Tuesday, October 09, 2007

"Mistaken consensus"

Today's NYT has this piece on Gary Taubes' new book Good Calories, Bad Calories. He's the guy who wrote the big NYT Magazine piece two years ago that started (so it seemed to me, anyhow) a huge wave of media on the Atkins Diet. That piece struck many as giving credence to the view that carbs are dangerous, and that fat isn't all that bad for you.

The book pursues what sounds like it might be a shaky view thesis on biology and diet, but Tierney's piece today is about the sociology of the anti-fat consensus … about how little good, rigorous evidence there was for the anti-fat thesis from early on. Tierney (an editorial writer, if you don't know him) lays out familiar points about 'informational cascades' (hey, if all those guys believe this is right ....) and then a 'reputational cascade' (hey, if I disagree with the dominant position, I'll be crushed). Popular opinion has certainly reversed course here — I don't eat out that much, but 'low-carb' options seem to abound suddenly — and the science sounds pretty unsettled to me. At best, it sounds like we just don't know for sure how bad fat or what the really healthiest diet is. Considering the resources we've poured into diet, obesity, cardiac health, diabetes over recent decades, this may surprise you, but only if you expect the world to be pretty simple. It's not.

Now, if that's where we're at on one of the biggest health questions, where do we stand in linguistic theorizing? A couple of aggressive and smart career-builders could potentially sell the field on about any old snake oil, I figure.

Image indirectly from despair.com, one of the coolest outfits around.


Ben Zimmer said...

The ongoing reappraisal of fat in the diet always makes me think of this exchange from Sleeper:

Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called "wheat germ, organic honey and tiger's milk."
Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.
Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or... hot fudge?
Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy... precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.
Dr. Melik: Incredible.

Mr. Verb said...

Yeah, I think Taubes used that in some interview, or maybe his NYT piece. Thanks.