In the past couple of years, debate about attacks on free speech has focused on university campuses and the willingness to prevent the discussion of certain ideas. Certain ideas are offensive, we are told, and the feelings of students need to be protected. Far from university being a home for the unencumbered exchange of ideas, anything outside a narrow mainstream is now regarded as verboten.
But things are just as bad within academia itself, particularly at the point where research and policy meet. This has long been the case in the highly politicised world of climate science, but a recent incident involving nutrition science and policy shows that the notion of catastrophic manmade climate change is not the only issue regarded as too important to be debated.
Nina Teicholz is the author of The Big Fat Surprise (read spiked’s review), which argues against the idea that eating fat, particularly saturated fat, is a major cause of heart disease and other illnesses. Teicholz argues that the claim that eating fat is killing us was promoted aggressively by a handful of researchers who lobbied and bullied their way on to a range of policymaking committees until ‘fat is bad’ became official policy and unquestioned orthodoxy. In reality, there has long been plenty of evidence that eating fat is not a problem, and Teicholz argues that the effect of fat’s demonisation has been to push our diets towards an excess of carbohydrate, which she believes is the true culprit in the rise of obesity and diabetes.
Given that this view is a significant challenge to mainstream thinking, it would be valuable for it to be widely discussed. That’s the way science is supposed to work – existing ideas are challenged and either refined or overthrown as new evidence and thinking emerges. Yet those in the nutrition-research establishment, who vehemently disagree with Teicholz, have preferred to close down debate rather than challenge her ideas.
The latest example of this came at the National Food Policy Conference in Washington, DC last week. Teicholz was due to speak on a panel titled ‘Turning nutrition science into policy’. She was planning on criticising the revamped 2015 Dietary Guidelines for America (DGA) for ignoring recent evidence that calls into question previous advice. As she told me by email, in her view, ‘the guidelines themselves, by shifting consumption from fat to carbs, actually played a role in causing the obesity/diabetes epidemics’.