Debate, Deconstructed

In classical debate there are rules that must be followed. Just like in any competition the playing field must be strictly proscribed or else the game becomes too strung out for the audience to follow. In debate the playing field would be called the topic. If the debate is taken off topic it is up to both sides to agree that it should be brought back onto the playing field, where the cameras are already all set up, so that the audience can enjoy the contest as much as the opponents are.

We debaters forget at our peril that the purpose of debate is to convince the audience of the rightness of our arguments. Debate is rarely determined by one side or the other being suddenly convinced, mid argument, that they were wrong all along and becoming convinced by the argumentation of the opponent. For illustration let us take a recent incident concerning the upcoming announcement of food and diet policy by the US, and an argument that took place between opposing “sides” of this issue. I put sides in quotes because a debate may form along any fault line and sometimes the differences between sides seem vast to them, but in reality are quite close when compared to other differences in the world.

Every five years the government puts out US Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These guidelines are then used to develop school lunches and every eating institution will look to them to craft menus for the subsequent five years. It is a big deal and has had a major effect on the health of Americans since it was first created 35 years ago. Last year word began to leak out that the new standards would call for americans to eat less added sugar. This was a VERY big deal in my eyes, because if you know anything about how the political world in the US works having a government body say words that might cost any constituency vast sums of money is a very rare thing indeed. Perhaps, I thought, having a Liberal in the White House was finally beginning to pay dividends. Not only that, the same guidelines were no longer going to claim that lard and butter were bad for your health, but they were going to say that they are bad for the health of the planet instead. I jumped for joy and wrote about it for days. Alas, two of my allies, Nina Teicholz, author of “Big Fat Surprise” and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a Washington, DC-based advocacy nonprofit–an organization that has my dietary health in it’s mission statement began a months-long debate over whether or not the committee that would be deciding the Guidelines were using science as their primary sidelines.

The first shots agains the Guidelines were fired by Teicholz in a book-length article published in BMJ (British Medical Journal) on September 23, 2015.

The scientific report guiding the US dietary guidelines: is it scientific?

Here is the crux of the case made by Teicholz:

The 2015 report states that the committee abandoned established methods for most of its analyses. Since its inception, the guideline process has suffered from a lack of rigorous methods for reviewing the science on nutrition and disease, but a major effort was undertaken in 2010 to implement systematic reviews of studies to bring scientific rigor and transparency to the review process. The US Department of Agriculture set up the Nutrition Evidence Library (NEL) to help conduct systematic reviews using a standardized process for identifying, selecting, and evaluating relevant studies.3

However, in its 2015 report the committee stated that it did not use NEL reviews for more than 70% of the topics, including some of the most controversial issues in nutrition.4 Instead, it relied on systematic reviews by external professional associations, almost exclusively the American Heart Association (AHA) and the American College of Cardiology (ACC), or conducted an hoc examination of the scientific literature without well defined systematic criteria for how studies or outside review papers were identified, selected, or evaluated.

Note that her evidence states that the report produced by the DGAC (dietary guidelines advisory committee) will not use agreed upon scientific methodology to make the recommendations. This admission is worrying because the 2010 committee had set the policy for subsequent reviews to specifically use agreed upon methodology so as to keep politics and money out of the Guidelines. It was a worrying development, so much so that Teicholz wrote a massive article to draw attention to the potential problems.

Toward the middle of the article she gets into the suspicions of bias that may be altering the conclusions being formed by the Committee. Now the idea of this is not new, and the problem is not new, and it may well be occurring, but the pronouncement of this area of discussion in this article I think is what drew the attention of the CSPI. There are scientists on the Advisory Committee, and none of them want their work painted with the brush of “whitewash” before they are even born.

The CSPI organized a campaign to get the BMJ to retract Teicholz article. They rounded up almost 200 people to sign a letter to the editor that asked specifically for that. Thankfully BMJ did not do this, so we can now examine both sides of the debate.

In their letter, the CSPI listed 11 “Factual Errors” that called for a the article to be retracted, in the opinion of the letter writer, Bonnie Liebman, and 173 additional signatories. In my opinion having all of the extra people to sign the letter is probably a touch that made it more likely to get the attention of the publishers, but it does nothing to add to the credibility of the arguments that Liebman makes. Listing signatories is attempting to add credibility to an argument by general agreement, the Bandwagon Effect. Having a crowd cheering behind you does not in fact make your scientific arguments about “factual errors” any more or less accurate. Dramatic, but unpersuasive. It also doesn’t help that a score of the signatories are students, graduate students, or interested bystanders whose association with the letter adds zero weight to the bandwagon. Getting the letter retracted will also not change the true facts in the overall debate. Teicholz and Leibman are on the same side of the overall debate. Both want the Guidelines to improve the health of the nation and to represent the facts.

For the most part the science argument boils down to “Did the DGAC admit that they weren’t going to use strict science in 2015” and “Is there a study that shows that eating saturated fat makes you sick.” So, debaters, did the DGAC admit they abandoned the agreed to format for scientific review or not? The science is in on saturated fats, though. They do not make you sick. This year there is report after report exonerating butter, lard and coconut oils as healthy alternatives to vegetable oil. I know this because I have written about it at least two dozen times last year.

I am not going to go into it at all, but compared to eating sugar, saturated fats are health food. Low fat is more and more associated with Junk Food. Added sugars, because of this year’s dietary guidelines are on the way to being quantified on food labels, the first time ever.

It is a shame that the Guidelines are probably not going to take all of the stigma off of natural fats. Nina Teicholz, you are right to complain about it. The sustainability rationale that they were going to use is only because in the US we farm 70% of the arable land in corn and soy to feed confinement animals. If we rolled the agricultural clock back 50 years and suddenly raised those animals on the ranch again the problem of greenhouse gases from raising livestock would disappear. Then there would be no rationale at all for curbing fat or red meat consumption. CSPI that would not only benefit the meat producers, but the planet and the public health. Go to CSPI website and you will find calls for lots of these things. They are Concerned Scientists, after all.

For Teicholz part her initial article contains some words like “all” and “none” which are easy to call factual errors, by finding one case that is different. In the overall debate though, finding one scientific study that disproves a “none” argument does not make the case that the science is right. Eating saturated fats is not bad for you because there were interviews of people who claimed they ate it and some of them had heart disease. Saturated fat and red meat are foods that are healthy foods if the animals themselves are healthy. That is just how the food chain works.

Getting the Teicholz article retracted will not make up for the fact that there are a lot of interested parties that have already gotten the Guideline issuance enough attention for Congress to take a look at them. I guarantee you that from what little I know about the US Congress, that their review will not increase science’s chances of gaining more scientific results. Congress looking into it is going to make the standards more political, not less. Congress claims to be defending science, but half of those guys probably think the Earth is just 6000 years old. People like Teicholz want the standards to take the stigma off of fats because there should not be any. People like Liebman want people like Teicholz to sit down and shut up because getting Sugar on the crappy list is a worthy accomplishment all by itself so don’t subject the Guidelines to more political review. I actually agree with this. Getting the nation off fructose will save a lot of quality of life six or seven Guidelines from now.

In the end, debate does not matter on the periphery like this. Friends of mine are squabbling while we all watch. It makes it seem like there is no right answer. There is a right answer, dear reader, and you know what it is. In the case of you and yours, what to feed your children–eat real food. Do not eat processed foods, they contain artificial things, and artificial things lead to unhealthy futures. If it comes in a box or bag or bottle, put it back. If it doesn’t need a label then its probably a single ingredient food–health food. If there is a health claim on the label then there is a good chance that it is man made and it should probably be put back on the shelf. Eat right and the guidelines be damned!

About dcarmack

I am an instrument technician at the electric utility servicing the Kansas City Missouri metropolitan area. I am in the IBEW, Local 412. I was trained to be a nuclear power plant operator in the USN and served on submarines. I am a Democrat, even more so than those serving in Congress or the White House.
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One Response to Debate, Deconstructed

  1. Dan, I think this is a good post–and fair. I agree that the common ground with CSPI is over sugar and refined carbs: we agree those are bad for health! Here’s the rub, though: sugar consumption has actually been declining since 2001, and so have refined carbs. So although cutting down on sugar will do an enormous amount for health, it’s not the full solution. In order for people to eat a nutritionally sufficient diet, with at least the level of fat (40% of calories) that we ate in 1965, then our authorities also need to liberate saturated fats, so that people can eat the foods where fat occurs naturally. These are animal foods. Otherwise, you’re eating highly industrialized vegetable oils. (And I’d say 40% is sort of a minimum for good health; the science shows that people with metabolic diseases, like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease look healthier eating even more fat and fewer carbs). So this is where the rub is with CSPI, bc that group has been on the attack against saturated fats for decades and has attacked me viciously for now bringing to light the reevaluation of those fats. That’s at the crux of the debate now. But anyway, Dan, well done. Thank you!

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