epidemiological data

So much for government science; Cholesterol, fat and salt aren't all that bad for you

A recent article in the New York times admitted something that I never thought it would admit: The government doesn’t know what’s best for you (at least where food is concerned). The article didn’t go as far as I would have liked in its call to view government with a healthy dose of skepticism, but hey, it’s a start. The article came on the heels of a series of announcements by various federal agencies that several foods that for decades the feds said were bad for us, aren’t so bad after all.

From the NYT:

FOR two generations, Americans ate fewer eggs and other animal products because policy makers told them that fat and cholesterol were bad for their health. Now both dogmas have been debunked in quick succession.
First, last fall, experts on the committee that develops the country’s dietary guidelines acknowledged that they had ditched the low-fat diet. On Thursday, that committee’s report was released, with an even bigger change: It lifted the longstanding caps on dietary cholesterol, saying there was “no appreciable relationship” between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol.

…How did experts get it so wrong? Certainly, the food industry has muddied the waters through its lobbying. But the primary problem is that nutrition policy has long relied on a very weak kind of science: epidemiological, or “observational,” studies in which researchers follow large groups of people over many years. But even the most rigorous epidemiological studies suffer from a fundamental limitation. At best they can show only association, not causation. Epidemiological data can be used to suggest hypotheses but not to prove them.

Instead of accepting that this evidence was inadequate to give sound advice, strong-willed scientists overstated the significance of their studies.

…Since the very first nutritional guidelines to restrict saturated fat and cholesterol were released by the American Heart Association in 1961, Americans have been the subjects of a vast, uncontrolled diet experiment with disastrous consequences. We have to start looking more skeptically at epidemiological studies and rethinking nutrition policy from the ground up.

Read the Rest

I found the three bold sections particularly interesting (which is why I made them bold). Let’s sum them up:

  1. The government gave us incorrect scientific data because of lobbyists in Washington (AKA: Crony Capitalism).
  2. At their absolute best, the available data can only suggest hypotheses, not prove them.
  3. Stubborn scientists (which are, by definition, not scientists) perpetuated false information because they didn’t want their own studies and research debunked.

Do these things sound familiar? Can you think of anything going on in our current political climate (pun intended) that this might parallel?

As I stated earlier, it was refreshing to see this article in the New York Times. But something tells me that very few of the readers will ever ask the honest question: “If the government can be fallible in this area, can’t it also be fallible in another?” And that is a shame. I’m not sure why millions and millions of Americans instinctively trust a government that is habitually wrong but I remain optimistic that one day, we’ll wise up.