I received the following comment, I assume, from Dr. Garth Davis.
If this is Garth, great. If it is a troll, also OK, as this gives me the opportunity to fully discuss important issues about science communication and poor quality vegan diets.
For context, my disagreement with Garth started over the plant-based diet documentary film The Game Changers.
I have been very disappointed in the reception of The Game Changers by the plant-based community. I have a lot of respect for James Wilks–he is both well-meaning and clearly very intelligent–as well as many of the other people involved in the film.
However, there is very clearly a great deal of exaggeration in the film and of taking license with the facts to sell a story. This story gives the impression of benefits to meatless diets, especially with respect to athletic performance, that are not commensurate with a sober and impartial look at the evidence, and using means that misrepresent the facts. Layne Norton has provided a helpful overview of many of the important factual problems with the film.
However, these factual errors will not be the focus of this article. Instead, I will discuss what the role of factual errors is in scientific communication, as well as what I think the real problem with The Game Changers is: namely, that it poses a real risk of harm to the health of viewers who follow its advice by promoting a poor-quality diet.
Good Enough nutrition science communication
Some might excuse this problem with the film by arguing that switching to a healthy plant-based diet can and does have dramatic, positive health benefits for many or most people, even if the film does take some liberties with some of the facts.
According to this point of view, when talking to lay audiences, a precise representation of the facts is less important than a representation of the facts leading the audience in essentially the right practical direction.
In fact, precisely representing the facts might get in the way of representing the essential practical truth of the facts: being precise with the science might actually prevent one from telling a compelling and essentially true story that might be of benefit to audiences.
(The nuances of a strictly entirely true story, for instance, might be so complicated that they detract from the main point.)
This is a point of view that I struggle with all the time. And I think that there is some important truth to it. Ultimately I reject it as a starting point for science communication, though, for two reasons.
The harms of Good Enough science communication
First, powerful stories that involve misrepresentation of individual facts, even if that misrepresentation of individual facts leads to a “proper” representation of the big picture, eventually take on a life of their own and can be used for other purposes.
For instance, the insight that saturated fat intake is probably a dietary risk factor for cardiovascular disease can be conflated with fat phobia. This fat phobia, in turn, might be endorsed because it is “good enough” and leads to restriction of saturated fat.
This fat phobia, which is probably scientifically unjustified, then can be used by other interests to promote the idea that, so long as one does not eat fat, one will not get heart disease. Perhaps this is also “good enough” because it causes people to avoid saturated fat.
But, finally, this leads to endorsing high-sugar, low-fat products as “heart healthy”. Since they have little fat.
A story that was “good enough” over several permutations of “good enough” becomes counterproductive and harmful. What’s worse, this problem becomes entrenched in institutions of authority and a part of the orthodoxy and very difficult to change.
As I showed using a very basic risk calculator, while LDL levels, which are modified by fat and dietary cholesterol intake, are an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease, they are not the only risk factor modified by our food. If they were, then unhealthy plant-based diets, which do not contain dietary cholesterol or much saturated fat, would not increase risk of cardiovascular disease.
Yet, this breakfast cereal of clearly questionable nutritional value (nearly half of the carbohydrate content is from added sugar) is certified by the American Heart Association for the sole reason that it contains little saturated fat and dietary cholesterol.
Yet this is clearly at odds with current science, which shows that of all macronutrients analyzed, replacing saturated fat with carbohydrate and probably especially refined carbohydrate has a very modest impact on lowering LDL compared to other macronutrients. Substantial evidence suggests that refined carbohydrate might not be an improvement on saturated fat for lipids after all, and each might raise risk of coronary heart disease to an equivalent degree compared to other sources of energy.
Yet because of the longstanding and myopic focus on saturated fat and dietary cholesterol–so long as it is low in each, it must be heart-healthy!–this distortion, this health-washing continues with the blessing of the American Heart Association. Dislodging this entrenched misinformation will be very challenging indeed.
This is why we must always insist on the facts and only the facts. Before we know it, our distortions have gotten away from us, and the story we invented is no longer the one that we control.
Good Enough science communication is a slippery slope that most certainly will be exploited by parties whose interests are not science. And there are many such parties. Science is fragile. Money is powerful.
Good Enough nutrition science communication may yield short-term benefits at the expect of long-term loss of trust
This leads to my second reason for rejecting the Good Enough point of view: it will produce short-term gains but for the reason I discussed above (and others), it will erode trust in science.
Not only will intelligent people see through the flimsy justifications for this or that Good Enough-based policy or recommendation or claim, but the unintended consequences will also lead to a loss of trust in science itself. Because while what was communicated was not itself science, it was portrayed as science; thereafter, science will be viewed with suspicion, for no fault of its own.
This will in turn impede scientific authorities’ future efforts in bringing about or guiding policy change that is consistent with science, which will be a great loss for everyone.
Scientists will come to be seen as having “agendas” and as selectively communicating the facts. This distrust will give rise to alternative sources of authority, who will themselves make the fanciful storytelling of the Good Enough storytellers look tame by comparison. Witness: the rise of the ketogenic diet and LCHF.
So I reject Good Enough and insist on strict adherence to reporting the facts. This is a substantial constraint in telling a good story, but not, I believe, an impossible one to overcome. So far, very few people in the nutrition science space have seemed to really try to do both. We seem to have so little faith in the truth.
The main problem with The Game Changers is that its message might harm substantial numbers of people
But even if I thought that the kind of science communication that distorts facts in service of communicating an overall “accurate” practical point of view was justified, would this apply to The Game Changers? I think not.
As I argued in this post, The Game Changers is a film that represents plant-based diets as healthier than omnivorous diets without respect to quality–in fact, mainly promoting poor-quality plant-based diets, presumably to appeal to the broad public.
In doing so, the film not only does not use the means-ends reasoning that Good Enough science communication does, it actually risks harming viewers who follow its advice. This is why, from no point of view except, perhaps, a very ruthless kind of ethical or environmental veganism, can the information communicated in The Game Changers be justified.
Unless supplemented by explanations that whole foods are necessary to unlock the health benefits of plant-based diets, and that junk food plant-based diets are harmful to health (which would contradict the message of several key scenes in the film, as I document in my post), by no means can the film be justified or should it be endorsed by health professionals, whose professional obligation is to the health of human beings and not to the well-being of animals or the environment.
One debates opinions but discusses science
That aside, if this really is Garth, I would be glad to discuss this issue and others, but not to debate. The only positions that I have that are “set in stone” are principles. I think that we will broadly agree about both these and about what the science says.
Interpreting science is really just about reporting what the literature says. It is almost mechanical. While it is complicated in the details and while a priori philosophical commitments can affect how one “assigns weight” to different kinds of evidence… my belief is that reasonable people, if they invest the appropriate time and seriousness, will ultimately come to essentially agree on the details, strengths, limitations, etc. of what the current body of literature says. From this point of view, either a person is ideologically motivated and thus not a part of a scientific discussion and not worth seriously talking to, or they are not ideologically motivated and a discussion is possible.
Given the above, if a discussion is what you want, Garth, I am down for that. Let us arrange it.
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