Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Nutrition Debate #192: Climate Change and The Nutrition Debate

It is ironic, and at the same time amusing to me, that many in the climate change community, who fashion themselves as “sophisticated, fact-based practitioners of science,” would deny dissent from skeptics yet embrace the alternative view of nutritional science espoused here at The Nutrition Debate. The quote above is from a recent on-line opinion piece in SFGate by Debra J. Saunders. The San Francisco Journal on-line article is titled, “Climate Change Consensus, no dissent allowed.”

Saunders quotes CNN’s Brian Shelter that “some stories don’t have two sides.” There’s no need to present climate-change dissenters, he argued, because “between 95 percent and 97 percent of scientists agree that climate change is happening, now, and it’s damaging the planet, and that it’s man-made.” She also reminds us that, “Last year the Los Angeles Times revealed it won’t print letters that deny a human cause to global warming.” Well, I guess that finally settles that argument.

The SFGate piece continues, “A 2013 British study of peer-reviewed papers found that of the 33 percent of papers that took a position on global warming, 97 percent endorsed the “consensus” position. A Google search on “global warming consensus” produced 15,700,000 hits, no doubt 97 percent in agreement with the “happy conceit.” This is what is known as “scientific consensus.” Everybody piles on to the “accepted” wisdom, and that constitutes “scientific proof.”

A commenter noted that One Hundred Authors Against Einstein, a book published in 1931, said the Theory of Relativity is wrong. When asked to comment, Einstein replied that to defeat relativity one did not need the word of 100 scientists, just one fact. Another commenter recalled Nicolaus Copernicus who in 1543 published Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs, a treatise that put forth his revolutionary idea that the Sun was at the center of the universe and that the Earth – rotating on an axis – orbited around the Sun once a year.” We all know what happened to him and his revolutionary ideas.

In September 2012, Peter Attia, MD, announced the launch of the Nutrition Science Initiative. Co-founded with acclaimed science journalist Gary Taubes, Attia described the venture as a “journey to find the truth.” He quotes 19th century physicist John Tyndall, referring to scientists who follow evolution as a guide, “They have but one desire – to know the truth. They have but one fear – to believe a lie.” His piece is also an encomium to the physicist Richard Feynman who said, “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”

More recently (Feb ’14), Taubes wrote yet another New York Times op-ed, “Why Nutrition Is So Confusing.”  He asks, is the failure of our New Year’s resolution to lose weight “a failure of willpower or of technique?” “The health of the nation,” he says, “may depend on which is the correct answer.” There are two “conflicting observations” at play here, he notes: “We know how to eat healthy and maintain a healthy weight,” or “something about the conventional thinking is simply wrong.”

Since 1960, he says, 600,000 articles (and tens of thousands of diet books) have been published. “It would be nice to think that this deluge of research has brought clarity to the issue. The trend data argue otherwise. If we understand these disorders [i.e., obesity and type 2 diabetes] so well, why have we failed so miserably to prevent them?”

The unfortunate reality, Taubes says, is that, “Type 2 diabetes is caused or exacerbated by obesity, and obesity is a complex, intractable disorder. The more we learn, the more we need to know,” and the research to date is “the noise generated by a dysfunctional research establishment.” (This is Taubes’s not-so-subtle pitch for support for his “baby,” the Nutrition Science Initiative, linked to above, that he and Dr. Attia started in 2012.

The rest of the piece in the NYT is an explanation of how long-term clinical trials, especially the gold standard, randomized controlled trials, are prohibitively expensive and exceedingly difficult. He jibes that “no pharmaceutical company stands to benefit” and further laments “prospective sources of funding are limited…”particularly when we insist the answers are already known,” which brings me back to the climate change dissent point wherein I began…and to the search for truth.

The scientific method requires that a hypothesis be rigorously tested, with a skeptical bias, and then “the proof” replicated. Such clinical trials to “prove” that dietary fat caused heart disease, were necessary, scientists acknowledged, but could not be undertaken, for reasons he gives. “Since then,” Taubes wrote, “advice to restrict fat and avoid saturated fat has been based on supposition about what would have happened had such trials been done, not on the trials themselves.”

Taubes continues, “Nutritionists have adjusted to this reality by accepting a lower standard of evidence on what they’ll believe to be true.” “One lesson of science, though, is that if the best you can do isn’t good enough to establish reliable knowledge, first acknowledge it – relentless honesty about what can and cannot be extrapolated from data is another core principle of science – and then do more, or do something else. We have a field of sort-of-science in which hypotheses are treated as facts because they’re too hard or expensive to test” (emphases added by me). Wow! I love that.
But Taubes isn’t ambiguous about what his personal bias is (He says, “My vote is sugars and refined grains; we all have our biases.”)  I admit to the same bias, and will continue to test my beliefs in my ever vigilant search for the truth. Stay tuned.

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