National Geographic Magazine is a national treasure. Published by the National Geographic Society since 1888, it is an unparalleled source of information about the world (and broader universe) in which we live. Generations of Americans — myself included — have grown up anticipating the monthly arrival of the iconic yellow bound magazine, filled with award-winning photographs and beautifully written articles.
As a publication committed to scientific study and preservation of the planet, National Geographic has always advocated for environmental responsibility. Unsurprisingly, it is one of the foremost voices on the issue of climate change. In fact, according to editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg in the March 2017 issue, NG has run 34 stories about climate change in the past three years.
There are few sources I would trust more to get the science right than National Geographic. That said, "getting the science right" is not the same thing as getting government policy right. In that vein, an article in the Books section of the most recent issue presents an ironic lesson.
Medical historian Paul A. Offit, M.D., has written a book titled "Pandora's Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong." In it, he describes seven of what he believes to be the world's most damaging "inventions," one of which was margarine. In its June 2017 issue, National Geographic published a fascinating excerpt.
Offit starts by explaining that longer life spans achieved by technological advances in the early 20th century meant that people started dying of heart disease, rather than the bacterial and viral infections that killed so many of us in earlier eras. Noticing low levels of heart disease in certain populations that consumed less dietary fat, some researchers in the 1950s and 1960s posited that consumption of fats and cholesterol was a major contributor to heart disease.
The World Health Organization, United Nations and American Heart Association were quick to jump on these preliminary conclusions — as was the U.S. government. South Dakota Democratic Senator George McGovern formed a Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs in 1968. Nine years later, McGovern's committee issued a "revolutionary report," recommending that Americans restrict their consumption of fats and cholesterol.
The United States Department of Agriculture insisted that nutrition scientists give their "best sense of the data right now" in order to rewrite the country's nutritional guidelines. "Unfortunately," Offit writes, "'the best sense of the data' depended on whom you asked." Despite some solitary voices admitting that "no one really knew whether lowering cholesterol or fat intake" would reduce levels of heart disease, those restrictions became government policy. "Although they didn't know it at the time," Offit says ominously, "Americans were now test subjects in a national experiment." That experiment had deadly consequences.
As it turned out, not enough was known about different kinds of fats and cholesterol. That didn't stop the USDA, FDA, National Institutes of Health and WHO from promoting diets low in saturated fats — which turned out to play little to no role in heart disease.
Consumer advocacy groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the National Heart Savers Association went even further, accusing American companies that used saturated fats in their products of "poisoning America," and warning Americans to avoid all saturated fats.
Later research showed that trans fats — like those used in margarine — were actually much more damaging to health than butter and other animal fats, or tropical oils like coconut oil and palm oil. But it took decades for public policy to change. In the meantime, how many heart attacks — and related deaths — could be traced to trans fats?
Ill-informed politicians, shrill consumer advocates, inflammatory reporting, overzealous regulatory agency appointees, conflicting data, defamatory accusations leveled against American companies ... does any of this sound oddly familiar?
It should. Because it's precisely what we've seen with "global cooling," followed by "global warming," and then "climate change" and "anthropogenic climate change."
It's not a sin for science to be wrong. That's all part of the process. What is stupid is to rush the process by politicizing it, or clamoring for regulations and billions of dollars in wasteful expenditures before we know precisely what the problems — and solutions — are.
Offit explicitly acknowledges this. At the end of the excerpt, he asks, "So, what's the takeaway? Could any of this have been avoided?" He concludes that "it's all about the data," reiterating that policy recommendations were made while research studies on fats and cholesterol were conflicting. "This conflict should have given us pause," he continues, "[b]ut it didn't. Ill-founded promises had been let out of the box." In other words, once the politicians were involved, it was too late.
I can hear the objections now: But the science on climate change is settled! (And it must be noted that Offit himself has written in defense of climate change.) Even so, a bit of healthy skepticism and humility seem to be in order before insisting that humans are the biggest catalysts for climate change, or demanding that trillions of dollars be ponied up for policy prescriptions that may or may not stop it. National Geographic sums up Offit's warning thusly: "(O)nly by knowing our scientific history can we avoid repeating it."