Fear of Food: “The Hubris of Experts”

At the end of Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat by Harvey Levenstein (2012), an historian at McMaster University, the author summarizes what he has learned:

During the course of writing this book, I have often been asked what lessons I personally draw from it. . . . The hubris of experts confidently telling us what to eat has often been well-nigh extraordinary. In 1921, for example, the consensus among the nation’s nutritional scientists was that they knew 90% of what there was to know about food and health.

Yeah. Two questions for an expert giving advice, especially apocalyptic advice (“You’ll die if you don’t . . . “): 1. What fraction of what there is to be known on your subject do you know? 2. May I quote you?

When I was a freshman in college, I went to hear a talk (off campus) about the chance of life elsewhere in the universe (or was it the galaxy?). The speaker multiplied a bunch of numbers together and came up with an estimate. “What’s the error in that estimate?” I asked. The speaker had no answer. He didn’t know. It’s essentially the same thing.

5 Replies to “Fear of Food: “The Hubris of Experts””

  1. “In February 2010, the press reported on a meta-analysis of 21 lengthy studies, comprising 347,747 subjects, that concluded that there was no association between saturated fat consumption and the risk of heart disease.”

    A reference to the source would have been useful, but still the point is made.

  2. Point of the scientific process is it gets it right over time. In the short term are there mistakes… sure. Over time experiments are rerun, repeated and the answers are reviled. 1900’s science was wrong and right about a large number of things, and improvements are made and the process continues.

    The point is these reviews of literature take place, and improvements are made. The process is self correcting.

  3. How many times I’ve heard “I don’t know what to believe”?

    How many times I’ve answered “You don’t have to believe anything. Search for information to learn not for instructions to follow”?

    Alas, it is quite common to come across people that can’t comprehend the difference between knowledge and belief.

    Seth: That’s an interesting reply (“You don’t have to believe anything”). What do people say after you say that?

  4. They become confused. The usual claim is, essentially, that the veracity of a statement supersedes its understanding… as if, you know, the first could be established independently of the second.

    Some people get it when I ask them whether they know or they believe the earth is round.

    Seth: Thanks for explaining that.

  5. this is precisely why i turn my back when the paleo community aggressively markets its diet. i try very hard (and frequently fail) at staying meat- and leather- free. one time i contributed to a discussion on the New York Times website discussing veganism, and the entire discussion was shouted out by about 5 paleos who were being sarcastic and aggressive vs. the vegans.

    i think that most paleo eaters are romanticizing early human life and, based on their romantic notions, are making sweeping health generalities about the benefits of the paleo diet.

    i see great value in eating as many whole foods as possible and limiting grains. but i do NOT believe that invariably means that humans function optimally as carnivores.

    anyhow, i follow your site and thought i would chime in with my opinions on this issue.

    p.s. i have brewed kombucha for many years and enjoy it. one can readily find scobys from reputable local dealers via google and the like. not sure whether that is also the case in PRC.

    Seth: Thanks, very interesting. By the way you don’t need a scoby, you can use a few tablespoons of store-bought kombucha.

Comments are closed.