Stossel on the Food Police

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

John Stossel hits the nail on the head about several issues in his latest piece, given the deceptively plain title, "The Assault on Food" at Townhall. I particularly like his moral clarity about government force and the superb example he chose to illustrate the problems inherent in the idea that the government should enforce standards for "good" individual behavior.

I don't suggest that we ignore the experts and eat like pigs. But the scientific question should not overshadow the more fundamental issue. Who should decide what you can eat: you? Or the state? Should government decide what we may eat, any more than it decides where we live or how long our hair will be? The Food Police claim that they just want to help us make informed choices. But that's not all they want to do. They try to get government to force us to make healthy choices.

The moral issue of force versus persuasion applies even if all the progressives' ideas about nutrition are correct. Even if I would be better off eating no fat and salt, that would not justify forcing restaurants to stop serving me those things. Either we live in a free society or we don't. [bold added]
This point Stossel makes after first indicating that the whole notion of the government taking sides in a scientific debate to be a sham.
[F]or every study that says X is bad for you, another study disagrees. How is a layman to decide? I used to take consumer activists' word for it. Heck, they want to save the world, while industry just wants to get rich. Now I know better. The activists want money, too -- and fame.

To arbitrate, it's intuitive to turn to government -- except ... government scientists have conflicts, too. [bold added]
Stossel doesn't stress this matter much, but his bit about it being "intuitive" to turn to the government pops up more than once, and is indicative of just how deeply-ingrained in our culture skipping careful thought and surrendering important decisions to others has become. Today's snake oil salesmen already have a leg up on those of yesteryear even without the real chance that everyone will be force-fed their nostrums. When once, they could only take in a comparatively few gullible souls, they can now whip up major panic.

The first thing I do upon hearing dietary advice is to ask myself on what basis it is being given and whether the advice necessarily follows from it. If that makes sense, I'll go ahead and look at whatever research is out there that might justify a change in my personal habits. But even then, I also know that much recent medical research, for example, ends up being contradicted, so I have to take that into account as well. The last thing I want is for the government to override my own judgement about such an important matter. 

Stossel indicates that his point about the government overriding our minds is much wider than food choices, but he has chosen an excellent example in the food police: an area of great interest and importance and about which there is ample room for honest disagreement.

-- CAV


Jennifer Snow said...

I've been tweaking my diet a lot lately, and I've come up with a rule of thumb that at least seems to be working pretty well:

I ignore anything that says X is "bad for you".

If I run across something that says X is beneficial, I'll look at the evidence and try to see if the proponents know WHY X is good for you.

I'll look for disinterested testimonials from, say, other blogs or commentors.

If all that adds up and it doesn't contradict something that's ALREADY working for me, I'll give it a try for a week or two. If I feel good or better, I'll keep doing it. If I feel worse, I'll drop it.

Now, this is unscientific, or at best it's an N=1 experiment, but I am feeling a lot better these days since I've taken an interest in paying attention to my health and improving it. I've also lost quite a bit of weight thus far, I'm not hungry, and my chronic health problems have pretty much vanished.

Steve D said...

Regarding your statement about most research findings being incorrect, I believe a more fundamental issue concerns how they are interpreted. It’s a subtle but important difference. The data may be telling them something but not what they think it is. I've noticed that conclusions, especially in the ‘softer’ (read – more complex) sciences often reach far beyond what the data actually says.

Gus Van Horn said...


I wouldn't go so far as to ignore ANY pronouncement that something is bad, but I would look at the reasons behind it in the same way as I would those which hold that something is good.

That said, although I dislike the term N=1 in this context, as I see it too frequently used to insinuate that something is more scientific than it actually is, your practice of informal experimentation is fine, and can a good way to account for experts with differing opinions and/or any relevant genetic differences you may have from the general population. It sounds like that approach has worked for you.


That's a good point.


Jennifer Snow said...

I'm ignoring news that X is bad for you because I've already pretty much established what general foods are bad for ME. I'm now in the "what can I add to optimize my diet?" stage rather than "what should I eliminate?"

That's all.

Gus Van Horn said...

Fair enough.

Steve D said...


I like your idea of informal experimentation and I would extend your method to many other areas of life. And also, I wouldn’t say your method is unscientific, just the opposite I think, since it’s based on collecting data to derive a conclusion. It’s just not rigorous or quantitative but it’s the best you can do since as you pointed out; you have only one data point and you can’t really put a number to it. But just because your data is qualitative does not mean your conclusions are subjective. Qualitative does NOT mean subjective.
There is also the placebo effect to consider and it can be quite strong. It’s possible that you can convince yourself you will feel better and so that makes you feel better. I’m betting this is quite common with diets as it is with medicine. Not necessarily a bad thing but something to think about.

Gus Van Horn said...


I agree, qualitative does not necessarily equal subjective any more than quantitative necessarily equals objective.