In this older article (“The Washington Diet” City Journal Spring 2011), Steven Malanga provides an account of what happens when science is taken to be Truth in an area far removed from the Darwin scambos but relevant to most people’s health: Government-backed nutrition claims. What’s behind them? Veery often not what we think:
A new kind of health-care advocate, evincing a passion far removed from disinterested scientific inquiry, also took up the campaign for a vegetable-based, low-fat diet. A good example was the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which in 1975 organized a National Food Day that included, the New York Times reported, an “all-out attack” on foods that it considered harmful. On the hit list: prime beef, high in fat and cholesterol.
When the McGovern committee issued its guidelines, these advocacy groups attacked opponents as shills for the food industry—dismissing the National Research Council’s more restrained dietary recommendations, for instance, because some of the scientists who worked on them also served as consultants to industry groups like the Egg Council. By contrast, the advocates noted, the McGovern guidelines were largely the work of a committee staffer, a former newspaper reporter whose very lack of scientific expertise meant that he had no such conflicts.
But the line between advocate and policymaker was blurring on both sides of the debate. One of the important figures promoting the dietary guidelines was Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Carol Foreman, who had formerly been director of the Consumer Federation of America, a cosponsoring organization of National Food Day. “People were getting sick and dying because we ate too much,” she told Taubes. She urged government scientists to tell Americans what to eat, even if “it’s not the final answer.”
The McGovern dietary recommendations weren’t just ahead of the science, though; they were racing ahead of it.
Shaking out science for answers no scientist is in a position to honestly give just means generating sciencey-sounding propaganda.
Here’s an example: How much salt is bad for you? You, that is. Not “the average person,”who doesn’t exist. Maybe you should avoid salt wherever possible, or maybe you need never think about it – or maybe you should have more salt, if you do heavy labour under hot conditions and risk too rapid water loss. An official anti-salt jihad aims at the mythical “average” person, not at you.
Best advice? Take it all with a grain of salt, stay in touch with health care professionals who care about you and do what seems best.