How Many Millions Have Died from This Failed Scientific Orthodoxy?

Graphic credit: Washington Post

One of the most rigorous scientific experiments on the effects of fatty foods in the diet took some 40 years to complete, but the results are now in. Reports the Washington Post:

Collectively, the fuller results undermine the conventional wisdom regarding dietary fat that has persisted for decades and is currently enshrined in influential publications such as the U.S. government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans. And the long-belated story of the Minnesota Coronary Experiment suggests just how difficult it can be for new evidence to see the light of day when it contradicts widely held theories.

The special diet given to mental patients in Minnesota did succeed in its intent to reduce cholesterol levels. What no one anticipated was that participants were more likely than patients on a conventional diet to die earlier.

Bacon’s bottom line. First question: By regulating and brow-beating food processors to reformulate their packaged foods and by pushing Americans into embracing the new nutritional guidelines, social engineers succeeded in altering the American diet. How many millions of Americans have died as a result?

As an aside, given the obsession with race and class today, one is tempted to ask also if minorities and the poor were disproportionately impacted. Did the nutritional social engineering of the 1970s lead to more obesity, more hypertension, more coronary blockage, and more diabetes than would have occurred otherwise? How many millions suffered death and disability as a result?

Second question: Will the social engineers ever own up to this calamitous public health failure and their complicity, however well intended, in the premature death of millions of Americans? Will Black Lives Matter point an accusing finger at the nutritional policies that arguably have snuffed out a thousand times more African-Americans lives than unjustified police killings?

Third question: What can we learn about what happens when science, politics and scientific funding intersect? As the WaPo summarizes why early results of the study were buried when they conflicted with orthodoxy:

The Minnesota investigators had a theory that they believed in — that reducing blood cholesterol would make people healthier. Indeed, the idea was widespread and would soon be adopted by the federal government in the first dietary recommendations. So when the data they collected from the mental patients conflicted with this theory, the scientists may have been reluctant to believe what their experiment had turned up.

Could the same thing be happening in some other sphere of public policy? Could contradictory scientific evidence be ignored or suppressed? Just asking.


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21 responses to “How Many Millions Have Died from This Failed Scientific Orthodoxy?”

  1. CrazyJD Avatar

    Fourth Question: Will we get push back from the likes of Larry G and the other leftist/statists on this blog? What form will it take? A full blown defense of climate-warming-is-caused-by-humans?

  2. Darrell Avatar

    Wonder what other experiments they forced on mental patients? Guess some people haven’t learned a damn thing since the 40’s.

    1. CrazyJD Avatar

      I knew I could rely on Larry G to make a totally misdirected comment

  3. Thanks, CJD, for anticipating my own reaction in your first comment. Bacon can’t keep changing the subject back to cholesterol just to avoid the debate he started over climate change! But who wants to discuss climate change?

    You know, scientific orthodoxy (especially when reinforced by funding sources with a vested interest) can be pretty biased. But good science is about determining the facts and following them where they lead, not about searching for facts that support a preconceived conclusion. Once you come up with a theory that (to you) best explains the know facts, you can go where that takes you, provided, you remain relentlessly open to the possibility that your theory (and everything derived from it) may have to be abandoned if new facts arise that cannot be squared with it.

    That last part is really tough if (1) the new facts raise questions, doubts, but aren’t all that clearly contradictory, and (2) you’ve already been awarded a research grant to explore something derived from that theory that’s now being questioned!

    In fact I think the prior discussion on this topic can be nicely summed up with these two comments by Jim and Salz:
    Jim Bacon: Salz, You may be right, climate change may be a disaster barreling down on us. I’m not one of those who view climate change *science* as a fraud. But I think a lot of the economic analysis regarding (a) the impact of climate change and (b) how best to address it is ideologically driven and fraudulent.”

    Salz: “We, all of us, me too, are human and we make the constant mistakes, especially the “silo-thinking” mistakes, that all humans make. . . . I don’t know where the term “settled science” came from but, from my too tiny bit of knowledge of the scientific method, there really isn’t any such thing in the actual world of science. In fact, it gets ridiculous trying to edit scientific papers (which I do sometimes) because scientists almost never put anything definitively. . . . So your bitch, I suggest, might be with “we, the people” who don’t want to hear complex truths and will easily follow “leaders” who promise to “Make America Great Again” without any support at all that the “leader” even has a rudimentary grasp of the problem, much less any ideas for solving it.”

    Yea, verily! We just don’t want to hear complex truths. About cholesterol or sugar consumption. Or take climate change for example: first, the science of climate modeling is complex as hell with feedback loops we barely understand; second, the input data is constantly changing as more research is done; third, the forecast outputs are only statistical probabilities at best; fourth, the impacts of warming are also contentious, with winners as well as losers. Fifth, on a geologic scale, the world has warmed and cooled many times to greater extremes than anything forecast today; we don’t really understand what caused tht but it wasn’t industrial CO2; anyway, we’re still here aren’t we?

    And then there’s the human/political factor: nobody likes thinking about change and rising seas would mean change on a scale we can hardly imagine; reducing atmospheric CO2 is not certain to work, and nobody likes paying huge sums on a gamble; we’re just coming off a Great Recession and this particular gamble hits the developed nations, us, hardest; and, this is a worldwide problem which simply demands a worldwide solution, but the U.N. doesn’t work and nobody likes to see those nasty polluters in China and India get a free ride.

    So, OK, I have a lot of sympathy for Jim’s skepticism, and besides it’s my children’s problem not mine anyway, let them deal with it. Let them elect Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders and scrap our checks and balances in the name of eliminating gridlock — either way SIMPLICITY will triumph — for a while, until the bills come due.

    Kick the can down the road.

    Until the road is under water, that is. I really wonder if we can firm up our science and our forecasts, mobilize the CO2 abatement effort, and agree upon a formula to share the costs and burdens internationally, all within the time frame it presently looks like we must meet. I do care about the world we are leaving to our children, and how they will fare in it. The question, in short, is, should we even try to fix things despite the uncertainties, or shrug and walk away from the challenge?

    Let’s also talk about what we can do to hedge the bet. Like reducing fossil fuel consumption, if only because it’s a limited resource we’re squandering and mankind needs it for other purposes (like making plastics and chemicals) anyway. Like population control, if only because the world already has too many mouths to feed, even without the loss of all the coastal plains to rising ocean levels.

    Will either Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders get us there? Yeah, right. It’s not their politics per se; it’s their unwillingness to deal with complexity, subtlety, international consensus building, compromise, decorum, long-term goals. So again, thank you, Salz, for saying so.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    The Seven Countries Study was formally started in fall 1958 in Yugoslavia. In total, 12,763 males, 40–59 years of age, were enrolled as 16 cohorts, in seven countries, in four regions of the world (United States, Northern Europe, Southern Europe, Japan). One cohort is in the United States, two cohorts in Finland, one in the Netherlands, three in Italy, five in Yugoslavia (two in Croatia, and three in Serbia), two in Greece, and two in Japan. The entry examinations were performed between 1958 and 1964 with an average participation rate of 90%, lowest in the USA, with 75% and highest in one of the Japanese cohorts, with 100%.[9] The Seven Countries Study has continued for more than 50 years.

    Major findings
    The Seven Countries Study showed that the risk and rates of heart attack and stroke cardiovascular risk both at the population level and at the individual level was directly and independently related to the level of total serum cholesterol. It demonstrated that the association between blood cholesterol level and coronary heart disease (CHD) risk from 5 to 40 years follow-up is found consistently across different cultures.

  5. Rowinguy Avatar

    Jim, in the first article, you said this:

    “From Congress flowed a series of measures that pushed the food processing industry to reduce the fat content of food by substituting salt and sugar. Obesity rates soared. The politicians’ mistake was a failure to recognize that scientists are people, too, and they are not exempt from the flaws of lesser mortals.”

    In this follow up, you say this:

    “First question: By regulating and brow-beating food processors to reformulate their packaged foods and by pushing Americans into embracing the new nutritional guidelines, social engineers succeeded in altering the American diet. How many millions of Americans have died as a result?”

    Tell us, please, what “measures” flowed from Congress that forced the food processing industry to substitute sugar and salt for fats. In my experience (60+ years of American eating) we in this country have not lacked for fat, salt or sugar as dietary options in the post-war era. When did Congress mandate higher sugar? Higher salt? From my perspective, the good old laws of demand and supply are at work here, not the federal legislature. The food processing industry exists to sell processed foods and is nearly irresistible by the average Joe. (

    So, second question: Who are these ominous “social engineers” who are “brow-beating” people into eating what already tastes good to them? Are you eschewing the individual’s personal responsibility to take care of himself or herself in this one instance, because of this cabal of unidentified dietary Svengalis?

    Excuse me, now. I have to go get some Krispy Kremes….

    1. Rowinguy, Congress with the enthusiastic backing of the media continually portrayed the food processing companies as bad guys for dragging their feet in reconstituting their food. The most obvious regulatory measure was the requirement for food companies to report the nutritional content of their products. That accompanied the Ag Department’s publication of nutritional guidelines, which got enormous publicity — much of it orchestrated by the government. Those are the most obvious things. But those were part of a larger movement that mobilized the health care profession, the media, academic research and more. The federal government was an active participant in bringing about the massive cultural change that changed America’s diet.

      1. Rowinguy Avatar

        Would that be the current Congress, Jim? I must have missed all these social engineering efforts from the right to incentivize the production of deadly foods…..

        1. No, not the current Congress. Past Congresses that held the hearings, passed the labeling laws, funded the science, and aided and abetted whatever else went on behind the scenes.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: brow beating, laws and social engineering…

    BR seems to be increasingly taking on the rhetoric of the rancid right these days.

    there are dietary guidelines and laws requiring nutrition labels. there are no laws telling us what to eat or not last I checked – but, you know – and Gawd strike me down for uttering such blasphemy, the worry on the right seems to be that such diabolical things are on the cusp of a secret “leftist” Agenda 21 agenda as soon as they get more control of the govt, media and scientific journals.

    the “what is in food that can harm you ” debate for a LOT of things in food has been going on for a long time and literally hundreds/thousands of “scientific” studies that suggest or draw conclusions as well as be conflicting… it’s all part of the scientific method – process.

    Some, including Jim seem to think it’s one ‘truth” study that overturns all previous ones for some reason.

    these studies go on – and on – as the process does – no one study becomes the “official” truth from on high … there becomes a gradual consensus – and even that can evolved, vary, and even be abandoned but it’s never because of one study but rather the accumulation of the body of knowledge.

    one year, coffee is good for you. next year, not so much.

    one year sugar is the evil , next year it’s carbs.

    statins are a miracle drug that reduce cholesterol but apparently that alone does ot add to life expectancy..

    unfortunately – some of the folks on the right can no longer deal with an ever changing world and have degenerated into anti-govt, conspiracy theory types these days where scientists are now considered part and parcel of the cabal of “leftists” who have now infested govt to lie to people about just about anything under the sun that the right wants to get into a lather about from climate to diet to vaccinations, DDT, race and genes in education, etc.

    which as I’ve said before is got to be the irony or all ironies in the age of the internet – it has not informed and empowered all of us- it has actually become a vehicle to spread “beliefs” and conspiracy theories when such beliefs run into facts and realities!

    1. Bottom line, Larry: Being a liberal or progressive means never having to say you’re sorry. No matter how many people are immiserated or even die from the latest fashion in social re-engineering. Just change the subject or engage in ad hominem attacks against conservatives.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Jim – science is not one truth from on high.. it’s a process –

        but it’s not an ad hominem to point out what is going on these days when it comes to people’s beliefs and their use of conspiracy theories to explain how they feel about facts and realities they disagree with.

        1. CrazyJD Avatar

          I love this. Larry G is admitting that science is not one truth. He calls it a process. Hey, LarryG, does that apply to climate change? You may want to check in with your lefty friends on that one before you go too far out on that limb. What a joke!

  7. CleanAir&Water Avatar

    JAB that last comment is a very weak jab!
    More about science and health …. Like they say … “it’s complicated” … for several reasons. It’s complicated because biology is complicated. Silver bullets rarely occur. Answers come from understanding the interactions of a lots of factors, some we may miss or not have the technology to measure, and from understanding that corelation is not cause.

    Anyone interested in the issues of diet and health should check out the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine, run by Dr, Mark Hyman. Here is what they do ….
    “we are conducting many randomized clinical trials on nutrition, Functional Medicine and chronic disease, and building a program to establish a new way to address chronic disease by using food as medicine.”

    “Our physicians at the Center for Functional Medicine aim to … apply a new model that focuses on …
    treating your body as a whole system,
    treats the causes not only the symptoms,
    sees the body as a whole organism, rather than simply a collection of
    This emerging model of diagnosis and treatment (is) called Functional Medicine…. our physicians are able to support the healing process by viewing health and illness as part of a cycle in which all components of the human biological system interact dynamically with the environment.’

    Here is Dr. Hyman’s analysis of his earlier work on diet and health and the ‘fats’ issue.

    He has also done a lot of work with diabetes. His take … “This may surprise you, but many of the methods used to lower blood sugar such as insulin or oral hypoglycemic drugs actually make the problem worse.” His main reference study, published in 2008 in the New England Journal of Medicine, evaluated 10,000 patients. The results … “Type 2 diabetes is a disease of too much, not too little, insulin. … As your insulin levels increase it leads to an appetite that is out of control, increasing weight gain around the belly, more inflammation and oxidative stress, and myriad downstream effects including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, low HDL, high triglycerides (v), weight gain around the middle, thickening of the blood, and increased rates of cancer, Alzheimer’s, and depression. These are all a result of insulin resistance and too much insulin. Elevated blood sugar is not the source of the problem.”

    The Accord study was stopped early because the results were so devastating to traditional treatment and continuing would harm the patients. My question … has Big Pharma stopped selling drugs to lower blood sugar? If not who gets to stop them? Why should it be left to me, or you, the individual to know all this?

    Which leads to my second piece of “its complicated” … what is an individual’s responsibility and what is community responsibility? This environmentalist continues to not understand why conservatives rail against regulations designed to keep any person or any business from contaminating our air and our water. Air and water are very much community goods. In the past, when we had no other choice but to burn fossil fuels for electricity, rules were set up to minimize the amounts of toxics that could be dumped into our community. Those regulations are a community responsibility. As individual citizens we can’t really have much effect on those systems. We must rely on science to evaluate the toxic effects, knowing that they may not have all the pieces in hand, and we must rely on our government, made up of elected officials, to protect the community as a whole.

    Business is designed to make profits for its investors. Business will certainly argue against items that will cut into that profit, but I would argue it is fraud to increase toxicity levels in the community when you know your argument is false. It is not about lying, it is about knowingly harming the community.

    1. Clean Air&Water, I appreciate your reasoned response to my admittedly inflammatory post. I would agree with much of what you say. Yes, the science of medicine is immensely complex. My problem is not with the scientists and physicians, who understand the uncertainties, but with the politicians who seize on the latest scientific findings without recognizing the limitations of the research. Science is very much a two-steps-forward, one-step-backward process. It’s immensely fallible. It’s waaaay better than any other approach to acquiring knowledge and inventing technology, but it’s still fallible. I just don’t think that politicians fully appreciate that. They’re always eager to apply the latest scientific hypotheses and use them to change the world. Another problem is, as you note, is that moneyed special interests like the pharmaceutical industry lobby for their own interests and change tilt the outcome in their favor.

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    ” My problem is not with the scientists and physicians, who understand the uncertainties, but with the politicians who seize on the latest scientific findings without recognizing the limitations of the research.”

    no – you’ve accused scientists and science “foisting” lies about fat and similar.

    go back and read what you wrote: “How Many Millions Have Died from This Failed Scientific Orthodoxy?”


  9. Belatedly…

    I note that Jim Bacon did not put the concept of climate change in this article. Maybe meticulously didn’t put in the concept of climate change due to evolution from his prior writing comparing it to diet? Maybe due to the feedback he received? Maybe…

    But I don’t think he was just trying to change the subject.

    What, I submit, he’s illustrating is human nature, or the nature of history. Throughout time mankind has swung too far in any direction and then pivoted and swung too far in the other direction; rarely, if ever, arriving at Goldilock’s “just right” level. In culture, we tend to call these the “periods” and – long ago — they lasted hundreds of years. In our lifetimes, they’ve become the “decades” and, seemingly, just recently have become, in this country at least, the “election cycles.” As the means of communication have sped up, so have the cycles of change. And as the ways to communicate have evolved, the recipients of communication have changed too. Perhaps (too early to actually tell) unfortunately, the reaction to recent communication change — twitter, blogs, Facebook, reality TV and the internet overall — has led humans to think individually that the world revolves around each and every one of us; that it exists to amuse/fulfill/stroke each one of our egos. And the more we get affirmation (thousands of followers! Hundred of friends! Lots of likes!) the less likely the human animal is to receive disconfirming feedback. “If the world revolves around me, I have nothing to learn,” isn’t spoken so much as it is internalized. We then begin to “huddle” together with all the others who agree with us. But unlike in the days before the printing press, the beginnings of the period of “reason,” we don’t huddle geographically (in tribes or villages), we huddle electronically — which the 10 or so of us who pay attention to Jim Bacon’s thoughts are doing constantly.

    Our desire here, it seems to me, is that we want to be challenged; want to have to think outside our own siloes, want to pay attention to opinions we disagree with. OF COURSE, I think that is “better” than staying in the flow of what others think/believe/know/intuit but recognize that it still is a silo. A silo perhaps left over from the age of reason???

    Sadly, I argue that this kind of “silo” is a very, very rare today. But that exposes one of my bias, my silo, does it not?

    Regardless, generally speaking, I enjoy reading the thoughts which force me to “reason,” to learn from facts, to be willing to change, to confront my own bias, to… And I suggest that you who comment much more consistently than I do, have similar feelings?

    I emphasize the word “reading” because reading requires more brain, less emotion, which helps my/our silo of “reason” which, I submit, is greatly needed in a visual, self-involved cultural ascendency. Unfortunately, (again, I submit), most of the communication in America today seems determined to “sell us something”* and — since we certainly don’t need, for example, several hundred perfumes or Hummers or Big Gulps or sportier electric cars or dog tunnels (so they don’t have to go in the snow)… — we’ve developed very successful industries devoted to saying, basically, “the world is about you personally,” and, therefore, the concept of “reason” is difficult to advance.

    Thank you, Mr. Bacon, for beginning so many insightful discussions… especially ones where I disagree with your insight.

    *And Mr. Peter Galuszka (sp?) might argue that Mr. Bacon is indeed trying to sell us Dominion Power. Though I often disagreed with how aggressively Mr. Galuska put his thoughts, I miss the substance of them. I hope Mr. Galuszka feels vindicated by the recent coal conviction, after his deep reporting on mining safety.

    1. I enjoy reading the thoughts which force me to “reason,” to learn from facts, to be willing to change, to confront my own bias.

      Thank you, Salz, I take that as the highest compliment. You understand what I’m trying to accomplish. I don’t expect to change the minds of many people. But if I can challenge them to think more rigorously about the reasons they believe what they do, whether they disagree with me or not, then I have fulfilled my mission.

  10. CrazyJD Avatar

    Unless they have a smoking gun where he says, “screw the bastards” or “let ’em die in the mines” or else ordered his underlings to “Ship the documents to the feds” instead of “Rip the documents to shreds”, Blankenship’s criminal conviction will likely be overturned. The only real question will be whether he pulls a Martha Stewart and decides to go in just so he can move on with his life. Appeals take forever.

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