucrat, as Rachel Carson is of the scientist in politics.

  • CaptDMO

    Let’s see. Poor folks walking to “the fields” (or mines) for an invigorating daily “workout”.
    Limited in artificial (light, mechanical, electric) diversions to keep them awake at night (but PLENTY of procreation). More “straight from the plant” produce, due to fire’s precious, labor intensive, value for heat, meat, and bread. Fresher, due to long term storage issues.
    Rich folks, hopping in the (servant rigged carriage) car to go to the desk job, with PLENTY of candles (whale oil, neon lights) to vapidly occupy their minds with recration, WELL into a short, 8 hour “mental/physical recovery” period.
    Diet? Sure, Juniper infused Gin, quinine infused “tonic”, and limes. Maybe a nice aspic to nibble on.
    Then of course, there’s the cow lobby, petitioning gub’mint, to promote “Eat mor chikn”
    Corn? Oh sure, we modify THAT for higher yield, only to burn in cars, and as a substitute for that evil “slavery molasses” in overpriced, flavored, carbonated water, in single-use decanters and canteens.
    “Diet” indeed!

  • llamas

    It’s been my observation, based on (many, many years) of observation, that fixations, rules and fashions about what to eat and not eat are among the most-powerful and yet the most-irrational compulsions that people are enslaved to. Virtually-none of them make the slightest rational sense, yet many people will ruin their lives and dissipate their treasure in conforming to them. Some people are prepared to die for their dietary rules.

    I would have to look it up, but I’ve read some compelling social-science studies (yes, I know . . . . ) that suggest that conformance with a dietary rule is among the most-powerful of bonding agents for groups of people, allowing them to feel a sense of connection to the group and rejection of ‘the other’, for whatever reason that may be. Every religion of any note has dietary rules, which carry the force of fundamental dogma and which serve to set ‘true believers’ apart from those who are somehow ‘less’. None of these things have the slightest connection to nutrition or any other form of science.

    I saw a label on a jar of salt the other day that proclaimed that it was ‘gluten-free’ – living proof, if any were needed, that the current fad for gluten-free eating is an irrational fashion choice with no basis in science whatever.

    Government information about nutrition, of course, in inevitably going to be hijacked by special-interests and lobbyists – all other government activities are, only a fool would think that this would be any different. And, of course, as in the field of nutrition, as in most other areas of science, 50% or more of ‘studies’ produce results which cannot be replicated.

    I have a friend who specializes in pediatric nutrition at UofM Hospital, so she might be expected to know something about the subject. When asked what her nutritional advice is, she quite-candidly says ‘Eat whatever you like, just less of it and not too much of any one thing’, and allows that most of her work involves trying to get this basic message across. The latest fad for ‘gluten-free’ about-has her tearing out her hair in frustration, but it’s the cult-du-jour among parents and she can’t make any headway against the tide.

    llater,

    llamas

  • Duncan S

    Re Llamas and his friend pulling her hair out over the cult of ‘gluten-free’: Gluten Free Shampoo

    And it’s logical conclusion: It’s got electrolytes

  • Fraser Orr

    @llamas
    I saw a label on a jar of salt the other day that proclaimed that it was ‘gluten-free’

    Ah, I was in Whole Foods a while ago and there was this machine where you put in peanuts and it mashed them to give you freshly ground peanuts. The label said “Make your own fresh peanut butter using these organic Georgia peanuts.” Underneath there was a warning label that said “Warning: This product may contain peanuts”.

    FWIW, I’m not sure I agree with your conclusions though. Your doctor friend is probably giving good advice based on the fact that it is reasonably easy to follow, and the principle of “anything but the standard american diet” is an improvement. Advice not followed is not of much utility. But the plain fact is that the recommendation of a high carb low fat diet that the OP refers to directly corresponded with a massive uptick in obesity in the USA. And it is also plain that different regional diets have a very direct impact on the health of the people eating them.

  • Stonyground

    It should be remembered that any publicly funded organisation that is set up to solve a specific problem, has a vested interest in not solving it. It also has a vested interest in convincing everyone that the problem is far worse than we thought.

  • Sonny Wayze

    “It’s been my observation, based on (many, many years) of observation, that fixations, rules and fashions about what to eat and not eat are among the most-powerful and yet the most-irrational compulsions that people are enslaved to.”

    Virginia Postrel agrees:

    https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2018-07-17/wework-s-meat-ban-is-branding-wrapped-in-tribal-food-policy

  • Snorri Godhi

    There is a connection between diet and politics that has not been commented upon here:
    a poor diet impairs brain function, and impaired brain function is the only sensible explanation for Trump Derangement Syndrome, and for related syndromes, eg Bush D.S.

    When i say: poor diet, i mean the sort of diet that people suffering from TDS are likely to follow: low in saturated fats and high in omega-6 fatty acids, wheat flour, sugar, and starch-rich foods generally.

  • Nemesis

    I used to follow John Brignall’s wonderful ‘numberwatch’ blog. Now, I think defunct. He did a great job of debunking global warming, epidemiology and other statistics.
    Here is a sample page of how health criteria has altered over the years;
    http://www.numberwatch.co.uk/2014_january.htm

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker) Gray

    I must admit, ‘We Happy Few’ looks like good, clean fun! And they’ve solved the ‘colour’ problem- everyone looks so white! I’m going there as soon as I can!

  • RRS

    Suggested reading:

    The Logic of Liberty (Liberty Fund 1998)
    by: Michael Polanyi

    Note: this is Michael, not Karl. Michael was one of the founding members of the Mount Pelerin Society. Like Karl Popper he was a scientist and this work, originally published in 1951 in London, is about the freedom of science from government. It is a “classic.”

    Rob Fisher

    In the U S of my long-lost youth, there was a Constitution that stated the agreement of “We The People” as to what uses were to be made, and not to be made, of the mechanism of the Federal Government. With the acquiescence (and sometimes demand) of the populace, that has been superseded by a Federal Administrative State that meets Oakeshott’s description of “purposive” governance.

  • Rob

    Governments may be institutionally incapable of providing disinterested advice for at least four reasons. First, the scientists themselves may be divided, and by choosing one argument over another, the government may be making a mistake. Second, by abusing the precautionary principle, the government may be biasing its advice away from objectivity to risk-avoidance long before all the actual risks have been calculated. Third, because of public pressure, it may offer premature advice. And fourth, its advice will be distorted by lobbying.

    There is a fifth – when the government process has been completely taken over by zealots of one side. See the recent reduction of the UK “drinking guidelines”, for example.

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