Monday, May 11, 2009

The Power of Epistemology: The Fat Controversy

This is rather "old news", but I would like to point out this lengthy article by Gary Taubes regarding the fat/cholesterol controversy, amusingly titled What if It's All Been a Big Fat Lie?. I bring it to attention because I think this is one of the greatest demonstrations of the power of epistemology, how bad epistemology can be fatal.

In short, nearly everything we have heard about fat and cholesterol is wrong. To paraphrase Taubes in his book Good Calories, Bad Calories, the whole fat-and-cholesterol-is-bad-for-you thing was started by a scientist named Ancel Keys who based his theory on the assumption that Americans were switching from a diet high in carbohydrates to a diet high in fat and cholesterol and that heart disease incidents were increasing as a result. But no such evidence existed. At the particular time he formed the hypothesis, agricultural data was unreliable and heart disease was just becoming easier to diagnose (making it appear as if rates were increasing). While one may forgive him this error, what makes Keys an evil (not speaking hyperbolically) scientist is that he would rationalistically dismiss evidence that was contrary to his theory or refuted it absolutely. When our Sisyphean politicians were confronted with his hypothesis, it consisted of nothing but data that supported it, when no evidence supported his theory (keeping the context of the entire body of evidence), and thereby won by default. The results of the doctrine can be seen today in the nation's current unhealthiness: the obesity and diabetes epidemic.

What we can observe is how damaging and outright fatal a bad system of epistemology can be. To be clear, epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of human knowledge, how humans acquire and validate knowledge. A good system of epistemology will lead one to the truth and, as a corollary, will allow an immeasurably greater probability for successful action; a bad system of epistemology will steer one away from the truth and allow an immeasurably lower probability for successful action. Ancel Keys held a bad epistemology in the sense that he was not *truth oriented*.

It is true that in order to be a scientist he had to hold a somewhat healthy psychological-epistemology or else he would progress his career none at all, but he allowed a single poison that made the whole system worthless: emotionalism. By the time he had formed his hypothesis, he became prejudice to it and would not dare face the fact that he could have been wrong. When confronted with contrary evidence he dismissed it by saying things such as the evidence was not relevant or significant, or that the scale of the study was not big enough to establish causal links. When confronted with evidence that agreed with his hypothesis but *could have the same objections assigned to them so as to dismiss them*, he accepted it. It became too late to repent when ignorant politicians ran with the theory.

But, of course, the damage cannot be considered irreparable until the human race goes extinct. You can rejudge your own nutritional prejudices by checking out Taubes's Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health and see how nutritional knowledge has retrogressed and the bad scientists behind it. I also recommend the blog Mark's Daily Apple.

The knowledge of a several-decades' long deception may concern some people: if Ancel Keys was dishonest and unreliable but able to keep people ignorant of proper nutrition for several decades, how can one trust testimonies at all? Such a worry is not without merit considering how common dishonesty is.

Simply put, to protect oneself one must pay attention to both reality and how a particular source states its conclusion. If a person were to tell me that he witnessed a bullet magically turning at a right angle as soon as it touched a cop's nose, I would ignore him out of hand since his assertion contradicts reality. If a person were to convince me of a position by supporting it with data but I found out later that the data was falsified, distorted, or out of context, I would permanently discontinue consulting that person, correct the conclusions I had based on his position, and notify all persons that I had unintentionally mislead (so as to maintain my own reputation as a credible source). If a person were to state to me that he advocated lying in order to achieve political ends, well, he makes it easy, does he not?

All in all, the most exhaustive and proper solution is to study formal epistemology, especially formal logic. Seeing that Ancel Keys probably caused the death and suffering of many who followed his bad advice, is it not enough to convince that there needs to be a proper method of learning?


Richard said...

"data was unreliable and heart disease was just becoming easier to diagnose (making it appear as if rates were increasing"

This reminds me of the recent increase in the rate of autism diagnosis' being linked with vaccines. There is no evidence for it yet the myth persists because some people "feel" that greedy companies are so immoral they will harm their children.

I only hope it doesn't reach the same level as other scientific issues that have been appropriated by politics and run away with. (Such as health, and climate change)

Burgess Laughlin said...

Thank you for addressing this issue. Poor mental methods produce useless -- or, as you say, destructive -- results.

I have had my own medical "adventures" (here). The diet that works for me -- very low in fat, low in protein, high in complex carbs (only from "roots" and gourds), with lots of fruit and vegs, and zero junk food -- is radically different from others I have studied or heard about from advocates.

Over the years, I have learned to:
- Listen to a range of testimony from experts (real or imagined) and others whose general approaches to problems I trust.
- Evaluate the testimony based on my own experiences and knowledge.
- If one approach seems promising, look for a contrary opinion and compare the two approaches. E.g., I would look for dedicated refutations such as "Atkins Exposed", which I have only begun reading; of course, then one must evaluate the evaluators.
- Experiment with the experts' suggestions, using as much of a scientific approach as I can as a layman who has other things to do in life.
- Don't generalize beyond my own experiences -- generally speaking!
- Remember that what works for one individual might not work for another.

Your theme is exactly on target: Scientists in particular, but everyone in general, need to learn and apply an objective epistemology.

At 65, I know from past experience -- now far behind me -- that poor health can make the pursuit of one's highest values impossible. I wish you and your readers well in your search for the best of health.