Nutrition as Science and Ideology

A little over a decade ago, the science journalist Gary Taubes challenged the dominant theory of heart disease in the mainstream media. One critique was published in Science magazine with the title “The soft science of dietary fat” and another was published in the New York Times with the title “What if it's all been a big fat lie?”

Now Mr. Taubes has published a critique of nutrition science in a short piece in the Times titled “Why Nutrition Is So Confusing.” His focus is the growing prevalence of type 2 diabetes and obesity. He argues that the nutrition science needed to address these problems isn’t being done and, practically speaking, can’t be done.

This isn’t as radical as it might sound. He’s not talking about the corruption of science by the food industry nor the failure to shift attention from food to the increased exposure to persistent organic pollutants (also referred to as obesogens) and genetically modified organisms nor the effect of the poverty and inequity that are the result of capitalist class society. What he’s talking about is the failure of nutrition researchers to conduct rigorous, double-blind, placebo controlled experiments of hypotheses about the causal relationship between food and illness. In the absence of this high quality, gold standard science, we are left with many essentially unproven ideas about what to do about type 2 diabetes and obesity.

We get a mini-lecture on the scientific method, including Karl Popper’s theory of falsification, to show why nutrition science is what Taubes calls “a field of sort-of-science in which hypotheses are treated as facts because they’re too hard or expensive to test.” A principal reason they’re too hard or expensive is that the effects of food on health need to be studied for decades. In my opinion, they need to be studies for generations.

In a letter to the Times in response to the Taubes article, two researchers (Michael Rothkopf and David Jenkins) acknowledge the accuracy of the critique but go on to extol the virtues of a widely published randomized clinical trial conducted in Europe that shows the marvelous results obtained from something called the prevention Mediterranean diet. They’ve promised to repeat the clinical trial in the US and Canada. So I guess Taubes’s doubts are answered. Or not.

On the one hand we have a skeptical evaluation from Gary Taubes, telling us that nutrition science just isn’t up to the task based on entirely conventional and highly restrictive science. On the other hand we have diet enthusiasts advocating their nutrition science. For me, this shows how conventional skepticism and advocacy form the poles around which knowledge of eating and health rotate. Pay no attention to the aforementioned men behind the curtain: the food industry, food pollutants, and class society.

It’s all ideology, by which I mean false consciousness, by which I mean having ideas that cause you to act against your own interests. Taubes represents the ideology best: “Obesity and diabetes are epidemic, and yet the only relevant fact on which relatively unambiguous data exist to support a consensus is that most of us are surely eating too much of something.”

Consensus of whom? Conventional experts in the scientific method. Take a moment to consider that both Taubes and Rothkopf and Jenkins are saying that they’ll only want to act on knowledge obtained through the scientific method as described by Taubes.

But does Taubes accurately describe the scientific method? If so then work such as Darwin’s On the Origin of Species don’t count as science: there’s not gold standard, randomized controlled trials anywhere in those pages, no report of experimental results, no experiments for that matter, just observations and the ideas that explain them. In fact, a good deal of what we think of as science can’t conduct clinical trials.

It’s critical to note that clinical trials are expensive to conduct. That makes them accessible only to people with money or access to money, which means someone with money is willing to give it to them. Taubes even says that a principal limit to the nutrition science he yearns for is “no pharmaceutical company stands to benefit.”

But the key point here is that the Taubes version of the scientific method places knowledge in the hands of experts. Elsewhere I called it privileged knowledge. And that privileged knowledge by a cadre of sanctioned experts has been a characteristic of the capitalist mode of production for 150 years.

In practice, we figure out what to eat all on our own. Often, we put some thought into what might make us ill and what might make us healthy. Personal experience feeds that knowledge, including what we learn from other people and how we are led to adopt or reject or ignore their ideas. Media outlets, conventional and otherwise, put us in contact with many of those other people. Many, even most of those other people are experts with privileged information—but not all.

But the most important effect of privileged information and the capitalist culture of expertise is that when it comes to taking officially sanctioned actions, such as what is and is not in the Farm Bill or School Lunch Program or Dietary Guidelines, only privileged knowledge will be considered and only experts will be heard. That’s the ultimate effect of the scientific method and expert consensus advocated by Gary Taubes and why it is ideology.  After all, if we civilians had the power and capacity to figure out what’s good to eat as a matter of self-governance, who knows where that might lead.