More than two years ago, I wrote a post about Thomas Sowell’s book Intellectuals and Society. Although the book isn’t about nutrition, Sowell’s observations about how and why intellectuals embrace ideas certainly apply to nutrition policies dreamed up by government do-gooders. Here’s part of what I wrote back then:
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.
As Sowell explains, if intellectuals were limited to dazzling each other with their ideas at cocktail parties and in university classrooms, they’d merely be annoying. Unfortunately, intellectuals often dazzle government officials too. Now we have a dangerous combination: people who don’t believe their ideas should be subject to proof getting together with people who have the power of compulsion. The end result is worthless (or worse) legislation based on theories that haven’t actually been tested.
Which brings me to a recent article from CBS news titled Giving McDonald’s eaters calorie guides did not curb bad eating habits:
Educating people on the number of calories they should eat may not help them make better choices.
A new study published July 18 in the American Journal of Public Health showed that providing people with calorie guidelines did not help them make better food choices, even when calorie counts for each item were available on the menu.
Several states and cities in the U.S. require that chain restaurants reveal calorie information for their items. Congress has already passed legislation to develop a national calorie labeling system in order to aid health care reform.
However, previous studies have shown that listing calories hasn’t exactly helped Americans trim down their waistlines.
You mean a bunch of legislators jumped in and passed a law without bothering to wait for evidence that the law would provide any benefits? Well, I am shocked. To quote Senator McGovern, a senator doesn’t the luxury of waiting for every last shred of evidence to come in. Or any evidence at all, apparently.
People don’t eat less when you shove calorie counts in their faces. That’s exactly what I predicted when intellectuals and government do-gooders started pushing calorie counts as a tool to stop the rise in obesity. They apparently believe fat people are automatons who mindlessly go around eating too much. Shove a calorie count in their faces, and by gosh, they’ll say to themselves, “Whoa! I had no idea I was scarfing down so many calories! Give me the salad, please.”
That belief is, of course, utter hogwash. When I was filming the street-interview scenes for Fat Head, I showed dozens of people a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, large fries and a large Coke, then asked them to guess how many calories were in the meal. Some guessed about right, but most people guessed too high. Almost nobody guessed too low. People who order calorie-laden meals know they’re ordering calorie-laden meals, no matter what the intellectuals think.
But for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that when people are confronted with calorie counts, they eat less at McDonald’s and other restaurants. Would that lead to a reduction in the obesity rate? Nope. Research has shown that the number of calories people consume over the course of a week is remarkably consistent. When people eat large meals, they compensate by eating smaller meals later. When they skip meals, they make up the difference over the next day or so.
In other words, how much they eat is driven by the complex relationship between appetite, energy balance and hormonal signals described by Dr. William Lagakos in The poor, misunderstood calorie. Informing people (whether they want to be informed or not) that their McDonald’s meal is 1,000 calories won’t make a bit of difference in how much weight they ultimately gain or lose.
Back to the article:
It hasn’t helped that fast food and restaurant food still remain calorie-laden. A 14-year study showed that fast food restaurants have only made minimal improvements to the nutritional value of their items, and 25 percent of Americans eat fast food two or more times a week.
Allow me to engage in the logical thinking the reporter didn’t: If 25 percent of Americans eat fast food two or more times per week, that means 75 percent of Americans don’t eat fast food two or more times per week. So the sentence It hasn’t helped that fast food and restaurant food still remain calorie-laden makes no sense. Fast-food restaurants are not the reason a majority of Americans are (by government standards) overweight.
“The general inability of calorie labeling to result in an overall reduction in the number of calories consumed has already been pretty widely shown,” study author Julie Downs, an associate research professor of social and decision sciences in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, said to HealthDay. “So that’s nothing new. But in the face of that, there has been the growing thought that perhaps the problem is that people don’t know how to use the information without some framework, some guidance.”
I see. Since we believe people are generally stupid, we’ve now decided just showing them calorie counts isn’t enough. We also have to teach them how many calories they should consume in a day. That must be right, because it’s the kind of bold, exciting idea that appeals to intellectuals. Let’s see how it works out in practice:
To see if teaching people how many calories they should eat would help, 1,094 consumers aged 18 and older at two New York McDonald’s locations were provided information on recommended calorie intake before they ordered.
A third of the customers were given a flyer that said women and men should limit their calorie consumption to 2,000 and 2,400 calories per day respectively; another third got a flyer saying a single meal should contain between 650 and 800 calories; and a third were not given any information at all.
After they ordered, researchers looked at the customers’ food receipts and had them fill out a post-meal survey.The researchers discovered that giving people calorie guidelines did not make a significant difference in how they read and used the calorie listings on menus. In fact, people who were given calorie guidelines ate 49 more calories on average than those who did not get guidelines at all.
Head. Bang. On. Desk.
So even if we coach people on how many calories they should (ahem) consume before confronting them with calorie counts, they still don’t eat less. And yet the geniuses in Congress will nonetheless march ahead with a law requiring calorie counts on restaurant menus. Businesses will pass the cost of compliance onto the consumers, and taxpayers will likely end up supporting new employees in some federal agency whose job will be to enforce compliance with a law that won’t accomplish anything.
Proof? Nawww. We The Anointed don’t need no stinkin’ proof before we impose our ideas on you. Proof is for engineers and software programmers, not intellectuals and government officials.
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