As someone all too aware of how scientism can rule out in advance evidence that does not fit with its dogmatic materialistic assumptions about mind and spirit, I may be too prone to accept as valid evidence from other specialisms of this same unscientific tendency. However, the same unscientific tendency was at work in a less contentious area within my own field of expertise when adherents of the dogma of neurorigidity, which contended that the brain could not change after maturity, refused for decades to accept the overwhelming evidence for neuroplasticity, with disastrous consequences for innumerable victims of brain injury. This may be why I read with particular sympathy a recent Guardian article by Ian Leslie on how the strong relation between sugar and health problems, such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes, came to be buried for so long. Whether the article is absolutely right in every detail is beyond me to determine, as diet is not my area of expertise. I am however convinced that it highlights a case that needs to be answered rationally and not adversarially. It also feeds my sense that the toxic aspects of science’s social processes, while they may never be entirely eliminated, need to be more effectively curbed. After all, in this case, knee-jerk orthodoxy would seem to have caused innumerable premature deaths. Below is a short extract: for the full-length and detailed article see link.
In 1972, a British scientist sounded the alarm that sugar – and not fat – was the greatest danger to our health. But his findings were ridiculed and his reputation ruined. How did the world’s top nutrition scientists get it so wrong for so long?
Robert Lustig is a paediatric endocrinologist at the University of California who specialises in the treatment of childhood obesity. A 90-minute talk he gave in 2009, titled Sugar: The Bitter Truth, has now been viewed more than six million times on YouTube. In it, Lustig argues forcefully that fructose, a form of sugar ubiquitous in modern diets, is a “poison” culpable for America’s obesity epidemic.
A year or so before the video was posted, Lustig gave a similar talk to a conference of biochemists in Adelaide, Australia. Afterwards, a scientist in the audience approached him. Surely, the man said, you’ve read Yudkin. Lustig shook his head. John Yudkin, said the scientist, was a British professor of nutrition who had sounded the alarm on sugar back in 1972, in a book called Pure, White, and Deadly.
“If only a small fraction of what we know about the effects of sugar were to be revealed in relation to any other material used as a food additive,” wrote Yudkin, “that material would promptly be banned.” The book did well, but Yudkin paid a high price for it. Prominent nutritionists combined with the food industry to destroy his reputation, and his career never recovered. He died, in 1995, a disappointed, largely forgotten man.
Perhaps the Australian scientist intended a friendly warning. Lustig was certainly putting his academic reputation at risk when he embarked on a high-profile campaign against sugar. But, unlike Yudkin, Lustig is backed by a prevailing wind. We read almost every week of new research into the deleterious effects of sugar on our bodies. In the US, the latest edition of the government’s official dietary guidelines includes a cap on sugar consumption. In the UK, the chancellor George Osborne has announced a new tax on sugary drinks. Sugar has become dietary enemy number one.
This represents a dramatic shift in priority. For at least the last three decades, the dietary arch-villain has been saturated fat. When Yudkin was conducting his research into the effects of sugar, in the 1960s, a new nutritional orthodoxy was in the process of asserting itself. Its central tenet was that a healthy diet is a low-fat diet. Yudkin led a diminishing band of dissenters who believed that sugar, not fat, was the more likely cause of maladies such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes. But by the time he wrote his book, the commanding heights of the field had been seized by proponents of the fat hypothesis. Yudkin found himself fighting a rearguard action, and he was defeated.
Not just defeated, in fact, but buried.