The Righteous Room

Beware the Hazards of Moral Certitude

Obesity, nutrition, and health bring out feelings of moral certitude with surprising frequency. But that means speculation about conspiracies, moral issues, and conflicts of interest crowds out reason and facts way too often.

A Moral Issue with Dietary Advice?

Reading up on debates about the relationship between carbs, insulin, and obesity, we found some harsh moralizing. For instance, Julia Belluz – who often writes good stuff about obesity, nutrition, and health – wrote an article for Vox that proclaimed:

Diet books are full of lies. And they’re even worse when doctors write them.

Soon after that, Vox had to revise the article for reasons of fairness and accuracy. For an accounting of the problems, see this blog by David Ludwig. On the same theme, NIH researcher Kevin Hall told Men’s Health earlier this year that he has issues with dietary advice to consumers:

Here’s where I have some moral issues. You need to be really sure about something from a scientific standpoint before you go to the public with a book and make diet recommendations.

On one hand, that sounds pretty reasonable. But on the other hand, it’s pretty radical. The truth, as Aaron Carroll points out quite well, is that very little nutrition guidance has the backing of rigorous scientific evidence. All we really have is broad concepts consistent with available science. No magic. No perfect moral high ground. Even so, it makes no sense to shut down public discussion of nutrition science.

Righteous Beliefs About Obesity

Likewise, on the subject of obesity, our friend Ximena Ramos Salas writes about encountering righteous indignation when grappling with the schism between fat acceptance and obesity narratives. She describes discussions about obesity care that devolve into moralistic shouting matches. Accusations of “medical eugenics” against fat people surface.

Perhaps even more common is righteous weight bias. A medical ethicist recently wrote about the danger of “normalizing” obesity. Reflecting on this, one of our readers wrote quite wisely:

I’m continually horrified by the idea that anything positive toward people with obesity is the same thing as encouraging, “promoting,” or “normalizing” obesity. All of these are used as some kind of moral panic, as if fat people are running around shoving cheesecakes down thin people’s throats because fat people want everyone else to be fat.


In the final analysis, a dose of humility might be best. Nobody has perfect dietary advice to offer. Nobody has cures for obesity. But plenty of smart people have good ideas to share. Debating those ideas seems like a good thing. Moral certitude is not as persuasive as good science for deflecting weak ideas and weeding out the hucksters.

Claims of moral superiority certainly feel good. But they can be very hard to prove. And sometimes they reveal a bit of arrogance.

The Righteous Room, photograph © Thomas Hawk / flickr

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July 8, 2018

5 Responses to “Beware the Hazards of Moral Certitude”

  1. July 08, 2018 at 7:54 am, Joe Gitchell said:

    Thank you, Ted–powerful reminders of how, as I believe Jonathan Haidt observed: “Humans evolved to be argument winners, not truth seekers.” Our moral minds are potent devices!

    I “hear” echoes of nicotine stuff with this, and for those with interest in such things, I offer up two videos that might be of interest.

    The first is from UBuffalo Prof Lynn Kozlowski, addressing the US Ecig Summit at the end of April:

    The second is from yours truly at last month’s Global Forum on Nicotine in Warsaw:

    We have to keep trying!


    • July 08, 2018 at 7:58 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, Joe!

  2. July 08, 2018 at 10:00 am, David Ludwig said:

    Thank you, Ted.

    I’ve been astounded by how quickly scientific opponents resort to the ad hominem, especially in the media and social medium. Personal attacks against colleagues with differing views are unprofessional and always a distraction from the substance of the issue.

    If we all had similar views, scientific advancement would arrest. Especially in light of the worsening epidemics of diet-related disease, we all need to keep an open mind, even as we strongly advocate for our positions.

    Here’s a proposal I made on Twitter, amidst the recent debate on the Carbohydrate-Insulin Model:

    1. Assume our opponents are well intentioned
    2. Work together to discourage ad hominem attack, wherever it arises
    3. Be as critical of our ideas as we are of opponents
    4. Have a (low carb) beer together after a good debate

  3. July 08, 2018 at 10:25 am, Joe Gitchell said:

    I dig David Ludwig’s perspectives and suggestions!

    And while its intended use is a bit different, I’d wager than getting folks to engage with this program would be helpful:


    • July 08, 2018 at 10:28 am, Ted said:

      Interesting link, thanks again, Joe!