Trans America

So the Obama administration decided this week that all trans fats will be banned from the U.S. food supply by 2018.

Fine by me. I didn’t ask for trans fats to be put into my food, never cared they were there, and I won’t miss them when they’re gone. But this is a perfect opportunity for me to bang on about a few of my pet peeves about science, culture, and the media.

Here’s the thing that ticks me off about the crusade against trans fats: For most of my life, everybody thought trans fats were just fine — healthy, even! For years, it just astounded me how the media blatantly memory-holed this pretty important fact. Stories credulously reported how scientists thought trans fats were the worst ingredient ever, without mentioning that within living memory — just a decade or so, in some cases — many of these very same scientists were affirmatively recommending that Americans incorporate more trans fats into their diets. The very same substances they were now describing as poison had once been virtually endorsed by them.

So imagine my surprise when I came across this story in The Washington Post which deals quite frankly with what I like to think of as the “secret history” of trans fats. The story even leads with a reference to the famous “Sleeper Curve” — a phenomenon named after the 1973 Woody Allen film Sleeper, in which Allen’s character travels to the future, and one of the recurring jokes is how much of what we now consider “settled science” turns out to be not so settled after all.

Despite its honesty, the story goes to great lengths to give scientists and health experts a face-saving out. Here’s the nut graph:

Though scientists first started raising alarms about trans fats in the 1950s, it took decades of research, lobbying and slowly shifting public opinion to bring about Tuesday’s FDA announcement. The story of trans fats’ rise and fall tells us a lot about marketing, the power of the food industry and American food culture. But it’s also a testament to our tenuous understanding of nutrition, a realm of science that can feel as baffling and changeable in real life as it was in Woody Allen’s imagination.

There is so much here that gets me boiling, but to single out just one thing: Notice how the author front-loads the paragraph with exculpatory information, sticking the really embarrassing stuff in at the end, almost as an afterthought: In real life, scientists just don’t really know a whole hell of a lot about nutrition, and because of that, this is a realm of science where the experts are particularly prone to screwing up.

Think about it: If you were just skimming that paragraph, what is the narrative that forms in your mind? It’s probably something like:

  • The Real Scientists knew trans fats were evil back in the tail-fin era (“scientists first started raising alarms about trans fats in the 1950s“);
  • But Evil Vested Interests blocked the knowledge from getting out to the public (“it took decades of research, lobbying and slowly shifting public opinion to bring about Tuesday’s FDA announcement. The story of trans fats’ rise and fall tells us a lot about marketing, the power of the food industry and American food culture.”)

The “but” at this point — “But it’s also a testament to our tenuous understanding of nutrition…” — is typically a cue to lazier readers that they can safely skip whatever comes next. Only folks with excellent reading comprehension skills will notice that the author goes on to essentially say, “oh, and by the way, nutrition ‘scientists’ are a bunch of friggin’ witch doctors.”

The rest of the article continues in that vein — giving the screw-ups of scientists and researchers the best possible gloss, but hinting that greedy businesses were the real culprits.

The article’s most damning section reads:

The effort was slow going. First of all, it required hundreds of doctors to reverse their positions on the substance they’d once lauded as a healthy alternative.

“A lot of people had made their careers telling people to eat margarine instead of butter,” Walter Willett, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and an outspoken critic of trans fats, told the New York Times in 2005. “When I was a physician in the 1980’s, that’s what I was telling people to do, and unfortunately we were often sending them to their graves prematurely.”

Imagine for a second that the subject here was, say, Republican ideology about taxes:

“A lot of people had made their careers telling legislators to cut taxes in order to stimulate economic growth,” John Smith, chairman of the Department of Economics at the Harvard School of Public Policy and an outspoken critic of supply-side economics, told the New York Times in 2005. “When I was an advisor in the 1980’s, that’s what I was telling people to do, and unfortunately we were often setting the stage for economic collapse.”

Do you think that The Washington Post would bury that deep down in the 18th paragraph?

At any rate, the article then immediately shifts the blame back to the Real Villains with the next paragraph:

… Thousands of food manufacturers, who had rushed to use partially hydrogenated oils for their affordability and long shelf life, would have to change their recipes. For a long time, the industry was resistant — nothing made french fries crispy or puff pastry flaky like trans fats did.

Actually, that’s a load of horseshit. As any trained chef can tell you, there are in fact a number of well-known ingredients that can make “french fries crispy” and “puff pastry flaky” better than trans fats. For decades, fast-food joints cooked fries in beef tallow to give them that delicate crunch, and award-winning cooks turned to lard to give their pastries that perfect puffy texture. Consumers were perfectly happy with these ingredients and there was no widespread consumer demand for them to be removed. They were removed and replaced with trans fats because nutrition scolds kept insisting that trans fats were healthier.

That’s the dirty little secret about why the food industry is taking the “trans fat ban” in stride: They never needed the damn stuff in the first place, so it’s a cinch for them to remove it from foods. You’ll notice that despite the references to “lobbying,” there isn’t a huge “Trans Fat Lobby” in Washington, using its money and power to bend legislators to its will. There are no Oscar-winning documentaries or Mother Jones exposes about “Big Trans Fat.” There are, however, powerful lobbies pushing ever-more-onerous “health” regulations, and once upon a time, these folks thought trans fats were awesome and that companies that didn’t use them were endangering the public.

Reading through the comments, it’s clear a lot of readers completely bought this stupid anti-business spin. Commenter “Ideation” writes:

Two kinds of food science..
1.) commercial food science.
2.) consumer medical food science

Monsanto and Cargill and many others mess with scientific approaches to increase profits and find marketing claims.
It’s true that Americans consume the most invented food per capita on earth. The list is long and strange. From Twinkies to Corn Flakes. Remember Olestra the artificial fat?

Consumer or consumption food science.
These folks are exactly the opposite. They seek to understand the cause and effects of consuming all kinds of foods,they deal with allergies all the way to mortality. This is the real science. They are the guardians of our lives. They have no need to increase profits,they are trying to extend life expectancy.

“Ideation” probably really believes in this notion of a brave cadre of independent scientists, nobly persisting in their lonely struggle to divine the Truth, beset on all sides by the dark forces of “commercial food science.”

This quasi-religious understanding of “Science!!!!” actually gives a clue to what’s going on here. For any journalist with integrity, the whole saga of trans fats would be an excellent springboard for an exploration about the realities and limitations of science in general — and nutrition science in particular.

Unfortunately, that’s more or less impossible for a paper like The Washington Post, because for much of our elite classes, the abstract notion of “Science” now occupies the mental and cultural space once inhabited by religion. White-lab-coat-wearing “scientists” are the elite culture’s new priesthood.

As with the flawed, human Christian clergy of earlier eras, our elites now see it as a duty to conceal from the rabble the occasionally painful and embarrassing reality of this new priesthood. The 1930 Hays Production Code for Hollywood movies stipulated that

Ministers of religion … should not be used as comic characters or as villains.

The reasoning, according to the Code, was that

… the attitude taken toward them may easily become the attitude taken toward religion in general. Religion is lowered in the minds of the audience because of the lowering of the audience’s respect for a minister.

While the Associated Press stylebook does not contain any commands to journalists to “protect the virtue and integrity of scientists in the eyes of the public,” it might just as well, considering the way the media covers scientific issues. Good Lord, if we impugn the reputation of scientists, then the public might lose respect for them! And we can’t allow that, because then the public might get into its head the idea that maybe scientists aren’t particularly well-qualified to issue decrees about the proper order of society. Heaven forbid!

Please note, by the way, that I am not attacking science or scientists here. I am merely attacking the idea of Science!!!! as a quasi-religious authority for the human race.

As Instapundit noted the other day, “science doesn’t approach certainty until it can be reduced to engineering.” Most of the marvels we associate with “science” — my wife’s unbelievable new iPhone, for example — are really marvels of engineering: Engineers are basically skilled tradesmen whose toolset consists of thoroughly established scientific principles. Their complete understanding of the rules governing various physical processes allows them to harness those processes to achieve human goals, sometimes in spectacular ways.

Science that has not progressed to this stage, though, can be messy, indeterminate, ugly, politicized, and frustrating. This is not a bug: It’s a feature. Science is a gradual, iterative process, in which robust intellectual combat, both fair and unfair, is welcomed as a cleansing furnace which will eventually produce a pure, adamantine truth.

If you were really interested in educating the general public about science, the story of the evolving scientific consensus on trans fats would be a terrific object lesson in how science actually works to advance human knowledge. But if you’re heavily invested in the idea of scientists as a priestly caste, whose chief role is to hand down the commandments of the gods from on high, then anything that makes scientists look like a bunch of bumbling clowns who can’t find their asses with a map and a GPS sensor will be detrimental to your case. Hence the appalling way the media continually lets so-called “experts” off the hook for the trans fat debacle. Hence the way the media, which is so heavily invested in global warming, goes to great lengths to let scientists off the hook and explain that the “global cooling” scare of the 1970s was just a fringe idea among a small group of crackpots (news flash: it wasn’t). God (and his earthly spokespeople) cannot be seen to bleed like the rest of us; they must be seen as infallible and inerrant — even if maintaining this appearance requires the selective editing of history that is within the living memory of many readers.

The Washington Post article barely mentions this, but the limitations of nutrition science are actually pretty interesting. One of the reasons we still don’t have rigorous understanding of human health is because there are so many factors that are very hard to account for — and new ones are being discovered all the time. For example, fecal transplants have recently emerged as an interesting new form of treatment. Evidently, our gut bacteria plays a larger role in health and nutrition than previously thought, and changing the composition of your gut bacteria by having someone else’s poop put in your intestines can be helpful for some medical conditions. This is something that was practically invisible to mainstream medicine as recently as a decade ago.

Here’s the basic problem: To get a really good understanding of nutrition and health, you would need to run a large-scale clinical trial with a large population over a long period of time — and the trial would need to have an absolutely Orwellian level of rigorous confirmation about the habits and diet of each individual subject. Then, ideally, you’d need to run the same experiment several times, each time with a completely new large, random population.

Nobody has yet devised a way to run such an experiment even once, though folks have attempted something similar on a tiny scale. If anybody could run such an experiment, it would probably clear up a lot of confusion. It would give us a clearer idea of the role of genetics, for example. We know genetics have some component in health, but to what degree? How do you quantify it? I mean, I’m a fat guy, there’s no getting around that. But for a few years there, I managed to become a thin guy. I did it by imposing extremely rigid limits on my diet and doing a hell of a lot of working out. It was the only way I could manage it. Yet I used to work with a guy who never worked out and was always stuffing his face with unhealthy fast food, and he never seemed to gain an ounce. He stayed stick-thin. Me, if I quit working out and start eating like a regular person, I instantly start packing on the pounds. What’s up with that?

I suspect it’s because there’s more to the issue than what you put in your stomach and how much you exercise. Not trying to excuse myself — I’m well aware I could do a lot better than I’m doing now. But I also know from experience that getting seriously fit and trim is a lot harder for me than it is for many other people. It requires such an enormous amount of effort that I have a hard time believing my being overweight is 100 percent due to a failure of my own character and willpower; I’ve met too many people who don’t have a fraction of my dedication, yet still manage to stay skinny no matter what they do to their bodies.

A real, hard-core understanding of the science involved would help clear up a lot of these issues — an engineering-level understanding would allow us to do super-precise engineering of our physiques. Yes, you can already “engineer” your physique, in a broad fashion, but I suspect all popular health regimens are unnecessarily strict, in order to successfully accommodate a wide range of body types. Imagine how convenient it would be if you could print out exact instructions each morning, specifically tailored to your body, about what to eat and what activities to perform that day in order to maintain your optimum health.

Current science, unfortunately, isn’t anywhere close to that. But you wouldn’t know that from the media. There, the gradual, grasping methods of real scientific advancement are unknown. Trans fats are bad today, they were bad yesterday, they will be bad tomorrow. And if tomorrow, scientific consensus shifts again, we will pretend once again that it is an eternal truth, always understood by the true tribunes of Science, and never to be overturned in the future. We have always been at war with Eastasia.

Come on, journalists: You can do better.


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