The cat i' the adage

"The growth of knowledge depends entirely on disagreement" Karl Popper (1902 - 1994)

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Distrust the health fascists especially when they agree

I wrote the following piece a year and a half ago. I reproduce it here because its main theme is consensus in science, an issue raised in comments by Jorgen.

For years we have been told of the health benefits of a low fat diet high in carbohydrates; not just told really, but ordered by finger-wagging, po-faced health fascists - humourless souls who, we may charitably presume, have our best interests at heart but who will brook no opposition in their battle with fatty foods. The Nazis were good at this sort of thing. Their slogans such as "Your body belongs to the nation!", "You have the duty to be healthy!" and "Food is not a private matter!" may state things a bit more starkly than their modern counterparts but the similarity of the obsession is striking.

A few heretics like Robert Atkins continued to argue for a high fat, high protein, low carb diet as the best way to lose weight and promote health, but these were just mavericks to be sneered at and dismissed as ill-informed and dangerous.

Well, Atkins has been at least partially vindicated in two studies published in the prestigious peer-reviewed New England Journal of Medicine. What’s more, I learn that there never was any solid evidence of the long-term health benefits of the hair-shirt low-fat diet favoured by the medical establishment. That was news to me, as was the fact, learned a couple of weeks back, that no single study of the effects of passive smoking had ever produced a statistically significant increase in the incidence of heart disease or cancer in non-smokers subjected over decades to the passive smoke of their partners. In consequence of these revelations I find myself sick of the half-truths and spin performed in the service of government by the medical establishment, and I shall be unwilling to believe another “simple” health message from the government and its medical troops. I feel the same sense of betrayal and anger towards government that many have experienced in the light of the Iraqi WMD intelligence fiasco.

As a general rule it is wise to be distrustful of consensus. Truth is no respecter of numbers; no statement is made the more true by the fact that it is believed by a large majority. In scientific enquiry, consensus is primarily a sociological phenomenon with little relevance to the truth or falsity of the beliefs in question. In Nazi Germany, for instance, the theory that everything was made out of ice (Welt Eis Lehrer or World Ice Theory) became the scientific consensus while “Jewish” physics was derided, but I’m sure you will not be too surprised to hear that the World Ice Theory is a farrago of bilge. Consensus is an unreliable guide to truth as history shows on countless occasions like this.

Furthermore, suppressing dissent is extremely dangerous. Progress towards truth in science is facilitated by a willingness to entertain revolutionary ideas totally at variance with the prevailing orthodoxy: electromagnetism, quantum theory and evolutionary biology have all required fundamental shifts in the intellectual landscape. Science progresses better and serves man best if the conjectures of all scientists, including mavericks, are exposed to the proper critical scrutiny of their peers and assessed with as objective an eye as possible for their agreement with the empirical facts. There should be no room for Alastair Campbell-style rubbishings, neither should there be a closing of ranks by interested parties. When these occur I caution considerable scepticism.

As a layman in the dispute about dietary regimes I cannot say that I know where the truth lies, but the recent studies have encouraged me to give the low carb approach a go. So now I’m eating fat to get thin: to date I’ve lost 5lbs in a week and am feeling good. Who knows, in a few months, I might have a chest like Atkins advocate Brad Pitt. That would certainly be worth all the cheese, butter, eggs, bacon and shellfish I’m forced to eat in the mean time.

For the record, my weight has fallen by 30 pounds with improvements in all indicative health measures. I hope the references to Nazi science and health attitudes don't give offence.


At 20 January 2005 at 09:11, Blogger Jorgen said...

If you followed all Government health warnings, you would die of hunger.

Italy embraces pseudo-science:

Health Minister Girolamo Sirchia estimated that one in 10 lung cancer deaths in Italy is caused by passive smoking. (article from 2002

At 20 January 2005 at 09:52, Blogger rexie said...

I believe that Richard Doll summarised the threat of lung cancer from smoking in the following way: if you smoke 25 cigarettes or more a day you are 25 times more likely to contract lung cancer than a non-smoker. If this is close to being true, it is hard to imagine how 1 in 10 deaths from lung cancer could be caused by passive smoking: there just aren't enough non-smokers with lung cancer.

At 21 January 2005 at 11:07, Blogger Jorgen said...

I just noticed that the Adam Smith blog has a posting regarding smoking in public places, saying that cabs and pubs are private places in which the owner should make the decision:

I stopped smoking many years ago so I perfer non-smoking places; but to my mind the poster is right: it is not something a government should interfere with.

At 21 January 2005 at 12:28, Blogger rexie said...

Like you I am a reformed smoker. Now I positively dislike cigarette smoke and much prefer non-smoking areas, nevertheless I permit smoking in my house out of solidarity with an oppressed minority. I am not very keen on restaurants which lack no-smoking areas - I have had meals ruined in France by being placed next to heavy smokers - but I do not think that even restaurants should be compelled to provide such areas, still less that smoking be prohibited in all restaurants.

I should say that our society, though we think of it as increasingly liberal, has become decreasingly so. While we may slap ourselves on the back for approving of what other ages might have called "deviant" behaviour, we refuse to tolerate what we find we cannot approve of. In the case of smoking, the illiberal majority is encouraged by the "passive smoking" myth which suggests that, when it comes to health, smoking is not a personal matter.


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