Friday, January 30, 2015

Science progresses one funeral at a time

The social sciences too, apparently. If, like me, you're male and of a certain age, you'll have spent a reasonable amount of time listening to idiots tell you what to eat (or not eat).  Being a type-1 diabetic, I've been hearing it since my 20s so have a lot more experience of it than most my age, along with direct personal experience of why those involved really are complete fucking morons (if you have to manually administer your insulin yourself, your own flesh quickly reveals which dietary advice is completely fucked).  The people spinning you these food yarns like to make a pretence of being scientists, but they're actually social scientists, which is not a compliment. However, one thing the social sciences apparently have in common with actual science is the old science adage "Science progresses one funeral at a time."

Two current exemplars are Professor Rod Jackson and Professor Jim Mann, who are staunch defenders of the social science they learned back in the 70s and no doubt will be until they die and are replaced by professors of more recent vintage.

The January 24-30 Listener (paywalled, sorry: has an article called "For Better or Worse" in which the two Profs illustrate just why bad social science is so, so bad.  The premise is this: for more than 40 years, people like Jackson and Mann ("experts," apparently) have been telling us to eat a low-fat, high carb diet.  During that period, incidences of obesity and type-2 diabetes have skyrocketed.  Could Jackson, Mann et al perhaps not be giving us the best possible advice?

They don't think so.  Jackson (if you're an enthusiast for completely deranged news stories, you may recall him as the bloke who wanted butter banned as a poison):

"If you look at the major lifestyle diseases, which are cardiovascular disease, coronary disease and stroke, they're skyrocketing down.  And have been since 1967."

Knowing that progress in the social sciences is effectively a compilation of correlation=causation errors and confirmation bias, Jackson can see that this decline in heart disease is definitely down to his dietary guidelines (unlike the increases in obesity and type-2 diabetes, which are totes nothing to do with his dietary advice and instead presumably because fatties scoff too many calories).

Those of us without a lifetime's expertise in epidemiology are of course tempted to look at it another, no doubt amateurish way.  The only thing that's been conclusively demonstrated to cause heart disease is smoking - so, was there anything happened around the mid-1960s involving smoking?  Well, there's the US Surgeon-General's report of 1964 declaring smoking seriously bad for your health, and there's the fact that since then, the proportion of smokers in the NZ population has declined from somewhere around 60% to somewhere around 20%.  I guess that, being a mere schmuck without the above-mentioned professorial expertise in epidemiology, I just wouldn't have the intellectual horsepower to figure out why the decline in heart disease isn't down to the reduction in smoking but is actually due to the incredibly useful dietary advice offered by Prof Jackson, but then, that's why Prof Jackson gets paid a fat salary by University of Auckland and I'm just some schmuck.

Professor Mann peddles the same line.  I have to declare a conflict of interest here, in that I've held Prof Mann in utter contempt since, as an advisor to the sugar industry, he agreed to its claim that people get fat because they eat fat, not because they eat lots of sugar. If the prof doesn't know what insulin is and what it does, he should turn in his prof job and take up employment better suited to his abilities, like cleaning toilets or something.  And if he does know, then he's basically a charlatan.  Here's the prof in full bullshit effect:

"In New Zealand, the reduction in fat consumption from more than 40% towards 30% - and saturated fat towards 10% - since the 1970s has been associated with a reduction in coronary heart disease death rates by more than two thirds."

Because it just couldn't be the reduction in smoking, right?  Because, if it was the reduction in smoking causing the decline in death rates, that would mean... well, fuck, not only would it mean Profs Mann and Jackson are hangovers from the 1970s who really need to retire or die so that the social science can move forward, it would mean that they'd die with hundreds of thousands of morbidly obese type-2 diabetics on their conscience.  That can't possibly be the case - can it?


JC said...

During WW2 rationing the Brits were restricted to just 3800 calories a day compared to about 2200 cals plus pills now.

Those old people ate big meals and were extremely active but they keeled over at 65 after 5 years of retirement. Now we exercise less but the pills and lower cals keep us going to 80.. and we dont smoke or drink anything like as much.

Heart attacks in particular are not as fatal as they once were and obesity and diabetes are much more treatable.. thats medical advances at work not the proportions of carbs, fat and sugars.

The big fat elephant in the room since the late 70s is the "Food Pyramid" which has a sedentary population eating vast quantities of carbs and converting all that energy into fat and diabetes. Some folks would need to run a half marathon a day to use all that energy.. they'd often be better off with bacon and eggs, a meat sandwich and a stew for tea.


macdoctor said...

In a recent meta-analysts of lipid studies, it was found that eating less saturated fat does improve your lipid (cholesterol) profile. However, it could only demonstrate a reduction in cardiovascular events (Heart attacks and sudden death) with statin drugs. In other words, diet makes little difference to lipids. This makes perfect sense because the vast majority of lipids in the body are made in the liver, not consumed.

Another recent study suggests that low GI diets are not helpful unless you are insulin resistant or diabetic.

Conclusion: If you are a normal healthy adult you can eat what you damn well please, as long as you don't overeat. If you are diabetic or pre-diabetic, you should seriously limit your carbs, especially the high GI ones. Any other dietary advice beyond this in merely opinion without scientific foundation.

Anonymous said...

Awesome, Milt.

I will celebrate this post with a big plate of bacon and eggs cooked in extra butter.

(The reason my dos says my blood sugars are great, my protective cholersterol is great but my LDL are a bit high - ignoring the issue that LDL is one big catch all and, as a measure, useless.)


Noel said...

Ah that word "epidemiology".
Was forced to investigate that decades ago looking for the risk from a former occupation to my conceiving healthy children, because no one with authority would look at it.

On the plus side I now know why one year coffee is a pariah whist a decade later it is not a concern.

Was a time the ills of man were a result of the environment he lived in then along came the nutritionists and it was all yah own fault.

I'm waiting for the epidemiology of the change from butter to margarine. Surely enough time has elapsed for a retrospective study.

Nick K said...

Nice one Milt.

mikerobertsblog said...

Notice that these people always add "death" to the "coronary heart disease" phrase. Apart from decreased smoking, it could also be that heart disease treatment has improved. I'm sure I recently read somewhere that the actual treatments have rocketed, even if deaths have declined. I'd rather not have the issue at all than be treated for it. So I ain't giving up the saturated fat just yet. But sugar? Yup, that's almost gone from my diet - it's toxic.