As I write this, the second of the two political conventions has just come to a close. By all accounts, more people are paying attention to these gatherings than any time in recent memory- the top "attractions" of both parties easily drew in millions more viewers than the 2008 American Idol season finale.
For people who are interested in health, nutrition and diet, this provides us with a unique teaching moment. Stay with me for a moment here, and I'll bring it together for you.
In the last two weeks, millions of people heard (from the other party) what they would consider complete distortions of facts, misreadings of the record, selective reporting on issues, cherry picking of evidence, and downplaying of any opposition points. If you were a Democrat, I'm sure you found yourself rolling your eyes in amazement at the distortions and "lies" of the Republicans, and felt a certain degree of disbelief that "other people" could be so easily fooled. If you were a Republican, you felt exactly the same way about the Democrats.
This is exactly- and I mean exactly- what happens when partisans of "low-carb" and partisans of "low-fat" discuss weight loss. But, you might say, isn't that all based on science? What is there to disagree about? Hard facts are hard facts, right? Actually, "hard facts" are anything but hard.
Recently, books like "The Political Brain" have argued that the choices we make, the issues we resonate to, the candidates we pick and the political parties we join have way less to do with our intellect and the issues than we think they do. The short version: we make our alliances based on unconscious motivations and then selectively look for evidence to back up and justify the choices we make on a gut level.
Our choices are more likely to be influenced by who we were bullied by in high school, who we identify with, who pulled our pigtails, who beat us in dodgeball, or who we idolized in grade school. Or whether we identify more strongly with our mother or our father. We may think we're debating "the issues" intellectually, but they've long been "decided" in our subconscious brain.
That's why "who we identify with" is such a powerful motivator in politics. That's why twins raised apart tend to vote for the same candidates. Most people don't know the details of health care policy, but they darn well know whether they "like" or "trust" a candidate and that has much more to do with the unconscious than you might think. In traveling the roads of the diet wars for almost two decades now, I have noticed an amazing parallel between choosing "sides" in the nutrition war, and choosing "sides" in the political arena.
In preparation for a new book I'm doing, I'm reading through the mountain of research on diets, including the "dangers" of saturated fat in the diet, low-carb diets for weight loss, low-fat diets for weight loss, the cholesterol controversy (yup, there's a big one!), diet comparison studies, and other stuff far too boring to recount here. And the parallel between what I'm reading and what I've just watched at the two conventions is uncanny.
When studies showing low-carb "works" come up, you can count on a "rapid response" from the other side to discredit the study. When studies showing the supposed "danger" of saturated fat or cholesterol are published (they're far fewer than you might think), the other side can be counted on to do the same thing.
Now I happen to be firmly on one of these "sides"-(I think low-fat diets are the biggest crock in nutritional history)- but that doesn't mean I can't observe this dynamic clearly. The "scientific debate" looks and sounds exactly like what you'd hear from your Ken Melman and James Carville debating the "facts" on MSNBC. When it comes down to it, I think we actually "choose" a side in the diet wars based on the same gut feelings and identification that we do when we "choose" a side in the political wars.
As Robert Lee Hotz wrote recently in a column in the Wall Street Journal aptly entitled "The Biology of Ideology", some of the factors in "choosing" sides may even have a genetic influence. This is compounded in the diet wars by individual metabolic factors- most of us get very attached to a dietary program that worked for us personally and tend to think that program is therefore "right" for everyone. But what about the "science"?
If you think scientists are any different than the rest of us in having biases and emotions and unconscious forces that shape their studies and their conclusions, I've got a nice bridge to nowhere to sell you. There is ample evidence that scientists are just as "foolable" and subject to the vagaries of these dark forces as mere mortals. Just ask any magician. Every one of them will tell you that he'd rather perform in front of an audience of physicists than an audience of five year olds.
As one famous illusionist put it, "They're more easily fooled."