Intellectuals And Society … And Nutrition

I recently finished reading Thomas Sowell’s book Intellectuals And Society. Sowell is my favorite author on the topic of economics, and that’s mostly what this book is about: how intellectuals in modern history have influenced economic and social policies, often to the detriment of the rest of us. Although he doesn’t specifically mention nutrition policy, the explanations he offers for the failures of policies promoted by intellectuals certainly apply.

Sowell has nothing against smart people, you understand. He’s one heck of a smart guy himself. As he points out in the book, intellectuals are fond of accusing people who oppose their pie-in-the-sky ideas of being “anti-intellectual,” when in fact the naysayers are often common-sense types who oppose basing policies on the latest intellectual fashions and prefer something resembling proof. It’s the attitude towards proof, says Sowell, that separates intellectuals from others who work in practical fields that also require high intelligence.

In intellectual circles, where the talent that Sowell refers to as “verbal virtuosity” is highly prized, new theories are often applauded merely for being bold, exciting, challenging, or exquisitely expressed. (And if the theory suggests intellectuals should be in charge of the rest of us, it will likely be hailed as all of the above.) Once a theory is adopted by a critical mass of intellectuals — thus becoming part of what Sowell calls “the vision of the anointed” — those who dare disagree will likely be scoffed at and dismissed … without a genuine debate centered around little annoyances like proof and evidence.

Intelligent people in practical fields, however, must rely on proof. If an engineer proposes a new theory on structural integrity, it doesn’t matter if the theory is bold, exciting, or exquisitely expressed … if the bridge falls down, the engineer’s career is toast. I was once hired to re-design the security module of a large database program because the previous programmer’s module ended up shutting down the entire system. Nobody cared how bold his design was or how eloquently he could explain why it should have worked. It didn’t work. Period. End of story. Bring on the next programmer.

Intellectuals often aren’t subject to this kind of rigor, however, because the results of implementing their ideas can take years or decades to manifest. Karl Marx came up with some exciting ideas on how an economy should be run, and I suppose they looked bold on paper and sounded exquisite when being discussed in tea rooms. But it took nearly a century for the dismal results to become almost undeniable.

I say “almost” because there are still morons with PhDs explaining to starry-eyed college students why Marx was actually correct. As Sowell explains, that’s partly why intellectuals place so much value on “verbal virtuosity” — it enables them to explain away facts and results they don’t find convenient, often through some variation of “the theory was correct, but those stupid people didn’t implement it correctly.”

Sound familiar? That’s pretty much the story of the anti-fat campaigns. When Ancel Keys proposed the Lipid Hypothesis, it was bold and exciting. Once his ideas were adopted by the American Heart Association, those who disagreed — Dr. Robert Atkins being a prime example — were dismissed as cranks and charlatans. Keys didn’t have to worry about a bridge falling down and proving him wrong, because heart disease develops over decades.

Even now, after decades of anti-fat hysteria have produced a rise in obesity and an epidemic of diabetes, the academics who promoted low-fat, high-carb diets still insist they’ve been right all along … we’re just not doing it right, you see. That’s why the USDA Dietary Guidelines committee can note that obesity has been on the rise since 1980 — the same year the USDA began telling us how to eat — without feeling embarrassed.

As Sowell explains, when intellectuals are limited to dazzling each other and perhaps a fraction of the public with their theories, there’s a limit to how much damage a bad idea can cause. But when they get their hands on the levers of government, it’s a different story. It’s not that people in government are inherently stupid or evil (although sometimes they seem determine to prove otherwise). The problem lies with government’s unique ability to impose well-intentioned bad ideas and stifle dissent:

Arbitrary choices as to which academic or other researchers to finance not only enable them to influence public opinion in the direction of the policies favored by the bureaucrats, they can have a chilling effect on experts who know that expressing views opposed to those of the cash dispensers — whether on autism, global warming, or numerous other issues — jeopardizes their own access to the large sums of money necessary to finance major research. Since research funding can be crucial to the experts’ own careers, a discreet silence may seem the better part of valor… Not only will openly expressed skepticism reduce the changes of getting research funding, to the extent that going against the grain of the bureaucracy reduces the favorable light in which the whole academic institution is viewed, the individual expert can be subjected to the displeasure of colleagues as well.

Yeah, Dr. Kilmer McCully learned that lesson the hard way. When he published a study concluding that something other than cholesterol was causing heart disease — thus suggesting the federal government had it all wrong — Harvard sacked him. His work wasn’t putting Harvard in a favorable light with the NIH.

If the intellectuals in government happen to be promoting a theory that’s correct, perhaps there’s no real harm done. But history suggests the odds aren’t good.

There’s a reason the odds are lousy: when a small group of people make decisions for everyone else, we’ve replaced the wisdom of the crowd with the wisdom of the few. Entire books have been written on why that’s a bad idea — including The Wisdom of Crowds, which I highly recommend — but in a nutshell, here’s the problem: the smartest, best-educated 10 people in the world don’t have as much accumulated knowledge as any group of 500 average people picked at random. Little groups of government experts don’t know everything they need to know to correctly wield their power — and they can’t. It’s nearly impossible. As Sowell puts it:

In an era when governments legislate, regulate, and finance an ever-more sweeping range of activities, there is no individual with the amount or depth of consequential knowledge to competently make such a range of decisions. The availability of experts for government officials to consult is by no means an adequate substitute for the knowledge these officials lack, since there are usually experts on both sides, or on many sides, of each issue. Choosing among those experts can be a decision beyond the bounds of the politician’s competence.

You mean when George McGovern decided his own doctor probably had all the right answers about cholesterol and heart disease, that was a bad idea?

Moreover, the real expertise of professional politicians — creating a good impression with the voting public — can make it unnecessary to know what they are talking about, so long as their words resonate with the voters.

Bingo. All these goofy laws directed at the food industry are perfect examples. Legislators order restaurants to post calorie counts on menus so we’ll eat less. Mayor Bloomberg in New York City orders packaged-food makers to cut way down on salt to reduce hypertension. City council members in San Francisco order McDonald’s to stop including toys in Happy Meals to battle childhood obesity.

Is there a shred of proof that any of these laws will work? Have calorie-count menus been shown to reduce the number of calories people consume in a day? Have salt-restricted diets been shown to reduce heart disease? Have controlled studies demonstrated that banning Happy Meal toys discourages kids from eating fast food and becoming leaner as a result?

The answers are no, no, and no. But the legislators don’t care. If the public believes they’re by gosh doing something! about a problem, they look good. They get to congratulate each other on their boldness and good intentions without worrying that the bridge will fall down and their careers will be trashed. When rates of obesity and diabetes continue to rise, few people will blame the politicians for wasting everyone’s time by imposing useless regulations based on untested theories.

When Jimmy Moore interviewed Amy Dungan and me for an upcoming episode of Jimmy Moore and Friends, we discussed what it might take to get the USDA to change its nutrition advice. I would of course prefer to see the USDA recommend the diet I believe is best, but ultimately, I want the USDA to become irrelevant. There’s no reason the federal government should be in the nutrition-advice business at all, and it would be better for everyone if they weren’t.

Without little groups of government experts making decisions for the rest of us, what emerges is spontaneous order. (Notice it’s still order, not chaos, as some people assume.) Take grocery stores, for example. They’ve more or less sprung up without any centralized control. So you can shop where you want and buy what you want, according to your values: Wal-Mart or Costco if you’re price-conscious, Whole Foods if you want organic produce or a wide selection of vegetarian options (and don’t mind spending a month’s salary on a week’s worth of groceries), Trader Joe’s if you want cheap foods that are still sort of organic and hip and all that, 7-11 if you’ve just got to have your Slim-Jims at 3:00 A.M. No one is telling the stores what foods to stock, so no one is fighting over what they’ll stock.

When government steps in, spontaneous order and the wisdom of crowds is replaced with centralized control. Imagine what would happen if we were all required by law to shop at Uncle Sam’s Grocery Emporium. Since space is limited even in the largest stores, there would be endless battles over what Uncle Sam’s should put on the shelves. The vegans would demand more plants-only foods. The Weston A. Price fans would demand more grass-fed meats and dairy. The organic crowd would want organic produce, while the cost-conscious shoppers would protest that organic foods are too expensive. Lobbyists would make a killing trying to influence Uncle Sam’s management.

That’s essentially what’s happening with the USDA Dietary Guidelines now. The Weston A. Price Foundation is angry because the USDA warns us to avoid saturated fats. The vegan wackos at The Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine are suing the USDA for warning us about saturated without also (I’m not kidding here) telling us specifically to stop eating meat, eggs and dairy products.

Nobody’s happy, and nobody’s going to win. The battle will go on forever, when it shouldn’t have been fought at all. But now we have to fight, because the USDA has taken it upon itself to tell my daughters’ school it can only serve 1% or skim milk.  We were even instructed to include a grain food in the lunch my younger daughter brought from home on the day the government inspectors were visiting her preschool.

Pretty please, stop and think about that for a second: a little group of experts in Washington, D.C. is telling a preschool in Franklin, Tennessee what foods the parents must put in their children’s lunches if the school wants to stay out of trouble. If that doesn’t blow your mind (and scare you just a little), something’s wrong.

Frankly, even if the USDA told the preschool my daughter’s lunch must include hard-boiled eggs and sardines, I’d be just as angry. It’s none of their business. We don’t need intellectuals telling the rest of us how to feed our kids. We’d be far better off figuring it out for ourselves, taking advantage of the wisdom of crowds.

The dietary wisdom of crowds is what we had decades ago. The crowd was your great-grandmother noticing that potatoes and pasta made her gain weight. It was farmers noticing that cereal grains fattened up their pigs and cows. It was high-school coaches noticing that if athletes limited their diets to meats and green vegetables, they became leaner and stronger. It was Dr. Weston A. Price noticing that after sugar and white flour became dietary staples, a lot more kids showed up at his dental practice with bad teeth, facial deformities, and a variety of diseases. It was physicians and researchers sharing results from their clinical practices and studies, without worrying about their federal funding being yanked. People somehow avoided becoming fat and diabetic without experts telling them what to eat.

Then the wisdom of crowds was replaced by the wisdom of a small clique of intellectuals with bold and exciting ideas. And that’s when the bridge began to crack.


43 thoughts on “Intellectuals And Society … And Nutrition

  1. Sean

    Academia in general is subject to the bad elements that cause the wisdom of crowds to transform into the herd instinct. Lack of independence and intellectual diversity most especially.

    I would argue that the nutrition blogosphere is an example of an emergant order that exhibits wisdom of crowds. People from all sorts of backgrounds with diverging opinions who aren’t beholden to anyone, writing, collating, and doing research. Research? Yes, research, n=1 experiments in, say, dropping gluten, and meta-study research that Ivy league schools use to grab headlines all the time (meat causes cancer, new cherry-picked Harvard meta study shows). And the media, wow, talk about herd behavior.

    That’s why I love the internet.

  2. Steve Parker, M.D.

    Along these same lines, William F. Buckley, Jr., used to say he’d rather be governed by the first 500 names in the New York City phone book than by the polititians then in office.

    (I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea. I miss Buckley.)

    Since you like Sowell, Tom, I’m sure you’re familiar with Walter Williams, another great economist.


    Big fan of Dr. Williams. He even agreed to be interviewed for Fat Head, but unfortunately we couldn’t work out the timing. He was on sabbatical when I was flying around shooting interviews.

  3. Bean

    I agree with you wholeheartedly, but…

    …there is an inherent contradiction between (1) “the wisdom of crowds” which you imply is good, and (2) “creating a good impression with the voting public…If the public believes they’re by gosh doing something! about a problem”, which you imply is bad. In both cases you have “the wisdom of crowds”, but you are in favour of the results of #1, but against those of #2. Same crowd both times, no? Are they wise or not?

    Just trying to play devil’s advocate. The “wisdom of crowds” often results in very unpleasant things.

    I didn’t mean to give the impression that the public at large embodies the wisdom of crowds on every issue. Not so. The wisdom of crowds comes from the combined knowledge of large numbers of people who have some experience with a topic, but aren’t necessarily considered intellectuals or experts.

    My high-school health teacher (also a coach), for example, wasn’t considered a nutrition expert in the academic sense, but he’d helped hundreds of athletes reach their target weight for sports. He told us in class that if we wanted to shed body fat, we needed to give up sugar and starches. Farmers of course fatten up their cattle on purpose and learn which foods do it. That’s “crowd” knowledge, based on real experience.

    When politicians pass laws restricting salt, on the other hand, the voting public at large doesn’t have the knowledge or experience to judge whether it’s a good idea.

  4. Fan

    This doesn’t directly relate to this post, but I had no idea where else to reply (apologies):

    I saw your movie a few days ago and thought it was great! It’s a pity that it hasn’t received the attention of Spurlock’s film.

    One of the more important points that you brought up in “Fathead” is that fastfood isn’t generally more unhealthy than other foods so long as it’s eaten in moderation. In my late teens/early 20s, I used to get about 90% of my food intake from a ma and pop submarine sandwich joint (it was cheap and convenient and I was short on cash and time), and my health was rather good. I didn’t often have snacks and didn’t eat past the point of satiation. I tend to doubt that Spurlock was only eating McDonalds the month of his “experiment”.

    Also, I thought the scene where the food makes him throw up was deliberate, and obviously so.

    A good point your film made was that by his own admission, Spurlock’s “recovery diet” took MONTHS to work and was much slower to work than a low-carb approach would have been.

    Yup, I see people buy complete junk at the grocery store all the time. Fast food isn’t driving the problem.

  5. Scott

    [quote]The answers are no, no, and no. But the legislators don’t care. If the public believes they’re by gosh doing something! about a problem, they look good. They get to congratulate each other on their boldness and good intentions without worrying that the bridge will fall down and their careers will be trashed.[/quote]

    The road to hell is paved with good intentions

    I was curious to see what the wikipedia (fairly good ‘wisdom of the masses’ idea) had to say about that

    I’ve decided that An alternative form of the proverb is “hell is full of good meanings, but heaven is full of good works”. is a better way of saying it.

  6. Wanda

    There is a light at the end f the tunnel, though… Seems many people are moving to a whole foods approach these days, and especially the young parents and new families.

    I keep getting pressure from some friends and family to give my 5 month old baby “healthy infant cereals” because it’s enriched with DHA and iron, to which I reply, “no thanks. I’ll just give him egg yolks and meat purees, as they already naturally contain those things.” The strange looks I get for that… 🙂

  7. Lyford

    Great stuff. Some of my favorite topics are the knowledge problem, the law of unintended consequences, and the leftist utopian nannies who believe that if they just pass the right laws, the human condition is perfectible.

    All nonsense of course. Instead, we end up with bad laws. And they happen in a very predictable way. To paraphrase Sir Humphrey Appleby
    1) “There’s a problem”
    2) “THIS would address that problem”
    3) “We must do THIS!”

    Malcolm Kendrick wrote a lovely email on how those good intentions become bad laws. It’s at the end of this post:

  8. Jackie

    There’s no reason the federal government should be in the nutrition-advice business at all, and it would be better for everyone if they weren’t.

    The bottom line is that the government thinks they can make better decisions for the public then they can for themselves….and you are right, it is terrifying.

  9. Don Matesz


    An awesome post! The general principle here applies not only to ivory tower intellectuals but also to ‘science’ when wielded by intellectuals who believe that their double-blind placebo controlled studies in artificial conditions give us more knowledge than gained by practice. In our society ‘science’ is largely funded by the government so it serves those in power whether or not it produces knowledge of practical value. I wish for the day when we have separation of science and state. As with religion, when supported by the state, ‘science’ can degenerate to dogma, only worse because the ‘scientists’ now denigrate all other ways of learning and understanding because they don’t use the holy ‘double blind placebo controlled trial.’ Experiences are dismissed as ‘anecdote’ because they don’t meet the sacred standard; while experiments are rigged to produce results that support the dogma.

    Bingo. Real-world knowledge matters … at least it should.

  10. Rocky


    The beauty of the internet is that it brings the wisdom of the crowds even more into the forefront. Yes, there are many out there clearly lacking in wisdom, but the benefit of massive data created by determined individuals is undeniable.

    Jenny Ruhl (author of Blood Sugar 101) points out that it took the internet crowd to prove that it’s possible for diabetics to effectively control their blood sugar levels way more effectively than physicians have been saying was possible.

    The Track Your Plaque forum contains countless posts from individuals who are improving their cardiac health and reducing cardiac plaque (something most cardiologists say is impossible), with diet and lifestyle changes.

    You’ve hit the nail on the head when you say that the experts need to butt out of our lives. If they want to be one of the many voices out there for us to consider, fine. Their role, however, should never be setting policy and controlling our lives.

    That’s why I love the digital age. The crowd is able to bypass the information gatekeepers.

  11. Aaron B.

    Mr. Sowell would probably appreciate this quote from Richard Hoste: “A high IQ person can accept silly ideologies that your average Joe can’t even understand.”

    Too true.

  12. Lori

    My new favorite term is “highjacking the lead.” Usually, it means the follower in a partner dance takes over the lead. But lately I’ve come to think of it in terms of bloggers, independent organizations, authors and doctors who are going by results and good science in the face of stupid recommendations from bureaucrats and big, corrupt organizations.

    I like the term.

  13. Vicki Keller

    I am especially enraged that the home-brought lunch was even looked at. It is up to the parent to choose what foods our children should eat. If you decide to let your child buy a (in my view unhealthy) school lunch that is one thing but they have no business even looking at one brought from home. Whats next, they come to our homes and inspect our fridge? I specifically make my daughters lunch to avoid the schools option of a lack of proper nutrients (fat) needed to keep a young mind sharp and a body lean and to avoid a myriad of ingredients and foods that I don’t want my daughter eating. How dare they!

    My thoughts exactly.

  14. Kathy

    “Once a theory is adopted by a critical mass of intellectuals — thus becoming part of what Sowell calls “the vision of the anointed” — those who dare disagree will likely be scoffed at and dismissed … without a genuine debate centered around little annoyances like proof and evidence.”

    This is precisely what transpired on the Dr. Oz Show with Gary Taubes. There was no real discussion or debate (if there was, it was edited out). Forget the evidence! I’m up to my elbows in peoples’ chests every day! states Dr. Oz most vociferously, claiming that it’s the saturated fat doing them in. But, does he have any evidence of this? Does he question his patients as to their dietary habits? The responses in the comments for that show, though, show some delightful “wisdom of the crowds”!

    Yeah, that was quite a stunt. Oz eats a low-carb diet for a day and tells us he didn’t feel good afterwards. Well, there’s all the proof we need that saturated fat causes heart disease.

  15. Verimius

    Another excellent book you might want to read as a counterpoint to Surowiecki is Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Written in 1841, it discusses mass delusions such as economic bubbles (South Sea Bubble, etc), witch mania, the crusades, and other popular follies.

    The problem with common sense is that it ain’t common.

  16. Jason

    Hi Tom,

    Just caught your movie on Netflix the other night. I must say, great work! I really like how you debunked Spurlock’s dumb 5,000 calorie binge diet. One thing I noticed though that was missing from your documentary but was present in Super Size Me – how was your sex life when you were on a low carb diet? While Spurlock’s methodology and bias were questionable, he at least mentioned how his sex life was affected by such a drastic change in caloric intake. I was wondering how your sex life was when you were on your McDonald’s only diet? Were you still thrust pumpin’ like a steam engine or were you starting to sputter out like a ’69 VW hippie van on its way to Woodstock? I’m just wondering because I was considering doing a similar diet (high protein, low carb), but was wondering how my sex life would be affected. Thanks for your time, Tom.

    I say try the diet and enjoy your research on the sexual effects.

  17. Jeff

    Again, you have hit the nail on the head. Even before seeing Fat Head on Netflix, I often wondered how my grandparents and their parents survived at all living on butter, lard, red meats and such – let alone live well into their 80’s – and all without government intervention.

    Without reading the book you just finished, a co-worker and I began discussing the very theory of “follow the money trail” and everything we came to the conclusion of now matches what you have just posted (pat self on back). I also feel it’s too easy for gov officials in charge of overseeing this or that to choose groups that they feel will provide the data that they themselves have a political agenda for, i.e. you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours ala global warming.

    Oh yeah and by the way, the new car lot I was cruising the other day now has a “Global Warming Index” scale posted right near the invoice. Golly gee, thank God the good ol’ government is on top of all of this.

    Keep up the great work!

    Oldest trick in the political play-book: find experts you know will agree with you, then attribute your actions to expert opinion.

  18. Brandon

    I knew there was a reason I liked you, Tom. You are a libertarian. Keep up the good work, bro. With more people like you in the public, maybe people will begin to see the problem with being led by the nose by your government. Thomas Jefferson would approve of this post for sure!

    Thank you. Jefferson was our greatest president by far in my book.

  19. Lone Stewart

    Are you saying that your country is becoming more and more Marxist?

    I just had my taxes done. Do I even have to answer that one?

  20. Tracee

    It’s been awhile since I’ve read any Thomas Sowell books, other than “Einstein Syndrome”. I did really enjoy reading his work and columns. He has a fascinating way at looking in depth at human nature and showing why it is so disastrous when applied on a grand scale.
    Funny story: I have an “aunt-in-law” who thinks of herself as one of those intellectuals, and she’s always poised to pluck the feathers off your head when you don’t comply with popular opinion. She is an obese diabetic. She and my mother in law share a house together and naturally she makes plenty of comments on my sons’ diet, “That cheese and butter is going to clog his arteries”. So when my mother in-law commented on her giving her grand kids candy, with all the diabetes in the family and all… She let it be known sugar is alright for diabetics and she has a book that says so. So, I just ordered both Gary Taubes books, (Thank GOD he has the easier version out). I’m going to say “You have your book on why you can give your grandkids candy, and now she has her book(s) on why our son can eat saturated fat”. I really don’t know any other way to deal with this, I could ignore it but where’s the fun in that?

    If she has internet access, perhaps she’d enjoy watching Dr. Lustig’s lecture on YouTube, “Sugar: the bitter truth.” That might disabuse her of the notion that sugar is fine for diabetics.

  21. Anon.

    I thoroughly enjoy reading Thomas Sowell’s writings. Every time I read his prose, I always feel like my IQ increases significantly.

  22. cancerclasses

    The difference between low carbers & vegans/vegetarians: Low carbers “You’re eating wrong.”, Vegans/Vegetarians “You’re living your whole LIFE wrong.”

    In reply to @DrEades, I love it when vegans go on the defensive. Cardiologist mentioned in this article needs a brain transplant.

  23. cancerclasses

    Bean: False dilemma, as the wise crowd is not represented in the second group you refer to. If the wise crowd is represented in this group at all then they are the people that vote against control by the elite intellectuals, or that vote libertarian.

    I believe the wise crowd are the ones that have given up voting & hoping in politics as a means to freedom, social justice & change because they have realized the folly & futility of playing games you can’t win in an arena that has been subverted & is now owned by intellectual elites seeking the authority & power to enforce control of others that do not see life & the world as they do.

    Make no mistake about this, & don’t be fooled. For those intellectual elites this is NOT about which diet & macro nutrients are best. This is about using government, and now food, as a means & tool to acquiring the power to control the others that believe in the individual right, the freedom, to decide what’s best for themselves & and to be left alone & not enforce their world & life view on others.

  24. Be

    Great analogy. I love Sowell and of course also agree with the Austrian School of economics. Ludwig von Mises put it well in Human Acton: there are just too many variables of individual free will to be able to predict, let alone legislate.

    I was also concerned with W.A. Price’s desire to re-write the Dietary Guidelines. I just want the government to stay out of it. Just because my ideas are “right” doesn’t mean I can or should even want to force other people to agree with them, let alone be controlled by them. It is appalling that anyone would challenge how you feed your family, but unfortunately, that is exactly where all this government interference and legislation is going.

    Of course, we can keep talking about it and trying to get people to think about it. Of their own volition!

    It’s what Sean over at Prague Stepchild termed the “Carbo Cult Syndrome” in his post yesterday:

    That’s the real problem. If the USDA is going to write guidelines and force all schools, military facilities, prisons, government health-care facilities, etc. to follow them, then we’re kind of forced to join the battle.

  25. Keen

    I’m a little wary of the wisdom of crowds concept, just because it seems like crowds can come up with and hold on to ridiculous ideas, too. I mean, at this point it’s not one person perpetuating the USDA BS, it’s a huge group of people. Groups can get good results or bad ones.

    I think it has far more to do with what you were saying about practical results, and intellectuals being basically disconnected from them. Even beyond that, I think there’s an issue whenever one group of people tries to “solve a problem” involving a group of people they consider to be *different from them*. When you’re talking about a group of people that’s just like you, you’ll generally make at least reasonable assumptions about how they might act. Not perfect or even necessarily accurate, but at least not outright ridiculous.

    When you’re talking about a group of *strange other people* (as many intellectuals consider everyone else to be), you can make all sorts of stupid assumptions and not even realize idiotic they are. Like Spurlock continuing to stuff his face even after he was clearly beyond full and didn’t want anymore, because, hey, he was supposed to be acting like someone who eats fast food a lot, and people like that are stupid, disgusting pigs who never stop eating, right? He’s not really an intellectual, but the principle is the same. When you have this mindset that “X kind of people are just so much stupider than I am”, you’re never going to assess anything about them accurately.

    Whereas when the group itself decides to solve its own problems, it’s totally different. It becomes less “this is the gospel truth I have arbitrarily decided you must follow, you sucky people!” and more “I had that problem and Y thing worked. If you’re like me, it might work for you, too.” Which is a lot more useful.

    I should’ve clarified the “wisdom of crowds” concept a little more. We’re talking about knowledge diffused among large numbers of people who have some experience with the issue or problem in question. When those people compare notes, as they often do, they tend to come up with the correct answer more often than any little group of supposed experts. So we’re not talking about asking the general public to make decisions on, say, how to build a space shuttle, nor are we talking about simply taking a vote and going with the majority opinion.

    It’s a large group of people who believe the anti-fat hysteria, but as Gary Taubes recounted in Good Calories, Bad Calories, it’s mostly been one group of about 20 people who effectively controlled the conversation for decades … and their knowledge came from the academic environment, not from the doctors who actually treated people on a day-to-day basis.

  26. Vicki Keller

    What do you think you’ll do, or have done, in response to the direction for you to add a grain into the brought-from-home lunch? Do you intend to address this with the school or comply?

    We packed a sandwich that day. We’re not going to win a battle with the USDA, and I wasn’t going to put my daughter in the middle of a fight, no matter what the outcome.

  27. tracker

    “We were even instructed to include a grain food in the lunch my younger daughter brought from home on the day the government inspectors were visiting her preschool.”

    Did you comply? I wouldn’t have. Or if I had, I would have included a twinkie, or something equally obnoxious. Hey, it’s made from grain! It’s got wheat in it right? I’m not passive aggressive or anything.

    On a serious note though, I’d write my congressman. I’d want to know why in the hell my tax dollars are being spent paying some suit to come around and inspect what people are feeding their kids. It’s not any different than them coming by your house and seeing what you’re cooking. The USDA’s role is to ensure food safety, meaning that they make sure that a manufacturer doesn’t put melamine in baby formula for example. Not to be a baby-sitter. This gives a new and quite literal meaning to the term ‘nanny state’.

    The requirement annoyed the bejesus out of me, but we stuck a sandwich in her bag. I wasn’t going to put my four-year-old (at the time) daughter in the middle of a fight she didn’t start.

  28. Gerard Millar

    Woah! Essay!… lol – This one is a hybrid post!

    Pure bloody Awesomeness!

    Just on a side note – is it harder for some disciplines to ‘prove’ things then others. Middle earth physics is pretty cut & dry. As is your database example.

    What about things that exist in multiple variate complex systems that rellie on predictive modeling. Things such as ecology, climate prediction and so forth. I don’t want to get into what people’s view of such things are – but as a species how do we make informed decision on the future that rellie on predictive modeling. The major problem that they may become ‘proven’ in my minds before we have had time to evaluate those predictions. Our species seems to have a need to follow a heard & not question enough. I can’t really blame us to be honest. If it wern’t for my solid firm view on Evolution id still be munching on grains and other crap after seeing your film and Loren Cordains lectures. But for others issues (myself included) even with a GIS degree I do not understand climatology. Nor do I understand economics to the level id like too. And the myriad of other things we need to know to make good policy (weather based on government or via free market consumption)

    Seriously – I don’t know the answer to these problems. I just don’t know if I agree that the cause of *all* these issues lies with in government itself.

    Your above examples of government are great. How about Coco-cola their products at least in 1990s were the top 5 most selling products in Australian supermarkets. We were told incorrectly saturated fat was bad. But correctly that refined sugar was bad – I remember the dentist coming in at age 5 to my school (government funded) to tell us all about sugar & tooth decay as an example. So you could agrue that it was government misinformation that allowed for this by harping on about fat all the time.

    Or you could argue the free market through Coke’s constant bombardment of advertising also produces dumb things such as people drinking 3 Litres of liquid sugar a day. If advertising didn’t work they wouldn’t do it. Lol – They patent the bloody bottle shape for heaven sake – if it didn’t work they wouldn’t do it.

    Personally – I think we would see other problems emerge without government agencies. But you make a very sound case against them.

    Interesting as always.

    It was sort of a hybrid post. You can probably guess my answer about Coca-Cola: your government was correct when it told you sugar causes cavities. But your grandmother, your mother, your dentist, or someone else would’ve told you the same thing. My dentist told me sodas caused cavities when I was a wee little tyke. (Too bad he didn’t say the same about white bread.) The difference is that if your government decided Coca-Cola prevents heart disease and cancer, it would soon have legions of researchers who depend on government grants lining up to agree.

  29. shutchings

    It was interesting–John Stossel compared the obituaries and media attention between Ted Kennedy and Norman Borlaug (responsible for semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties). He said the media lauded Ted Kennedy but ignored the man who, when given the Nobel Peace Prize, was praised for providing bread for a hungry world. And so, Mr. Stossel gave kudos for whom he thought deserved praise and adulation. Sometimes our intellectuals’ accomplishments are a double edged sword. Unintended consequences and all that.

    That’s kind of a tricky one. I believe wheat can produce many negative reactions, but on the other hand, Borlaug may have prevented mass starvation. I’ll take bad food over no food.

  30. tracker

    “The requirement annoyed the bejesus out of me, but we stuck a sandwich in her bag. I wasn’t going to put my four-year-old (at the time) daughter in the middle of a fight she didn’t start.”

    I guess it’s a good thing I don’t have kids… I’m a terrible person. LOL

    Hey, did you hear about the McRunner guy? The vegans are having a fit over it.

    I did. I’m sure the vegans are hoping he drops dead during the marathon.

  31. Don Matesz


    You also may want to read ‘Science in a Free Society’ by Paul Feyerabend. Its a work of philosophy of science. Feyerabend showed that science does not have anything up on other ways of knowing, despite its posturing; that it relies on ‘non-science’ for most of its ideas; that it often progresses non-rationally, i.e. against the evidence at hand, or by hunch, guess, or intuition, not by experimental trial and error. He also argues that science should be evaluated by non-scientists, not allowed to control non-scientists. Many scientists hate Feyerabend’s work because it takes them down off the pedestal.

    I’ll put that on my list. I’m currently reading ‘Voodoo Science.’

  32. Jersey Boy

    “Even now, after decades of anti-fat hysteria have produced a rise in obesity and an epidemic of diabetes, the academics who promoted low-fat, high-carb diets still insist they’ve been right all along … we’re just not doing it right, you see. That’s why the USDA Dietary Guidelines committee can note that obesity has been on the rise since 1980 — the same year the USDA began telling us how to eat — without feeling embarrassed.”

    C’mon man. You’re so not being fair. The USA’s demography has changed drastically in 30 years. You’re comparing apples with Snickers bars. You’re totally neglecting the impact of cheap fructose and the increase in sodium in prepared foods, including soda on the American diet. Obesity has been on the rise not because of the USDA’s recommendations, but in SPITE of them.

    We say that “Americans” are fat? All of them? Show me an obesity vs income distribution curve. Or obesity by region/age/education/race/ethnicity. I’ll wager you’ll see some interesting patterns. Like poor, Southern rednecks tend to be fatter. Just a wild guess.

    People like Mike Bloomberg, whether you like it or not, ARE using the wisdom of the crowd. You just don’t like his crowd! Moreover, crowd (read mob) mentality is usually just plain wrong. I’d imagine Buckley’s 500 people chosen at random from a southern Virginia phonebook would tell you cigarettes are great for you. Bloomberg is just putting a check and balance and a food industry whose best interest is to keep you stuffing your face. Will it work? Who knows? But it’s a shot. And why would you complain about it? It costs you nothing!

    Unfortunately, some Americans (and I don’t mean you!) are just too dumb to make sensible dietary (and life) choices, and sometimes they need a Daddy to protect them.

    When I was a kid in high school, the spit-balling slackers in the back of the room would complain, “Ah, you’re book smart, but you ain’t got no common sense.” Give it a rest, already. We ‘elitists’ are so sick of this.

    By the way, Dr. Steve, I’d much rather quote Bill Buckley’s son Christopher (“Thank You For Smoking.”)

    I’m sorry the spitballers hassled you. They hassled me too, since I was usually the smartest kid in class. Nonetheless, I managed to reach adulthood without becoming an elitist or believing my intelligence entitled me to impose my views of healthy eating on others.

    Who said anything about mob mentality? The “wisdom of crowds” doesn’t mean we simply take a vote and let a majority of people decide issues they don’t understand. It means we gather and compare knowledge that is diffused among large numbers of people who have some experience with the issue at hand and let the right answer emerge instead of imposing it by force.

    As for the “wisdom” of Bloomberg, have you done your research on the benefits of salt restriction? Of course you haven’t, because if you had, you’d already know that even drastic reductions in sodium have failed to produce any health benefits in clinical studies. You’d also know better than to blame sodium for obesity or any other ailment.

    Bloomberg isn’t taking advantage of the wisdom of crowds; he’s listening to the same little group of government experts who declared sodium a hazard before doing the research and (like the anti-fat hysterics) can’t bring themselves to admit they were wrong. And Bloomberg clearly isn’t interested in letting answers emerge. He’s decided he knows what’s best and therefore should impose his beliefs on others. I don’t like his crowd? You’re damned right I don’t. I don’t like any crowd that tries to impose its dietary preferences on others, even if their preferences match mine.

    So we’re fat IN SPITE of the USDA guidelines, are we? The USDA guidelines told Americans to increase carbohydrates and decrease fat. We did. They told us to increase grain consumption. We did. They turned us into a nation of carbohydrate addicts. Read a government-mandated food label that recommends 300 carbohydrates per day on a 2,000 diet or 350 carbohydrates per day on a 2500 calorie diet and show me the section that says, “But don’t get your carbohydrates from high fructose corn syrup” — which, by the way, is only so cheap and abundant because of federal subsidies.

    So yes, I blame the elitists and the government officials who decided we needed a Daddy telling us how to eat for the rise in obesity and diabetes.

  33. Phil Bennett

    Sowell, too, is my favourite economist and I’m a foreigner. Price controls and massive agricultural subsidies put governments in a position where it is in their best financial interests to encourage the consumption of agricultural (read: carbs). Why? They have to buy up the surplus when the prices in the open Market sink beneath the pricing floors. it can cost them small fortunes to store this stuff.

    The free Market, a true free Market, would go a long way to rectify these problems, unfortunately there is no such thing. As long as folks tinker, politicians of any political persuasion, bad scientists, etc. these anomalies persist. Nobody has the balls to just leave well enough alone. Quite depressing really.

    Indeed. The massive mono-crop farming that’s doing so much damage was encouraged, aided, and abetted by our government’s farm policies and subsidies. You can imagine what goes through my mind when people blame it all on “capitalism.” I guess they don’t know what the word actually means.

  34. an inquiring mind

    please remind me why you did 100 grams of carbs your first go around?

    I wanted to restrict my carb intake enough to keep my insulin level down while still allowing me a to eat a reasonable fast-food diet.

  35. ken

    John Taylor Gatto was a former teacher who won several teacher of the year awards, who realized that the education system isn’t in place to educate but rather to indoctrinate. The American public system is modeled after the Prussians who were the first to have nationalized education systems in order to create a better citizen (a more German/Prussian one at that).

    What does the school do with the children? Gatto takes this in “Dumbing Us Down”, the following propositions:

    It makes the children confused. It presents an incoherent ensemble of information that the child needs to memorize to stay in school. Apart from the tests and trials that programming is similar to the television, it fills almost all the “free” time of children. One sees and hears something, only to forget it again.

    It teaches them to accept their class affiliation.

    It makes them indifferent.

    It makes them emotionally dependent.

    It teaches them a kind of self-confidence that requires constant confirmation by experts (provisional self-esteem).

    It makes it clear to them that they cannot hide, because they are always supervised

    It’s really interesting if you get around to studying Prussia, America has many institutions modeled after Prussia from education to the military.

    Interesting. Given some of what I’ve seen in textbooks, the indoctrination part of it sounds about right. I’ve already had to tell my daughter that not everything she reads in a schoolbook is true. We had that conversation again recently when she informed me that driving a car kills polar bears.

  36. Lori

    I liked your movie and agree, for the most part, with your philosophies but you should stop calling people wackos. It’s mean-spirited and damages your credibility.

    Perhaps. But when groups like CSPI push trans fats on restaurants, then later sue restaurants for using them, I think the label fits.

  37. Erin L.

    CSPI is crazy. I agree.

    I’m currently one of “those academics” that is bashed in these comments, and in defense of academia – that is where I first came across the studies of cholesterol having little to no causality in heart disease. (And, yes, this from a professor who has an emphasis in whole grains, no less.)

    Concerning where money comes from for science, some of the funding does come from government, but science in the nutritition field is also paid for by big ag. They are not impartial on how they interpret results. Most scientists do not advocate changing policy, especially after only ONE study, but looking into things further – and then there are the ones that like to make a lot of money.

    This is my belief, but I think the food pyramid was the way we could substitute our own food culture. Yeah, it sucks. It’s the diet of lumberjacks.

  38. Clark

    I’m impressed at Sowell’s sound logic even at the age of 80. =) He probably doesn’t follow mainstream nutrition advice.

    My guess would be he goes his own way.


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