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.