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Graham 11th October 2007 01:00

The fallacy of diet "consensus"
Here's a rather brilliant article that's well worth reading, not only because it tears a strip out of the diet industry, but also because it exposes the very notion of scientific "consensus," and how utterly misguided such a consensus can be:

The basic revelation is this:

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.

In other words, there's zero evidence that starvation, self-deprivation, or denial is in any way beneficial to health. Quite the opposite.

But where the article really shines is when it identifies the social mechanism that leads to such a hypothesis becoming an established "fact" (when it's really just a myth): the notion of the scientific cascade of error.

The article explains this idea clearly, and I don't want to offer a half-baked precis, but the basic idea is that if one scientist reaches a faulty conclusion, then another echoes him (trusting that the first scientist's credentials confirm him as some kind of authority), then another follows, and another, until eventually, you have a chorus parrotting the first misguided theory, lending a false air of credibility in numbers to an idea that was wrong to begin with.

It's the scientific equivalent of mob behaviour, basically.

Here's another excerpt from the article:

Cascades are especially common in medicine as doctors take their cues from others, leading them to overdiagnose some faddish ailments (called bandwagon diseases) and overprescribe certain treatments (like the tonsillectomies once popular for children). Unable to keep up with the volume of research, doctors look for guidance from an expert — or at least someone who sounds confident.

In the case of fatty foods, that confident voice belonged to Ancel Keys, a prominent diet researcher a half-century ago...He became convinced in the 1950s that Americans were suffering from a new epidemic of heart disease because they were eating more fat than their ancestors.

There were two glaring problems with this theory, as Mr. Taubes, a correspondent for Science magazine, explains in his book. First, it wasn’t clear that traditional diets were especially lean. Nineteenth-century Americans consumed huge amounts of meat; the percentage of fat in the diet of ancient hunter-gatherers, according to the best estimate today, was as high or higher than the ratio in the modern Western diet.

Second, there wasn’t really a new epidemic of heart disease. Yes, more cases were being reported, but not because people were in worse health. It was mainly because they were living longer and were more likely to see a doctor who diagnosed the symptoms.

Cut to a few decades later, and thanks to the cascade of error, dieting has become the medical cure-all. But it turns out that this cure-all doesn't cure anything:

when the theories were tested in clinical trials, the evidence kept turning up negative. As Mr. Taubes notes, the most rigorous meta-analysis of the clinical trials of low-fat diets, published in 2001 by the Cochrane Collaboration, concluded that they had no significant effect on mortality.

Mr. Taubes argues that the low-fat recommendations, besides being unjustified, may well have harmed Americans by encouraging them to switch to carbohydrates, which he believes cause...disease. He acknowledges that that hypothesis is unproved, and that the low-carb diet fad could turn out to be another mistaken cascade

So one diet fad turns out to be futile, leading to another diet fad, which is also futile. And in the meantime, a woman lives her life needlessly depriving herself of the foods that she craves.

Better to enjoy life to the fullest, and to trust the body's natural instincts.

dbround 24th October 2007 23:43

Re: The fallacy of diet "consensus"
Gina Kolata's book, "Rethinking Thin" is also a good book about the failure of diets. It's a shame that people waste tons of money and time attempting to attain an unnatural physique.

HSG 30th December 2007 16:12

Re: The fallacy of diet "consensus"
Originally Posted by Graham
the basic idea is that if one [academic] reaches a faulty conclusion, then another echoes him (trusting that the first [researcher]'s credentials confirm him as some kind of authority), then another follows, and another, until eventually, you have a chorus parrotting the first misguided theory, lending a false air of credibility in numbers to an idea that was wrong to begin with.

It's the scientific equivalent of mob behaviour.

This is altogether one of the more important articles that has ever been linked from this forum, and it provides a fine example of how the topic of our Web site--the suppression of timeless beauty by modern culture--is a microcosmic analogy of a wider societal phenomenon.

This writer's notion of a cascade effect is well worth keeping in mind, when considering any body of received wisdom. The effect is not confined to the scientific community, but extends to all academic fields, including the study of literature, history, politics, etc. The first writer who addresses a given topic blazes a path through the jungle, as it were, and then everyone who comes after him simply follows his trail--because it's easy to do so. Everyone depends on previous conclusions and adopts them, and no one bothers to consider whether the initial scholar's trail is the correct one. They simply take it on faith.

Consider, for example, the critical reception of the poetry of Lord Byron. In the 19th and early 20th century, many Christian writers of literary history cast aspersions on his work because it was perceived as being insufficiently pious. Some even condemned it as blasphemous. (Byron did, after all, pattern the central figure in his work, the "Byronic Hero," after the Satan of Milton's Paradise Lost, and penned a drama telling the story of Cain from Cain's perspective.) Then, in the later 20th century, as literary criticism became dominated by Leftist academics, the poetry was morally faulted again, except now, the complaint was that Byron espoused Romantic individualism rather than the kind of political collectivism (socialism, "social justice") that the new crop of critics favoured. Neither group's criticisms had much to do with the actual literary merit of Byron's work. They simply reflected the biases of the academics, and as the philosophies changed, the details of the criticisms were amended, but the basic condemnation remained.

The same is true of plus-size beauty. In the works of Charlotte Bronte, for example, the author creates many compelling, gorgeous, full-figured feminine characters, but much as she acknowledges their beauty, she rebukes them for their vanity. In our time, the same characters are reproached by literary critics, except now, they are condemned for embodying unfeminist or anti-feminist modes of being. Yet in fact, these characters are among the most vibrant and captivating individuals in the author's books.

Academics, journalists, researchers all behave according to human nature, and as in any community, everyone enjoys feeling the strength in numbers, loudly acclaiming the popular view. No one enjoys being an outcast; no one enjoys being labelled a "heretic" (or whatever modern political equivalent substitutes for this term). Modern scholars condemn the group-think of previous generations, and praise the heretics of the past, then turn around and behave just as those whom they have condemned--engaging in group-think themselves, and ostracizing the "heretics" of the present day

The word "revisionist" has negative connotations in academic circles, and yet revisionism in a general sense may simply constitute an effort to escape the "cascade effect" described above, to re-evaluate and re-examine the blindly-followed critical paths of the past, and to blaze new, possibly richer, possibly more accurate, trails.

Plus-size beauty is still awaiting just such a cultural revision, just such an aesthetic reappraisal. A perceptive article like the one posted above suggests that such a revision is at last becoming a distinct possibility.

Kelsey Olson in an adorable beret; new at Torrid:

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