News & Politics

A Note on 'Settled Science'

Photo by Mobilus In Mobili (From Flickr)

With so much of the alleged March for Science on Saturday focusing on climate change, it’s not surprising that a number of people simply regurgitated the whole “settled science” argument. After all, the media’s been parroting that bit for decades now, but there’s also a danger in any science people say is settled.

For example, the acceptance of settled science is a major factor in the current obesity epidemic.

British nutrition professor John Yudkin began sounding the warning first, arguing that sugar was far more likely to make people fat and give them diseases like heart disease and diabetes. It did not go well for him. From Investor’s Business Daily:

For his efforts, Yudkin was branded a shill for the meat and dairy industries. His work was dismissed as “emotional assertions,” “science fiction” and “a mountain of nonsense.” Journals refused to publish his papers. He was uninvited from nutrition conferences and was ridiculed by the scientific community.

“Prominent nutritionists combined with the food industry to destroy his reputation, and his career never recovered,” writes Ian Leslie in a lengthy piece titled “The Sugar Conspiracy” that was published recently in The Guardian.

Nutritionists, Leslie explains, had decided that dietary fat was the enemy of good health, based in large part on a huge Seven Countries Study, published in 1970, which looked at 12,770 middle-aged men in countries ranging from the U.S. to Yugoslavia.

“The Seven Countries study had become canonical, and the fat hypothesis was enshrined in official advice,” Leslie writes. By 1980, the U.S. government issued its first Dietary Guidelines telling the country to cut back on saturated fats and cholesterol, and Americans dutifully complied.

That’s precisely when the nation’s obesity rate started to skyrocket. While the obesity rate barely changed from 1960 to 1980 — going from 13% to 15% — over the following two decades – 1980-2000 – the rate jumped to 35%.

“At best, we can conclude that the official guidelines did not achieve their objective; at worse, they led to a decades-long health catastrophe,” Leslie writes.

The settled science made it impossible for anyone to listen to Yudkin’s arguments. Anyone who accepted it would be labeled a heretic. Meanwhile, how many people have died because the “settled science” was considered sacred?

Contrary to what some people think, nothing is ever completely settled in science. Everything should be up for debate. Yudkin had evidence for his arguments. No one wanted to listen, and they didn’t want anyone else to listen to him, either.

Sound like anything else?

The idea that anthropogenic climate change is too sacred to be challenged takes climatology from a science and pulls it into the realm of religion, where things that might otherwise be challenged no longer can be. Those who beat that drum may claim to be scientists, but they’re nothing more than high priests of a new theology.

What happened with Yudkin is evidence that no one would ever assume the science is settled. People have died because that happened before. How many will die the next time?