Article Summary: “Social and scientific disorder as epistemic phenomena, or the consequences of government dietary guidelines” Scott Scheall, William N. Butos and Thomas McQuade

Summary of JOIE article (First View, 23 October 2018) by Scott Scheall College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, Arizona State University, William N. Butos, Department of Economics, Trinity College, Hartford and Thomas McQuade, Independent Scholar, Honolulu. The article is open access and available on the JOIE website

Science is a process, and scientific knowledge emerges out of the interactions between scientists. A publication is evaluated by other scientists who might either adopt or criticize it in the form of a (positive or negative) citation, which feeds back upon the reputation of the original author, thereby affecting the reception of their publications and prospects for professional advancement. This system of institutionalized incentives ensures that what is ultimately accepted as scientific knowledge has been exposed to the daylight of rational scrutiny.

However, where this process is either absent, superseded, or perverted, so too are its error-identification and -correction functions, and, other things equal, the knowledge that emerges from such science is less actionable than the knowledge that emerges from a normally-functioning scientific process. Any plan of action that presupposes a proposition which resulted from a negated or perverted process is more prone to failure than any otherwise identical plan that presupposes no such proposition. This is what happened when the United States federal government, in the absence of scientific consensus – that is, before the scientific process had played its error-correcting role – developed standardized dietary guidelines for American consumers. It can be shown quite clearly that this interference contributed to social disorder in dietary science and beyond.

In the economic realm, policymakers falsely believing that they possess the knowledge necessary to control aspects of economic life in order to ameliorate some perceived disorder, typically implement policies that impede, either directly or indirectly, the price system’s knowledge-coordinating function. The effect is that their policies will have unintended consequences which tend to create further disorder – an obvious example being policies of prohibition. The same is true in the scientific domain: acting on the basis of the false presupposition that they possess adequate scientific knowledge, politicians make policy that impedes (directly or indirectly) the process of science and short-circuits the identification and correction of scientific errors. The scientific knowledge, such as it is, that emerges from a politically-perverted scientific process is more likely to encounter resistance from the world, either from the beliefs of others or from further elements of the environment. For this reason, a plan that presupposes a proposition which resulted from a negated or perverted process is more prone to failure than an otherwise identical plan that presupposes no such proposition.

Such a scenario took place in the area of nutrition science. With the publication of Dietary Guidelines in 1977, the federal government took on the role of official nutritionist and dietician to the American public. For the most part, over the next several decades, Americans faithfully adopted the federally-sanctioned advice to reduce consumption of dietary fat, saturated fat in particular. Given the government’s position as biggest player in the funding of medical-scientific research and the incentive provided by government funders to clinical investigators and medical researchers to engage in research consistent with the government’s priorities, it would be expected that relatively more scientists would adopt plans that presupposed the adequacy of the government-supported fat-cholesterol hypothesis and relatively fewer would adopt plans that did not. This is precisely what occurred.

But the plans went astray and social disorder in the domain of diet and nutrition followed: the incidence rates of obesity, CHD, and diabetes – the very conditions the politicians ostensibly meant to ameliorate – either rose or failed to fall over this time. According to the NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, since the early 1960s the incidence of obesity among adults over the age of 20 more than doubled, increasing from 13.4% to 35.7%. The figures for younger Americans are little better: the incidence of obesity among children and adolescents rose during the 1980s and 1990s, stabilizing in the last decade at 17%. These changes coincided with a decrease in the percentage of fat (and saturated fat) in the American diet, and an uptick in the consumption of carbohydrates. According to one study of a population of middle-aged adults in a single Massachusetts community, the incidence of type-2 (i.e., adult-onset) diabetes doubled in just under three decades following the start of the government’s involvement. Another study showed that, though the incidence of undiagnosed diabetes remained stable between 1988 and 2002, the prevalence of diagnosed diabetes rose significantly.These trends are consequences of political interference with the epistemic mechanism that ensures the actionability of the accepted results of nutritional medicine. The government’s perversion of the processes of dietary science that, under normal circumstances, serve to ensure the actionability of its results, contributed to social disorder. And this scenario is not limited to nutritional science – the process of science creates knowledge as an emergent result of the interactions between scientists; it is a process that cannot be short-circuited by substituting the opinions of politicians or crony scientists or even expert committees, and attempts to do so will predictably result in failure and disorder.

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