Monday, October 15, 2007

How to get health facts completely wrong....

John Tierney reviews Gary Taubes account (in "“Good Calories, Bad Calories”; Knopf, 2007) of how the health science establishment got it completely wrong, from the basic science on through official government pronouncements on dietary fat and hearth disease (PDF here). Some clips:
The notion that fatty foods shorten your life began as a hypothesis based on dubious assumptions and data; when scientists tried to confirm it they failed repeatedly.
Even so, in 1988, the surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, proclaimed ice cream to a be public-health menace right up there with cigarettes.This happened because of what social scientists call a cascade:
We like to think that people improve their judgment by putting their minds together, and sometimes they do. The studio audience at “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” usually votes for the right answer. But suppose, instead of the audience members voting silently in unison, they voted out loud one after another. And suppose the first person gets it wrong...If the second person isn’t sure of the answer, he’s liable to go along with the first person’s guess. By then, even if the third person suspects another answer is right, she’s more liable to go along just because she assumes the first two together know more than she does. Thus begins an “informational cascade” as one person after another assumes that the rest can’t all be wrong...Because of this effect, groups are surprisingly prone to reach mistaken conclusions even when most of the people started out knowing better... If, say, 60 percent of a group’s members have been given information pointing them to the right answer (while the rest have information pointing to the wrong answer), there is still about a one-in-three chance that the group will cascade to a mistaken consensus.

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