This article is, for the most part, a nice, fact-filled discussion about how complicated obesity is.

It’s complicated: not all calories are created equal, genetics is probably important, epigenetics is probably important, stress and sleep are probably important, exercise may be important, …

There are a lot of factors that either are important or might be important. And there are humans involved, so it’s automatically insanely complicated.

Oh, and laboratory animals are also getting fatter! No joke, read the article.

It’s a good article when it sticks to presenting the facts. It makes for a great read.

But then the author goes and ruins it:

What are we onlookers — non-activists, non-scientists — to make of these scientific debates? One possible response, of course, is to decide that no obesity policy is possible, because ‘science is undecided’. But this is a moron’s answer: science is never completely decided; it is always in a state of change and self-questioning, and it offers no final answers. There is never a moment in science when all doubts are gone and all questions settled, which is why ‘wait for settled science’ is an argument advanced by industries that want no interference with their status quo.

Making policy, as the British politician Wayland Young once said, is ‘the art of taking good decisions on insufficient evidence’. Faced with signs of a massive public-health crisis in the making, governments are right to seek to do something, using the best information that science can render, in the full knowledge that science will have different information to offer in 10 or 20 years.

The issue, rather, is whether the government policies and corporate business plans are in fact doing their best with the evidence they already have. Does the science justify assuming that obesity is a simple matter of individuals letting themselves eat too much? To the extent that it is, policies such as Japan’s mandatory waist-measuring and products like the Hapifork will be effective. If, on the other hand, there is more to obesity than simple thermodynamics, some of the billions spent on individual-centred policies and products may be being wasted. Time, in that case, to try some alternative policies based on alternative theories, and see how they fare.

Which is odd, since in the very next paragraph he explains exactly why the government should not do anything (answer: they’ll probably get the policy wrong):

Today’s priests of obesity prevention proclaim with confidence and authority that they have the answer. So did Bruno Bettelheim in the 1950s, when he blamed autism on mothers with cold personalities. So, for that matter, did the clerics of 18th-century Lisbon, who blamed earthquakes on people’s sinful ways. History is not kind to authorities whose mistaken dogmas cause unnecessary suffering and pointless effort, while ignoring the real causes of trouble.

And in the case of obesity, we have no idea of the real cause of the trouble. That’s what the whole article was about!!!

So, no, government should not do something. It might do the wrong thing! Policy is not solely, or even primarily, set in the way the author’s quote suggests. It is mostly driven by people wanting to keep their jobs (vote seeking) and catering to special interest groups (a specific, strategic form of vote seeking). Knowing the right answer – and we don’t in the case of obesity – is NOT sufficient to generate good policy. So the government should do nothing. Usually, on all issues, the government should do nothing.

-JD Cross

Thanks to Mungowitz for posting.

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