We are talking about climate change, this being the tenth and (finally!) last post in my long series on “changes” that might be considered by the new Trump Administration.
In my last post, I alluded to scientific misgivings about the seminal “Seven Nations” study that found an association between eating fatty foods and getting heart disease. The main worry was that the study’s primary investigator, Ancel Keys, had cherry-picked the seven nations.
Keys had visited Europe and he knew that people in certain countries ate a lot of fat and had a lot of heart trouble. Some of these nations were small and obscure and nothing like the U.S. (Greece, Yugoslavia, Finland) but they were included anyway. Keys also knew that in other nations, including some much more similar to the U.S. (France, Germany, Switzerland) people ate a lot of fat but had very low rates of heart disease. These countries were excluded from the study.
The scientific community decided that this was a quibble and the fat consensus soon coalesced. Fortunately, a few brave investigators refused to knuckle under, the most prominent being John Ludkin. Ludkin was a Brit and was probably the most eminent nutritionist in the world at the time. He zeroed in on sugar, not fat, as the culprit and published a book about it called Pure, White, and Deadly: The Problem of Sugar.
Ludkin pointed out a few key paradoxes implicit in the fat consensus. For example, humans had been eating fat since the species evolved, but had been eating carbohydrates (complex sugars) for only a few thousand years, since the rise of agriculture. He also noted that if fat was so bad for us, it was odd that human breast milk contained so much of it. But it didn’t matter; Ludkin was savaged by Keys and his cronies, and he died a lonely and forgotten man.
But others picked up his fallen sword. There was Alessandro Menotti, for example, the lead investigator for the Italian portion of the Seven Nations study. Decades after Seven Nations, Menotti went back and reexamined his data and discovered that, while there was, indeed, an association between fat and heart disease, the association between heart disease and sugar was much stronger, exactly as Ludkin had maintained.
Sugar kept popping up as the real culprit way to often for the fat consensus and so the consensus decided to do something about it. The sugar industry paid off a bunch of Harvard scientists to whitewash sugar, presenting it as the best thing since, well, since sliced bread — bread, after all, is a carbohydrate, that is to say, a sugar.
But the skeptics persevered. There were many heroes and heroines of La Résistance de la Cabale Graisse — Frank Hu, Stephen Phinney, David Ludwig, Gary Taubes, Nina Teicholz, Pete Ahrens, Zoë Harcombe, Phil Sandler, David Katz, Malcolm Kendrick, Robert Lustig — but let’s cut to the chase and observe the final, definitive stakes that were thrust into the dark heart of the fat consensus.
The Women’s Health Initiative involved nearly 50,000 women who were followed for eight years in a study costing (all-in) $625 million. The study was designed to demonstrate beyond doubt that the fat consensus was right. Instead, in 2006 the investigators concluded that eating less fat did not significantly reduce the incidence of breast cancer, heart disease, stroke, or colorectal cancer.
In 2014, a vast analysis of studies including more than 600,000 people led by Cambridge University and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found no evidence to support guidelines that say people should restrict saturated fat consumption to lower their risk of developing heart disease.
Finally, The Minnesota Coronary Experiment was a true, double-blind randomized controlled trial, the gold standard. Yet, though the study was completed in 1973, the fat consensus prevented publication of its results until 2016. Why? Because Ancel Keys was a co-investigator, the results didn’t support him, and therefore his own study needed to be suppressed. The 2016 report concluded that: “[R]eplacement of saturated fat with [vegetable oils] effectively lowers serum cholesterol but does not support the thesis [i.e, the fat consensus] that this translates to a lower risk of death from coronary heart disease or all causes.”
A decade or so ago, if you looked down at the fat issue from 80,000 feet, you would have seen a solid wall of consensus that eating fat causes heart disease. Today, looking down from the same height you see a battle raging between the fat consensus and the skeptics. But this latter view is highly misleading. Today, the only scientists who adhere to the fat consensus are the ones who jumped on the bandwagon decades ago and never changed their minds. They are the proverbial scientists who badly need to be “Max Planked,” that is, their funerals are fervently to be desired. (I plan to attend all those funerals, not out of Schadenfreude, but because, as Yogi Berra put it, you should always go to other people’s funerals or they won’t go to yours.)
Younger scientists, the voice of the future, are overwhelmingly dismissive of the fat consensus. Indeed, one of the “changes” the Trump Administration might consider is reconstituting the scientific panels that advise the government on nutrition. The current panels are still dominated by the old guard, a doddering, soon-to-be-Planked group of so-called experts who are responsible for the unnecessary deaths of thousands of Americans.
So if the fat consensus, once bulletproof and impregnable, is a fraud, what about the climate consensus? I suspect the answer is no. Indeed, it seems almost like fringe lunacy to suggest it. But remember that it always seems that way. The fat skeptics were ridiculed and marginalized in exactly the same way that the climate skeptics are treated today.
The only way to be sure that the climate consensus isn’t also a vast exercise in groupthink is to practice, in the recent words of Robert P. George and Cornel West, “the virtues of intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth.”
Next up: Capital Preservation Paul