How to create science consensus

Terence Corcoran Jun 11, 2012 – 9:37 PM ET

New book recounts mass ­official craziness in policymaking

Right in the opening chapter of Harvey Levenstein’s entertaining and eye-opening book, Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry About What We Eat, the absurdities of official health policy based on grossly misguided claims of cause and effect are horrifyingly on display. In 1912, tests of cats’ whiskers and fur in Chicago revealed the presence of large numbers of bacteria. In response, the Chicago Board of Health declared cats to be “extremely dangerous to humanity.” In Topeka, Kan., the health board ordered all cats be “sheared or killed.” After a child polio outbreak in New York City in 1916, cats were blamed and, over a three-week period in July that year, more than 80,000 pets were sent to the SPCA to be gassed. About 10% were dogs.

Even more spectacular was the early 19th-century war on the common house fly. An eminent scientist, Walter Reed, reported that house flies could carry typhoid fever to food. That possibility only occurred when flies were practically immersed in human excrement, but such details were glossed over and the belief grew that flies carried typhoid to humans. Soon, however, public health activists blamed flies for spreading tuberculosis and other diseases. Health officials and the media — which plays a key role in spreading fear and bad policy throughout Mr. Levenstein’s book — expanded the risks. A 1905 New York Times editorial, backing “warfare against the fly,” said flies were infesting homes and food supplies bearing “not only the germs of typhoid and cholera, but of tuberculosis, anthrax, diphtheria, opthalmia, smallpox, staphylococcus infection, swine fever, tropical sores and the eggs of parasitic worms.”

Some fear of house flies continues today, although the major war on flies lasted almost two decades, at least until 1920 when, reports Mr. Levenstein, a review of the science found that fly-borne bacteria are essentially everywhere and “for the most part they are harmless.”

Not much has changed in the last 100 years. In 2012, the science of cats, dogs and flies is a lot better. But the political and regulatory practices in place today around food and science seem all too similar to the obviously flawed and ignorant patterns of official behaviour Mr. Levenstein documents. New York’s recent ban on large soda pop bottles follows the pattern perfectly. A Walt Disney decision last week to launch its own anti-junk food campaign, endorsed by First Lady Michelle Obama, is today’s version of similar events that have marked the history of food fears going back 100 years. Mass official craziness seems to be built into North American political systems when it comes to dealing with food and health.

In Fear of Food, not all bacteria were killers. Bad science could also be marshalled to support the idea that good bacteria could prolong life. One of the miracle bacteria — Bacillus bulgaricus — is found in yogurt. Yogurt allegedly prevented mental illness, sexual dysfunction, tuberculosis and scores of other problems.

Like most of the stories in Fear of Food, the alleged science of yogurt originated mostly with one man, in this case a Russian scientist and 1908 Nobel Prize winner by the name of Elie Metchnikoff. He claimed that Bulgarian herdsmen and other yogurt drinkers lived longer and were free of colon diseases. With the help of the media, and the arrival of the Danone fresh yogurt business, the diet of Bulgarian herdsmen became the diet of Americans, even though the claimed health benefits were found to be non-existent. Mr. Levenstein’s review of yogurt’s strange rise as a life-prolonging, disease-killing food source takes readers right up to yogurt’s 21st-century “probiotics” boom — a boom research later found to be without merit.

Fear of Food is not a science book. Mr. Levenstein is professor emeritus of history at McMaster University in Hamilton. Two of his earlier books — Revolution at the Table and Paradox of Plenty — relate the history of American food tastes and habits back to the 1880s. I have not read those books, but I can report that Fear of Food is a fine piece of work that for the most part lets the absurdity and collective loopiness of scientists, government regulators, politicians and corporate players reveal itself through detail and the flow of events over time. Mr. Levenstein obviously has his opinions — including an aside on one of the latest food concerns. “As I write,” he says in his introduction, “there is a burgeoning concern over salt in the diet. As with all such scares, experts are trying to frighten an entire nation.”

As an historian, Prof. Levenstein may be better suited than many other academics to follow the stories and the money behind the rise and fall of food scares and health fads, from flies to yogurt, from beef to vitamins and fat and cholesterol. The chapter on food additives, called “poisons” by early activists — led by food purist Harvey W. Wiley — tracks the almost nonsensical political and scientific turmoil that led to the creation of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The two chapters on fat and cholesterol (which are excerpted elsewhere on this page) follow the same plot line. Fear of fat — lipophobia — sprang to national attention with the work of one man, Ancel Keys, a physiologist who — just as Metchnikoff found long-lived Bulgarian herdsmen — thought he found citizens of Naples who were free of heart disease because of their “Mediterranean diet.” It’s the story of how Keys’s dubious findings launched one of the greatest food fights in American history, the war on dietary fat and cholesterol.

With a wagonload of official support from regulators, government officials, major media, NGOs, philanthropic agencies, institutes, corporate interests, surgeons-general and politicians, the war on fat began with theories that proved wrong but survive to this day.

All readers can learn much from Mr. Levenstein’s lively and often stunning reconstruction of the history of American food fears and beliefs. So could today’s policymakers, regulators, politicians, journalists and corporate executives. The great value in Fear of Food, however, is likely the realization that poor science never seriously undermined official dogma. After all, they had a consensus! How could all these smart and powerful people — including Nobel Prize winners — be wrong?