The Call, Column 40 – When Logic Doesn’t Matter

15 02 2016

(February 14, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

When Logic Doesn’t matter

Last November, in response to the WHO’s horribly erroneous claim that “meat causes cancer”, I wrote a column about the glaring issues with mainline nutritional science. I briefly mentioned the bias that naturally exists in nutritional research, and blamed it on the funding stream from industry groups, private organizations, and the government (let’s use “institution” as a stand-in for all of these). Today, we’ll ask the question: Why do these institutions throw so much money, so much time and effort, in order to essentially lie to their constituents?

I call this “institutionalized misinformation” (or “willful, militant ignorance” on my bad days), and it pains me to see how easily it has infected our society. The first thing we need to figure out, is how this package of misinformation – let’s call it the Flawed Narrative – arises in an otherwise well-meaning institution.

At some point, a Flawed Narrative begins as a single piece of misinformation, something that is factually incorrect but easy to believe, maybe because it fits comfortably into knowledge that is already common. A person of authority becomes convinced that this misinformation is true (either as an honest mistake, or because it is to his or her, a friend or family member’s, or the institution’s benefit), and in his or her capacity makes this misinformation doctrine within the institution.

Normally, in nature or human society, if an inappropriate or harmful thing is trying to grow within an environment – like a new product trying to take over the market, or an animal or plant filling a niche within an ecosystem, or even bacterium proliferating in a human being – the environment has some mechanism for stamping it out. If the product doesn’t work, the free market makes it fail; if the animal is taking resources from other species, established populations find ways to wipe it out; if the bacterium is pathogenic, the body’s immune system checks its growth and eliminates it.

But manmade power structures don’t have this self-correcting mechanism. So the seed of misinformation is planted within the institution, and it is free to grow without natural opposing forces. Maybe the institution changes its bylaws to reflect the “truth” found in this package of misinformation; or maybe it informs its constituents (the people who make it up or depend on it) of the new truth, and some of them believe it. There are many possible ways it can happen, but over time, what started as a single person believing a single believable falsehood grows into an institution and its constituents having a belief system which takes a falsehood as given.

Some fraction of the constituents of the institution adopt this pathogenic belief system as fact, making it part of their day-to-day lives – maybe it’s benign enough that they don’t notice that it’s false, or maybe they trust the institution enough to overlook or explain away glaring problems. Either way, in turn, the institution now has a whole lot more incentive to defend this information, and feed it back to their constituents – and on, and on. This back-and-forth turns an innocent, easy-to-believe piece of misinformation into the Flawed Narrative, institutionalized misinformation that is now accepted as fact by the population, even though it is not.

And here’s the fun part. The Flawed Narrative is now at the level of what comedian Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness” – it feels true, so it is! It is now the duty of the institution to defend the Flawed Narrative at all costs, funding scientific research riddled with biases that lend support to it, and convincing media sources to report it with enough sensationalism that it seems groundbreaking and unquestionable.

And so it goes. The misinformation gets cemented into public consciousness, and the Flawed Narrative becomes the official position of polite society: to disagree with it is to disagree with simple fact, to argue against knowledge so basic that they “knew it in our grandparents’ day” (even though they didn’t).

I know this has all been very abstract so far – so let’s take the specific, close-to-home example of backyard chickens, to demonstrate how pervasive and damaging this problem is within our cherished institutions.

In the City of Woonsocket, when I started trying to legalize chickens back in 2013, the accepted doctrine was that “chickens don’t belong in the city” – that they smell, and are loud, and will decrease property values, and simply aren’t worth the effort by the misguided peasants petitioning to be able to keep them. This was a bit of institutionalized misinformation that had arisen in our city (curiously, the same one that I saw in North Providence last March), and there is no better indication of its pervasiveness than the harsh treatment of myself and other public proponents, and of the council-members who worked to change the law. Thankfully, this Flawed Narrative was relegated to the history books a year ago.

I could write about countless other examples (climate change denial that is unfortunately rampant amongst government officials; the misdirected blaming of the Greek people as being responsible for their economic crisis), but I think this briefer and my previous columns are enough for you to understand this problem.

The pièce de résistance, the dogmatic ridiculousness that served as the main driving motivator for this column, is of course the religion of modern, low-fat, high-carb, count-your-calories nutritional science.

This elaborate False Narrative began with a self-serving nutritional researcher, Ancel Keys. One day in the 1950s, Dr. Keys made the decision that saturated fat intake causes heart disease, and cooked some data (in margarine, of course) in order to convince the government of the validity of his hypothesis.

The government bought it. And the rest, my friends, played out just as I have described above. The low-fat era was born in the 1960s, and the official dietary religion became that fat makes us fat and (especially the saturated type) is the cause of heart disease. The grain-based, low-fat food pyramid was published, and the federal government defended their assertions tooth-and-nail. Assertions which, conveniently, aligned just right with the large amount of money they were throwing at massive grain and legume agriculture to keep food prices artificially low.

The party line was lapped up like (low-fat) milk by an unsuspecting public, and defended mercilessly by the government, the processed food industries, and the private nutritional organizations that they fund.

And guess what? Following these high-carb, low-fat recommendations, we’ve gotten sicker than we were before they were published. But since that would have dangerous implications, the Flawed Narrative must be defended at all costs. Enter: the evil calorie! Chronic metabolic disease (heart disease, diabetes, etc) must be caused by obesity, which in turn must be caused by eating too many of those nasty Calories (because our bodies are blast furnaces, and not the most complex biochemical systems in the known universe). And because fat has more calories per gram than carbohydrates or protein, saturated fat still makes us fat, and is still somehow the cause of heart disease. But, for some strange reason, the same is not true of unsaturated fats (despite having the same number of Calories). No, they now claim they’ve told us to eat these all along.

            Biochemistry, the actual science we use to describe what goes on in the human body, disagrees with pretty much all of these claims. But government officials, and those who report on the “science”, have become experts at parroting off these failed hypotheses like robots, ignoring something as mundane as rational thought.

So you may be asking: why does any of this matter, outside of human health? Well, when a Flawed Narrative becomes institutionalized, it makes it incredibly difficult for activists to make positive change!

It legitimizes anti-scientific and anti-logical groupthink; and it allows pro-establishment members of powerful institutions to simply deny every rational argument you throw at them, every piece of logic, in favor of their accepted narrative. This means that the public ends up following advice that isn’t sound, or isn’t based in real science, but is instead protected by moneyed interest groups whose well-being relies on the preservation of a particular set of incorrect beliefs.

60 years ago, not long before the dawn of the low-fat era, George Orwell penned in his famous book, 1984: “And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth.”

When we allow scientific discourse to be guided by politics, by moneyed interests, by institutionalized misinformation that persists as “truth” long after the quietly-spoken facts say otherwise, we suffer for it. Don’t let that happen. Speak with a louder, smarter voice than the institutions. Provide logic they simply cannot argue with. Be the self-correcting mechanism that won’t exist without you. Make positive change!

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.