I am always fascinated by the way science occasionally comes up with ‘insoluble questions’ or ‘paradoxes’. After a while, these tricky queries go away because, it turns out, everybody was barking up a tree to which they had been led by an expert whose ideas had captured peer and public attention.
The big one, these days, is the link between high cholesterol and heart disease. This has been dogma for decades. After the Second World War, US scientists theorised that saturated fats contributed to high cholesterol, hence clogged arteries, and therefore caused heart disease. The idea was enshrined in a US Department of Agriculture guideline in 1980.
Low fat, it seemed, was the way ahead – and it was embraced by the food industry in the US, followed by large parts of the rest of the western world.
Except Europe. They didn’t much change – and traditional French, German and Italian cuisine is awash with saturated fats and high-cholesterol foods. Yet they suffer less heart disease and are less obese than Americans. What’s more, since 1980 obesity has become a major issue in the United States and other countries that have followed the US low-fat lead, such as New Zealand.
A paradox! Something science can’t explain. Or is it?
The problem is that research often tests only what can be funded, something often framed by commercial priorities. This framework is further shaped by one of the philosophical flaws of western rational thinking; the notion that complex questions can be eventually reduced to single-cause questions and answers.
Reality is far less co-operative. The real world isn’t black-and-white. It’s not even shades of grey. It’s filled with mathematically complex systems that can sometimes settle into states of meta-stability, or which appear to present superficial patterns to initial human observation. An observation framed by the innate human tendency to see patterns in the first instance.
For me, from my philosophical perspective, it’s intriguing that recent research suggests that the link between saturated fat and ischemic (blood-flow related) heart disease is more tenuous than thought. Certainly it’s been well accepted – and was, even fifty years ago when the low-fat message was being developed – that types of cholesterol are utterly vital. If you had none at all in your system, you’d die, because it plays a crucial role in human biochemistry on a number of levels. Cholesterol even makes it possible for you to synthesise Vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. It’s one of the things humans can produce – your liver actually makes it, for these reasons.
As I understand it, recent studies suggest that the effort to diagnose and fix the problem of ‘heart attacks’ based on a simplistic mid-twentieth century premise – something picked up by much of western society as dogma – has been one of the factors implicated in a new epidemic of health problems. There is evidence that the current epidemic of diabetes (especially Type 2) and other diseases is one symptom of the way carbohydrates were substituted for fatty foods a generation ago, and of the way food manufacturers also compensated for a reduction in saturated fats by adding sugar or artificial sweeteners. Use of corn syrup in the US, for example, is up by 198 percent on 1970 figures.
I’m not a medical doctor. And from the scientific perspective all this demands testing. But the intellectual mechanisms behind this picture seem obvious to me from the principles of logic and philosophy – I learned the latter, incidentally, at post-grad level from Peter Munz, one of only two students of both Karl Popper (the inventor of modern scientific method) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (who theorised that language distorts understanding). I am in no doubt that language alone cannot convey pure concept; and I think the onus is on us to extend our understanding through careful reason – which includes being reasonable.
What am I getting at? Start with a premise and an if-then chain of reasoning, and you can build a compelling argument that is watertight of itself – but it doesn’t mean the answer is right. Data may be incomplete; or the interplay of possibilities may not be fully considered.
What follows? A human failing – self-evident smugness, pride in the ‘discovery’, followed by over-compensation that reverses the old thinking without properly considering the lateral issues. Why? Because very few people are equipped to think ‘sideways’, and scientists aren’t exceptions.
Which would be fine if it was confined to academic papers. But it isn’t. Is it.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014