Thu 2 Jun 2011
It’s always good to have a story, especially one that upholds your political beliefs. So, imagine my reaction upon reading Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. I don’t know if Taubes himself has any leanings in the direction, but his book is the most compelling libertarian story of the past 50 years.
There are some basic principles of the libertarian critique of governmental policies designed to solve Pressing Problems. These are, that those government policies often:
- mis-diagnose the problem
- makes decisions based on political realities instead of scientific ones
- crowds out competing (and potentially more accurate theories or solutions) either directly, by criticizing them, or indirectly, by denying them funding
- end up making the problem worse, or exacerbating a different problem via unexpected side effects
- cause a legion of special interest groups of corporations to arise to take advantage of (as well as reinforce, through their own interest) the government’s potentially wrong decision
If you’re not particularly disposed to these ideas already, this all sounds like wishful thinking about government incompetence. Yet this is exactly the story presented by Taubes as the history of the fat vs. carb nutrition debate in the US over the past 50 years.
To sum up, without all the science (read the book, it has all the data you need), the story goes like this: about 50 years ago, a few prominent scientists, particularly Ancel Keys, decided, based on incomplete evidence, that fat was the cause of heart disease, and that carbohydrates were a good replacement for it in our diets. Unfortunately, not only was the decision premature, it also was wrong, and here’s the most important part: it was wrong even based upon the evidence they had at the time — they simply ignored or dismissed it. This isn’t a case of science improving and rendering an old government policy wrong, this is government policy making the wrong choice despite the evidence.
The anti-fat movement (led by Keys) then convinced the government and the media of the correctness of their case, which was then enshrined as policy by a government panel: fat bad, carbs good. This is partly why the food pyramid’s base, the largest section, was all carbohydrate-rich breads and pasta. The low-carbohydrate movement (the opposition of the anti-fat movement), despite having an increasing body of evidence that stated that fat was not bad, and carbs were not good (each subsequent study failed to prove the anti-fat hypothesis), were pushed aside, labeled as cranks or corporate stooges of the companies that produced high-fat food. Billions of dollars of NIH funding flowed into anti-fat research, food manufacturers touted the heart-friendly effects of their products, and groups like the CSPI arose to plug anti-fat agendas. Government policy and millions in advertising now set, Americans duly changed their diets to become more “healthy” — ushering in a wave of all the “diseases of civilization” that low-carb advocates predicted: diabetes, obesity and various forms of cancer.
Then, once the obesity epidemic (if not directly caused by the high-carb policy, certainly exacerbated by it) became the new threat, established policy and scientists blamed it on fat as well.
You probably could not invent a story that fit the libertarian critique so well. Confirmation bias alarm bells went off the entire time I was reading; but the Taubes book is exhaustively researched and annotated — not just with the data (often based on studies that examined the results of low-tech societies, which ate mainly meat and other high fat diets, transitioning to the higher-carb diet of Western societies, and their subsequent explosion of diabetes and obesity — and cancer) but with the specific charges leveled at each by the anti-fat movement in an effort to erroneously discredit them. Some people will write a book based on the results of a single paper, and present its conclusion as definitive proof. This book presents the results of hundreds of papers and studies, all of which disprove the anti-fat hypothesis or support the low-carb one — every one dismissed and ignored. It is also a devastating critique of academia, which, once a theory was established as the conventional wisdom, had no interest in examining data that might undermine it.
To recap: the government picked some bad science and enacted incorrect policies based on it, which damaged the health of millions of Americans, costing us billions of dollars in healthcare bills, millions of lives (here I merely repeat the government’s claims about the damage of the “obesity epidemic”) and did little to actually prevent the problem for which it was designed. They suppressed, ignored and slandered those who disagreed, who had the data on their side both at the time, and today. Then, when the damage reports came rolling in from their actions, promptly demanded that they were the only people capable of fixing this problem, and confidently prescribed the exact same medicine which had caused the problem in the first place: the low fat, high carb diet*.
How is this not the centerpiece of the libertarian argument for a less-activist government?
* – to be fair, they also advocated good things, such as an increase in exercise, and a decrease in the consumption of sugars and soda. The latter again points out the crazy logic of advocating high carb diets: those carbs roughly translate into the same end result in your body as the sugar.