How To Fix The Problem Of Government Consensus Science

It's just eleven days ago on January 20 that I posted my first book review on this blog, of "The Big Fat Surprise" by Nina Teicholz; and now just nine days after that on January 29 the Wall Street Journal has published an op-ed on the subject of the book.  Dr. Steven Nissen of the Cleveland Clinic co-authored the op-ed, which is titled "The Food Pyramid Scheme."

Like Nina's book, the op-ed describes how our government in 1980 issued dietary guidelines promoting a low-fat diet to then 220 million Americans, even though the science supporting such guidelines was known to be weak at best and plenty of evidence was available even at that time to suggest that the recommendations were unsound.

Scientists should have known in 1980 that the recommendation to cut fat was unsound.  Large clinical trials at the time did not support the theory, according to a systematic review published last year in the cardiology journal Open Heart.  "It seem incomprehensible that dietary advice was introduced for 220 million Americans," the authors wrote, "given the contrary results."   

So how did a counter-productive diet get foisted on the American people in the face of such adverse evidence?  Easy.  A small group of avid promoters of the high-fat-diet/heart disease hypothesis had managed to get control of the principal government funding institutes, and of the peer review process at the key journals.  Dissenters got cut off from funding and from publication.

Meanwhile, the bad consensus science has proceeded to do untold damage to the health of the American people.  Teicholz and Nissen describe how even as new evidence has continued to come forth showing that low fat diets do not improve heart disease outcomes (and may well have much responsibility for the increase in obesity and diabetes), little has been done to change the government's guidelines:

What's disturbing is how little this new evidence has been heeded.  The guidelines continue to insist that Americans choose reduced-fat dairy products like skim milk.  But even epidemiological evidence now contradicts this advice, and a randomized trial published last month in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people eating full-fat dairy, including whole milk, showed a number of better heart-disease outcomes.

So what is to be done?  Teicholz and Nissen favorably endorse, with some recommended modifications, an upcoming "independent" government review, just funded by Congress, and to be conducted by a somewhat but not very different crowd from the people who got us into this mess.  While generally supporting the independent review concept, Teicholz and Nissen do suggest that a "disinterested referee" be appointed to lead the review, "from outside the field of nutrition."

Well, maybe that will make some difference.  But how about this idea:  the government should entirely get out of the business of meddling in the diet of the American people.  Any next round of recommendations to come out of the government is very likely to be just as wrong as the last round.  It's in the nature of giving some people government authority to lord it over others that the ones given the powers will lose all humility and be overtaken by the thrill of ordering other people around based on what they believe to be their own superior knowledge and expertise.  It's just one more example of why socialism doesn't work.  See also, climate science.