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So much for conventional wisdom

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June 12, 2008

For nearly a decade now, I’ve been writing about controversies regarding the relationship between weight and health. In the course of studying the matter, I’ve concluded that much of the conventional wisdom about the subject is simply wrong.

During the last couple of years, whenever I’ve pointed out that claims of an "obesity crisis" are not well supported by evidence, and that many of the supposed solutions for this "crisis" are likely to do more harm than good, I’ll hear from people who tell me that everything I’m saying applies equally well to the subject of global warming.

At first glance there are some striking similarities between the two topics. Unfortunately, I can’t judge whether those similarities are merely superficial, or whether, like the purported "obesity epidemic," global warming represents a moral panic over a relatively minor or imaginary problem.

The reason I can’t judge that question is that it took me several years to develop genuine expertise about the relationship between weight and health. By contrast, I have no expertise whatsoever in regard to the extremely complex question of the extent to which human activity is causing the planet to get warmer, and what can or should be done about it.

Thus when it comes to climate change, I’m at the mercy of the people our culture sanctions as authority figures on this subject. Given that I’ve concluded (like many other researchers who’ve studied the issue in depth) that the standard line taken by various authority figures regarding weight and health is seriously flawed, this is an uncomfortable position to be in.

Yet it’s also an inevitable one — after all, no one can develop genuine expertise on more than a handful of subjects at best. All of us must rely almost wholly on authority figures for almost everything we believe.

Some general points, however, are applicable to any controversial topic.

First, experts tend to overstate their actual knowledge. The honest answer to a great many questions would be, "that’s an extremely complicated issue, and we really have no idea what the answer is, because our data isn’t good enough, and therefore our theories are still inadequate."

But that doesn’t make for a very good media sound bite, or allow for the kinds of practical recommendations beloved of government agencies and the like. (Nor, needless to say, is it a good way to get a grant funded).

Second, the concept of "objective science" is a myth. Science is always done by scientists, which is to say by human beings, who are just as prone to various personal prejudices and ideological biases as all the other members of the species.

For example, in regard to climate change, everyone has some pre-disposition, and often a strong one, to a particular view of the subject. Thus for those of an environmentalist bent, human-caused global warming is exactly the sort of thing they expect to happen. Those who put great faith in technology and market forces have just the opposite bias.

Third, what are presented as purely scientific positions are often moral judgments in disguise. For instance, many people who are concerned about "obesity" think that it’s bad to eat a lot of food and to be sedentary, whether or not these things increase health risk.

In other words, supposed medical concerns about fat are often actually moral objections to what those who voice such concerns consider a symptom of sloth and gluttony.

Similarly, much concern about global warming seems to be driven by a sense that a relentlessly consumerist society keeps us from being in a harmonious relationship with the earth.

Does being aware of such things help one tell the difference between a real crisis and a fake one? My opinion is that it may — but I’m no expert on the matter.

 

(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)

One Response to So much for conventional wisdom

  1. DejaVuAllOver

    June 12, 2008 at 4:11 pm

    This sounds like one of MY usual rants: Scientists can be every bit as “fundamentalist” as religious nutjobs. When you insist that your “book” is the ultimate truth and start wallowing in your own self-righteous ego trip, you are a fundamentalist. I have a lot of training in the sciences, and I can say with absolute certainty that scientists can be some of the most arrogant, egotistical buttwipes imaginable. Just like the Christian, Jewish and Muslim egotists who are trying their best to destroy the world, “knowing” THEY’LL be “saved.”

    Nice piece, Paul. I enjoy your writing.