Digesting Science

Food causes a lot of anxiety in most of us. Many people struggle with their weight and there has been a doubling of the rate of obesity in Canada since 1978, and the rates in the US are even worse. It is no wonder that there are diets for every season and taste, and desperate people are easy to sell to; especially if they have tried and failed several times before.
The US government is undertaking a review of their food pyramid. This process is due to be finished in 2010 and the Centre for Nutrition Policy and Promotion is welcoming comments from any and all people – including the conspiratorially minded, of course! I waded into a bit of a bun fight at a science blog aggregation site www.sciscoop.com, this week with one David Brown, who was suggesting a supposed conspiracy by “big agra” to co-opt the research and promote the ingestion of grains, including corn, soybeans and the deadly “wheat” plant instead of healthier saturated fat, meat and dairy.

I had a discussion with another friend who feels sympathy with the skeptics movement but who felt like her knowledge of science was not large enough to debate someone who was making scientific assertions. In many, more technical, discussions this may indeed be the case. When I began to swim in the very deep and murky waters of nutrition science, I soon discovered that David Brown, the man I was arguing with, did have some points and it was easy to find many studies, like this one, that seemed to suggest that high-fat, low carb diets improved cardiovascular risk factors (although his incessant quoting of one nutritional text was a bit tedious, to say the least). However, the consensus in many more papers was that low-fat diets were the recommended course for most people in avoiding atherosclerosis and eventual heart attack.

Was was very clear was that nutrition science is a very complicated and constantly evolving science that I have neither the training nor the time in google university to even attempt to state a strong position on, beyond the consensus. This did not stop David Brown, however, and he made some very dubious claims. Ones that were mimicked by many people at such aloof centres of education as answers.yahoo.com . Like this guy, for instance, who decided his doctor, with several years of medical training, “knew nothing” about nutrition, so he had to do his own “research” and tell us all about it. He has answered over 3000 questions spreading the bad word about vaccines and evil pharma, and I bet, like our pal Jenny, he has his own small body count.

When answering my friend on her concerns over picking a skeptical fight, I told her that it has taken me a year to get my skeptical radar in order and be able to spot the fallacies at first glance that identify those with dubious reasoning skills and ideas instead of facts (and I am by no means at the peak of my performance). I continued to argue with David Brown and pick apart his faulty reasoning without having to know the complete ins and outs of LDL and HDL cholesterol and the effects of saturated fat intake on triglycerides.

Of course, anyone searching for answers on Yahoo.com about, well anything other than knitting advice and stain removal, gets what they deserve, as the person answering the question gets to decide what the best answer is. Though the democratic fallacy behind this reasoning should be obvious to the wizards at yahoo, I guess it is just another attempt to sell advertising, instead of educate. I have noticed that we don’t go and “yahoo” anything when we need to know a fact.

The skeptical toolbox is a powerful one, and can give support to your argument while you search for facts to back up scientific claims. Unfortunately, there is a lot of woo to wade through in the search for truth, and 3000 wrong answers is a bit daunting.

I am going to need some bigger hip waders, and perhaps a pontoon boat.

addendum

In my search, I found more compelling arguments about the high fat, low carb diet, like this debate sponsored by the US Dept. of Agriculture. It was a debate between several of the fade diet doctors in 2000 and was quite compelling. Of course, it is not compelling enough to change the consensus, apparently, but it is an interesting debate, and highlights the grey area that nutrition inhabits and the ideologues it harbours.

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  • Michael Kruse

    Michael is an advanced-care paramedic in York Region, just north of Toronto, Ontario. A semi-retired theatrical lighting designer as well, he re-trained in 2005 as an EMT-PS at the University of Iowa and as an ACP at Durham College, and is currently working towards a B.Sc at the University of Toronto. Michael is a founder and the chair of the board of directors of Bad Science Watch. He is also the recipient of the first annual Barry Beyerstein Award for Skepticism. Follow Michael on twitter @anxiousmedic. Michael's musings are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employer or Bad Science Watch.