By opening the gates of publishing to all, the internet has flattened hierarchies everywhere they exist. We no longer live in a world in which elites of accredited experts are able to dominate conversations about complex or contested matters. Politicians cannot rely on the aura of office to persuade, newspapers struggle to assert the superior integrity of their stories. It is not clear that this change is, overall, a boon for the public realm. But in areas where experts have a track record of getting it wrong, it is hard to see how it could be worse. If ever there was a case that an information democracy, even a very messy one, is preferable to an information oligarchy, then the history of nutrition advice is it. [...]
But it is a biological error to confuse what a person puts in their mouth with what it becomes after it is swallowed. The human body, far from being a passive vessel for whatever we choose to fill it with, is a busy chemical plant, transforming and redistributing the energy it receives. Its governing principle is homeostasis, or the maintenance of energy equilibrium (when exercise heats us up, sweat cools us down). Cholesterol, present in all of our cells, is created by the liver. Biochemists had long known that the more cholesterol you eat, the less your liver produces. Unsurprisingly, then, repeated attempts to prove a correlation between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol failed. [...]
A scientist is part of what the Polish philosopher of science Ludwik Fleck called a “thought collective”: a group of people exchanging ideas in a mutually comprehensible idiom. The group, suggested Fleck, inevitably develops a mind of its own, as the individuals in it converge on a way of communicating, thinking and feeling. This makes scientific inquiry prone to the eternal rules of human social life: deference to the charismatic, herding towards majority opinion, punishment for deviance, and intense discomfort with admitting to error. Of course, such tendencies are precisely what the scientific method was invented to correct for, and over the long run, it does a good job of it. [...]
We tend to think of heretics as contrarians, individuals with a compulsion to flout conventional wisdom. But sometimes a heretic is simply a mainstream thinker who stays facing the same way while everyone around him turns 180 degrees. When, in 1957, John Yudkin first floated his hypothesis that sugar was a hazard to public health, it was taken seriously, as was its proponent. By the time Yudkin retired, 14 years later, both theory and author had been marginalised and derided. Only now is Yudkin’s work being returned, posthumously, to the scientific mainstream. [...]
Max Planck: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
In the past, we only had two sources of nutritional authority: our doctor and government officials. It was a system that worked well as long as the doctors and officials were informed by good science. But what happens if that cannot be relied on?
Ian Leslie, the author of Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, is a regular contributor to the Long Read. Twitter: @mrianleslie Thursday 7 April 2016
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