Science consensus: mass ­official craziness in policymaking

Yesterday’s edition of the Financial Post has two items of note. There’s a new book by retired historian, Harvey Levenstein: in Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry About What We Eat.

First an excerpt from Adam McDowell’s April 20th review (all emphases below are mine -hro):

Levenstein demonstrates in Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry About What We Eat, it is much easier to make North Americans afraid of food than comfortable with eating it. We are frightened of cheeseburgers, and only after a large helping of time and soothing information could we ever eat them again without guilt. And by then, we’d be afraid of something else.

Fear of Food lays out a century of American nutritional beliefs as a succession of contradictory orthodoxies, always hysterical and typically fleeting. One wrong idea gives way to the next, both supported by surprisingly meagre evidence.


At the same time, certain influential scientists have been quick to jump to conclusions about what food does to us once we’ve eaten it. They’re equally slow to admit there is plenty we don’t know about nutrition. A century ago, no one had ever heard of a vitamin. Scientists scolded the poor for wasting their money on fresh fruits and vegetables, which Levenstein notes “were said to be composed of little more than water” (which is true, as far as it goes).

Ignorance — about where the items on our plate come from, and about what food is best for us — leads to bad advice. It also nourishes fear.

One damn fear after another! The parallels to “climate science” are amazing.

Terence Corcoran offered some commentary, yesterday. “How to create ­science consensus” is definitely a must read! Some excerpts:

New book recounts mass ­official craziness in policymaking

Right in the opening chapter of Harvey Levenstein’s entertaining and eye-opening book, Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry About What We Eat, the absurdities of official health policy based on grossly misguided claims of cause and effect are horrifyingly on display. In 1912, tests of cats’ whiskers and fur in Chicago revealed the presence of large numbers of bacteria. In response, the Chicago Board of Health declared cats to be “extremely dangerous to humanity.” In Topeka, Kan., the health board ordered all cats be “sheared or killed.” After a child polio outbreak in New York City in 1916, cats were blamed and, over a three-week period in July that year, more than 80,000 pets were sent to the SPCA to be gassed. About 10% were dogs.

Not much has changed in the last 100 years. In 2012, the science of cats, dogs and flies is a lot better. But the political and regulatory practices in place today around food and science seem all too similar to the obviously flawed and ignorant patterns of official behaviour Mr. Levenstein documents. New York’s recent ban on large soda pop bottles follows the pattern perfectly. A Walt Disney decision last week to launch its own anti-junk food campaign, endorsed by First Lady Michelle Obama, is today’s version of similar events that have marked the history of food fears going back 100 years. Mass official craziness seems to be built into North American political systems when it comes to dealing with food and health.


Fear of Food is not a science book. Mr. Levenstein is professor emeritus of history at McMaster University in Hamilton. Two of his earlier books — Revolution at the Table and Paradox of Plenty — relate the history of American food tastes and habits back to the 1880s. I have not read those books, but I can report that Fear of Food is a fine piece of work that for the most part lets the absurdity and collective loopiness of scientists, government regulators, politicians and corporate players reveal itself through detail and the flow of events over time. Mr. Levenstein obviously has his opinions — including an aside on one of the latest food concerns. “As I write,” he says in his introduction, “there is a burgeoning concern over salt in the diet. As with all such scares, experts are trying to frighten an entire nation.”


With a wagonload of official support from regulators, government officials, major media, NGOs, philanthropic agencies, institutes, corporate interests, surgeons-general and politicians, the war on fat began with theories that proved wrong but survive to this day.

All readers can learn much from Mr. Levenstein’s lively and often stunning reconstruction of the history of American food fears and beliefs. So could today’s policymakers, regulators, politicians, journalists and corporate executives. The great value in Fear of Food, however, is likely the realization that poor science never seriously undermined official dogma. After all, they had a consensus! How could all these smart and powerful people — including Nobel Prize winners — be wrong?

And here are a few excerpts from the book excerpt:

Lipophobia and the bad science diet

How a now-discredited diet theory became a national mania

The most striking thing about North America’s fear of food is how markedly ideas about food’s healthfulness have changed over the years. Chemical preservatives went from being triumphs of modern science to poisons. Whole milk has swung back and forth like a pendulum. Yogurt experienced boom, bust and revival. Margarine went from “heart-healthy” to artery-clogging. And now we are told that salt, historically regarded as absolutely essential to human existence, is swinging the grim reaper’s scythe.

And then there’s the story of fat. One wonders what would have happened if the fats in our food and blood streams had been called by their scientific name, lipids. Would avoiding the off-putting term “fat,” with its connotation of obesity, have mitigated much of the fear of fats in food? Perhaps, but probably not. In retrospect, the wave of lipophobia — fear of dietary fat — that has swept over middle-class Americans since the 1950s was simply too powerful to overcome.

As with many other fears, fear of dietary fat originated in alarm over a supposed epidemic — in this case, of coronary heart disease. The best known advocate of this theory was Ancel Keys, a physiologist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Levenstein chronicles various twists, turns and about-faces and also notes:

Equally important in the triumph of lipophobia was a new force in creating food scares: non-profit health advocacy groups. Often begun by well-meaning people seeking to raise money to cure diseases, they could easily mutate into slick machines staffed by professional fundraisers whose hefty salaries depended on alarming the public about the dangers posed by their particular illness.

This is exactly what happened to the American Heart Association (AHA). Originally formed in the 1920s by heart specialists to exchange ideas about their field, by 1945 it was raising a modest US$100,000 a year to subsidize conferences and fund some research. Meanwhile, the March of Dimes, founded in 1938 to combat polio, was collecting US$20-million annually. This could not have been far from the minds of the new leaders who took over the AHA and set out to arouse public concern about the “coronary plague.” They hired Rome Betts, a former fundraiser for the American Bible Society, to create a professional fundraising apparatus.


The lipophobes, however, proved to be remarkably adept at bobbing, weaving and altering their message in the face of the challenges. The American Heart Association continued to find new ways to prosper from lipophobia. In 1988 it deleted the provision in its charter prohibiting product endorsements and began offering, for a fee, to endorse any food products that met its guidelines for fat, cholesterol and sodium. In final form, the AHA campaign sold the right to use a “Heart Check” symbol and say “Meets American Heart Association food criteria for saturated fat, cholesterol and whole grains for healthy people over age two.” For this, it charged fees ranging from the US$2,500 it cost Kellogg’s for each of the more than 50 of its products that qualified (including such nutritional dazzlers as Fruity Marshmallow Krispies) to the $200,000 that Florida citrus fruit producers paid for exclusive rights to the symbol, cutting out their competitors in California. The Florida producers now ran ads saying, “Fight Heart Disease. Drink Florida Grapefruit Juice.” In 1992–93 ConAgra, the hydra-headed giant involved in practically every stage of food production, gave $3.5-million to the AHA, ostensibly to make a television program on nutrition.

“Heart Check” … “environmentally friendly” … “carbon credits” … Seems that someone’s always profiting from “mass official craziness in policymaking”, eh?!

2 thoughts on “Science consensus: mass ­official craziness in policymaking

  1. I thought that we in the UK were the food-scare drama queens of the world, but it appears we have some competition! The Levenstein book looks very interesting and I’ve added it to my reading list. I think the media also bear some responsibility – the BBC, for instance, tend to reflexively bang the drum with every scare story about obesity, alcohol, fat, salt, etc. that emerges from the woodwork.

    • Yes, and what amazes me is that it doesn’t seem to matter what the scare of the day week might be … the pattern is always the same. The drama queens of the world always seem to rule the (air)waves, don’t they?! Don’t know if you read the Levenstein excerpt at the NP, but he seems to be a very readable writer … and his book is on my list, too! Right now I’m reading Klein’s “Amateur” (about Obama) … a (thankfully) former die-hard Obama can do no wrong fan who’s also reading it called me up to say OMG you were right! So perhaps confirmation bias is contributing to my enjoyment of this diversion from climate stuff ;-)

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