Sleepwalkers

Arthur Koestler wrote a book (which I have not read) called The Sleepwalkers, described in this review :

The “sleepwalkers” of Mr. Koestler’s title are the great figures in the history on modern cosmology- Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton. They are “sleepwalkers,” according to Mr. Koestler, as are, indeed, most of the creative minds in the history of science, because they never quite know what they were doing.

Sleepwalkers somehow skirt disaster; they have an inner certainty that propels them although they cannot state what they seek or why they seek it. They move toward their goal by the most extraordinary and the most logically questionable methods; and when they have arrived where they have always wished to go, they frequently do not realize that they are there.

I sometimes think of Michael Pollan as one of these sleepwalkers, blithely stumbling around in murky subjects, discovering deep truths that sometimes even he doesn’t seem to recognize. For example, I think that his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma makes a better case for full-scale anti-urban agrarianism than even he understands.

While reading his latest article
I came across a couple of paragraphs which, while nearly a throwaway observation, strike deep into the heart of the fraud that is modern scientism. Here he is discussing a recent large-scale study that seems to have demonstrated that a low-fat diet, contrary to expectations, has no effect in reducing breast cancer:

But perhaps the biggest flaw in this study, and other studies like it, is that we have no idea what these women were really eating because, like most people when asked about their diet, they lied about it. How do we know this? Deduction. Consider: When the study began, the average participant weighed in at 170 pounds and claimed to be eating 1,800 calories a day. It would take an unusual metabolism to maintain that weight on so little food. And it would take an even freakier metabolism to drop only one or two pounds after getting down to a diet of 1,400 to 1,500 calories a day — as the women on the “low-fat” regimen claimed to have done. Sorry, ladies, but I just don’t buy it.

In fact, nobody buys it. Even the scientists who conduct this sort of research conduct it in the knowledge that people lie about their food intake all the time. They even have scientific figures for the magnitude of the lie. Dietary trials like the Women’s Health Initiative rely on “food-frequency questionnaires,” and studies suggest that people on average eat between a fifth and a third more than they claim to on the questionnaires. How do the researchers know that? By comparing what people report on questionnaires with interviews about their dietary intake over the previous 24 hours, thought to be somewhat more reliable. In fact, the magnitude of the lie could be much greater, judging by the huge disparity between the total number of food calories produced every day for each American (3,900 calories) and the average number of those calories Americans own up to chomping: 2,000. (Waste accounts for some of the disparity, but nowhere near all of it.) All we really know about how much people actually eat is that the real number lies somewhere between those two figures.

Who can read this, understand it, and then give credence to any “scientific” study ever again?

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