Fat Chance

Those that follow the climate change issue may be aware of the low opinion that Matt Ridley is viewed with by people who accept the mainstream scientific position and the opprobrium with which his pronouncements on this matter are often greeted. His financial interests in fossil fuel, he owns a coal mine, do not help but his support of the contrarian view of AGW is also rooted in the political position that rejects the science because the policy choices it implies are an anathema to the hardline free market position he supports. This seems to be the basis for the GWPF advocacy. Some who find his denial, or at least his minimisation of the established climate science objectionable express puzzlement that someone who writes such good books on biology and genetics  can be so wrong on this issue. Others who have a knowledge of the biology he presents in those works that goes beyond the popularist exposition he gives may already have a lower opinion of his work.


Recently Matt Ridley had an article published in the Times May 25th 2015 that called into question, if not outright derided, another mainstream scientific opinion. In this case it was the supposed role of cholesterol and other dietary fats in the epidemic of cardiac disease, obesity and other health issues that are becoming the primary medical problems in the developed and rich societies. He provides a short overview of the main historical sources for the indictment of cholesterol and saturated fats as the culprit in these modern disease problems and asserts the science involved was dubious to say the least. He mentions the various studies that appear to refute, or at least call into question the validity of the science that fingers fats as the scourge of healthy eating and the way such contrarian ideas have been sidelined by the prevailing mainstream consensus around the evils of lipids.

The question is, is he any more right, or wrong, in his dismissal of the accepted conventional wisdom in the matter of fats in the diet as he is over CO2 in the atmosphere?

My own view on this is that there is a qualitative difference in the two positions.
On the issue of cholesterol and fats in the diet the science has always been somewhat dubious. Not least because the biological sciences seem to get increasingly distorted by prevailing ‘wisdom’, convention and commercial interests the closer biology gets to the human aspects of the subject. Even more strongly in the field of food and dietary science, the conclusions are often a bizarre mix of tradition and financial bias with little biology. That can be seen in the strange acceptance of the replacement of around quarter of the human energy requirement from diet by a refined chemical. That sugar can replace, supplant, or most often, add on to the calorie requirement without any impact on the metabolism or health of an individual should have been rejected as a hypothesis without extensive evidence that human biology really was that resilient to such radical changes in the diet. We may be faculties scavenging omnivores, but that does not justify an assumption that we can eat anything in any proportion without consequences.

Human biology is complex and as is a feature of Matt Ridley’s writings the simplifications he imposes can often distort more than they clarify. The vilification of cholesterol and lipids in the diet has been a bit of bad science. Unfortunately all to common in the field of human biology which is not only far more complex than such simple systems as the climate or particle physics, but also much more often captured by financial interests and cultural biases.
However there certainly is a strong case for the reassessment of the role and dangers of cholesterol in the diet, while it cannot be granted a clean bill of health, the reputation as the dangerous substance at the heart of much human morbidity is certainly undeserved. And not entirely unconnected with the preferences of the food production and manufacturing industries to shape our diets away from the unrefined and primitive towards a closely controlled and constructed dietary choices. Even more than medicine the science of dietary biology is littered with errors and special interests biases.

It may be tempting for some to see the dubious and frequently distorted consensus science on matters of human biology especially in the field of diet and health and conclude that a similar level of skepticism is justified about climate science. That somehow the business interests, ideological and traditionalist positions have had a similar distorting effect on the scientific conclusions. That the physics of the atmosphere has been as deeply distorted as the biology of human diet. And that can justify their rejection of the mainstream viewpoint that has emerged on the climate issue, that anthropogenic CO2 is a major risk factor in the continued ‘health’ of the environment. Just as the various and often contradictory risk factors invoked around the issue of human health can be denied.

Fat chance.


3 responses to “Fat Chance

  1. Judith Curry is also a big fan of nutritional science.

    A big problem is that the advice often comes from government agencies, not from the scientists. However, these scientists are also not very active in combating the overconfidence of the nutritional advice. Nor are they active in combating the “misinformation” (in their eyes, I guess) of people claiming that meat and cholesterol is no problem. Reading blogs on the paleo diet, I was always looking for nutritional scientists to point out the errors and link to reliable information (but that never happened).

    There is advice they can be pretty confident about, eat fruits and vegetables, for example. And there is advice that they may think is right, but is not based on much more than a correlation, such as their advice to eat less meat and cholesterol.

    In climate science we try to differentiate about the parts where we are confident (it is warming, it is us and will continue if we do not stop greenhouse gas emissions) and where we still need a lot of research (changes in extreme weather and impacts). I wonder why they do not do this in nutritional science.


  2. That nutrition advice often comes from government bodies rather than from scientists is justified by the claim that it is a public health issue and therefore it is a responsibility of government that cannot be left to the whims and partisan enthusiasms of scientists. Governments must ensure the cranks are excluded.

    What has actually happened is one of the best examples of regulatory capture. The food production industry has become a major funder of research and supposedly independent scientific bodies that advise the governments. And they demand involvement because government pronouncements on diet will have impacts on their economic activities, so they must be consulted.


    “The British Nutrition Foundation (BNF), which includes Coca-Cola, Mars and British Sugar among its members, has helped write the “core competencies” on diet and health for school lessons on nutrition.
    The seven-page document makes no reference to obesity or the links between foods high in saturated fat and sugar and heart disease and diabetes.
    In the paper, the BNF recommends the use of the government’s “eatwell” plate — a pictorial representation of the foods that make up a healthy diet. One of the groups is “foods and drinks high in fat and/or sugar”, such as cola, cake, crisps, sweets and biscuits.”


  3. For me it’s very simple:

    Big Sugar
    Big Pharma
    Big Fossil
    Big Tobacco
    Big Ag
    Big Finance

    They’re all important actors in a system that is sick to the core. To dismiss one of them, is to dismiss all of them, if you care about being consequent. Ridley obviously doesn’t care about this. He’s rich, so he can laugh at processed foods and how people are being fooled and forced into consuming them. But he doesn’t laugh when Big Finance and Big Fossil get the same treatment, because they are enabling his freedom to do whatever he likes (which is the definition of freedom for dummies).

    But very good piece, Izen. Never been to your blog before.


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