Wielding the mask of science
Official health has a persistent pattern of presenting as science-based things that are not.
Despite the efforts of the wilder shores of critical theory and its critical constructivist derivatives (such as critical race theory) to present science as white, patriarchal, heteronormative and similar morally-disabling things, science retains a great deal of authority in Western societies. Particularly in areas of policy concern that clearly should be based on good science. Hence public policy, and policy advocacy, regularly presents itself as being based on sound science.
Thus uses of terms and phrases such as trust the science, scientific consensus and, as terms of de-legitimisation, science denialism.
The evolution test
In areas such as health, nutrition, medicine, dentistry there is, in fact, a pretty reasonable rule-of-thumb to apply about how well science is being applied: the evolutionary lens. Ask yourself: does this claim make sense in the light of human evolutionary history? If the answer is no, there is a good chance that it is wrong. If the answer is yes, there is a much higher chance of it being correct.
So, if humans have been eating something for thousands of generations (meat, fish, saturated fat, salt, tubers) then there is a good chance that it is fine in your diet. (And nutritional-value or health-risk claims against them typically have very poor evidentiary bases.) Though differences in how they are cooked or when, including how often, they are eaten provides a complicating factor.
If humans have been eating something for only a few decades (seed oils, ultra-processed food), then there is an good chance that it is not good for you.
A similar point applies to eating patterns. If an eating pattern has been common for thousands of generations (one, two, maybe three, meals a day, little or no snacking), it is probably good for you. If an eating pattern is much, much more recent (eating several times a day due to regular snacking), then it is probably not good for you.
Modern Westerners have about the same daily energy expenditure as hunter-gatherers, so levels of physical activity are less of a factor in explaining rising obesity than one might expect. Which strongly suggests that changes in diet and eating habits has been the main factor in rising obesity.
It is frightening how much of the nutrition advice from official health sources does not pass the test of the evolutionary lens. Then again, a fair bit of medicine and dentistry also fails the test of the evolutionary lens. (For instance, the silly claim that it makes evolutionary sense that we grow redundant teeth, especially as foraging populations are generally known for their healthy teeth.)
The mask of science (nutrition)
Much of the nutrition advice from official health (i.e. government health departments and regulatory bodies) wields the mask of science. It presents itself as being based on the science, when it is not. Or, at least, it is not based on good science.
The problem is, it is hard to do nutrition science well, because of nutrition’s inherent complexity. That means it is easy to do nutrition science badly, and even easier to do it to an agenda.
As the food industry (using the term ‘food’ somewhat loosely) is huge, there are enormous revenues at stake. So the capacity to fund, present and cherry-pick poor or misleading science is great. And, indeed, frequently done.
Unfortunately, official health also has perverse incentives. Not only are there the pressures of very well-funded influence-peddling but there are the inherently perverse incentives due to the tax-funding of health departments.
We pay organisations to do what makes their income go up, because that will have by far the strongest reinforcing incentives and feedbacks on what they do. If the metabolic health of the population gets worse, then health expenditure, including tax-funded health expenditure, goes up.
So, official health gets more revenue if they give us metabolically counter-productive advice and they get less revenue if they give us metabolically sound advice.
This is what economists call perverse incentives. Evolutionary biologists would call it adverse selection.
Unfortunately, welfare states are full of perverse incentives and processes of adverse selection. We can define the welfare state as:
a structure whereby taxes are spent to reduce or ameliorate social harms via various tax-funded bureaucracies that receive more revenue if the social pathologies tend to increase and less if they tend to decrease.
If we want to define the welfare state in terms of the state apparatus itself, then the welfare state represents:
a process whereby the state apparatus colonises (i.e., expands into, and receives increased revenue from) its own society rather than other societies.
Government health departments, in effect, colonise our collective ill-health. It is perhaps not a shock that the metabolic health of Western populations has been getting worse, and has been getting worse faster since governments started promulgating official nutrition guidelines in 1980.
If you are wondering what specific mechanisms have led to the official nutrition guidelines making our collective metabolic health worse, they can be summarised as:
- Encouraging us to eat more frequently, leading to our bodies being chronically flooded with insulin, driving up rates of insulin resistance.
- Encouraging more consumption of carbohydrates, leading to more fat storage (as set out in the chart at the top of this post).
- Paying no attention to the massive increase in use of (highly inflammatory) seed oils.
- Demonising saturated fat on the basis of no good scientific evidence. (And eating less fat means eating more carbohydrates.)
The official nutrition guidelines have been structured, by feedback and selection processes, to generate deteriorating metabolic health in a way that permits the use of the mask of science to cover nutrition guidelines that no one concerned for their health, or the health of their family, should actually follow. US defence forces, for example, are suffering adverse health consequences, likely due to following the official nutrition guidelines.
Indeed, without the mask of science, more folk would be come aware of what a diabolically bad job the nutrition guidelines have done, if improving the health of the population was the goal.
Of course, if the aim is to increase government health expenditure, then they have been excellently effective. Which appears to be precisely how the selection pressures have operated.
As we contemplate the deteriorating metabolic health of Western populations, Thomas Jefferson proved to be prophetic in his 1787 Notes on the State of Virginia:
Was the government to prescribe to us our medicine and diet, our bodies would be in such keeping as our souls are now.
The mask of science (Covid 19)
We can also see the mask of science being use to cover policies not grounded in good science in the official responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Covid-19 is a respiratory (so seasonal) illness of metabolic distress. That is likely why children and adolescents have been largely immune: their metabolisms are generally sufficiently healthy that they are far less vulnerable.
One of the things that became clear relatively early is that outdoor transmission is not a significant vector for spreading the virus. Conversely, Vitamin D deficiency is a vector for increasing the likelihood of suffering badly from the virus. (Likely a major factor in why darker-skinned folk in northern latitudes had higher rates of illness and death.) Also, social interaction is well known to reduce stress and so increase capacity to resist disease.
So, we should not have been telling people to stay out of the sun and the fresh air, or to wear masks outdoors (or to move in lines), as airborne transmission risk is about effective volume of air. Yet, using the mask of science, this is precisely what has been done in many jurisdictions. The case for lockdowns is also much weaker than is often recognised. (See also here.)
Masks do, however, operate as a strong social signal. A signal that gets its power from use of the mask of science.
A tale of two (US) states
Florida and California are both large population US states, (21m to 40m people) at similar latitudes (so similar seasonal patterns). Florida has a higher population density, though California’s population is slightly more urbanised (95% to Florida’s 91.2%). Florida has an older population (median age of 42.5 to 37) as you would expect from a well-known retirement destination.
So, other things being equal, you would expect Florida to have a higher pandemic death rate than California. California has a death rate of 1,595 per million people. Florida has a death rate of 1,721 per million people. So, higher, as one would expect. But not very much higher: 126 more deaths per million or 8% higher. Rather less of a difference than one might expect, given that Florida’s median age is 15% higher than California’s.
Yet the measures in California to combat the pandemic have been way more intrusive and expensive than what has been done in Florida. Moreover, California’s death rate has been closing on Florida’s, as California’s second (seasonal) wave was much worse than its first.
Florida not discouraging people to go outside and enjoy the sun, and not requiring masking outside, does not seem to have had significantly adverse effects. As, one would expect, if one was following the actual science rather than those wielding the mask of science.
The systematic attempts to suppress any public consideration of the lab leak hypothesis was another, particularly egregious, case of the use of the mask of science against actual science. Also egregious has been the suppression of discussion of a potentially viable treatment for Covid-19, Ivermectin (longer discussion here).
Advice not given
It was clear relatively early on in the pandemic that Covid-19 was a respiratory (thus seasonal) disease of metabolic distress, with poor metabolic health greatly increasing your risk factors. By changing your eating habits, you can improve some markers of metabolic health in a few days, some in a few weeks, the rest within a few months.
These changes needn’t be all that expensive. Indeed, simply eating less frequently (aka time-restricted eating or intermittent fasting) to give your body a rest from being flooded with insulin can be very effective.
As far as I am aware, at no stage did official health tell us that. Either they didn’t know or they didn’t want to admit what crap their official nutrition guidelines are.
Either way, the selection processes operating on official health did not favour optimising the policy response to the pandemic. But they certainly did involve much use of the mask of science. Rather less use of actual science.
Stop and consider how many unnecessary deaths there may have been from the Covid-19 pandemic because official health has perverse/adverse incentives.
They are a mere fraction of the premature deaths every year from using the mask of science to push bureaucratically (and corporately) convenient nutrition guidelines rather than providing nutrition advice well-grounded in our evolutionary history, so in actual science.