Talk Among Friends

Fear of Questions About Cherished Beliefs

Questioning an article of faith invariably gets people into trouble. In matters of religion, some questions might make you guilty of heresy. You might find yourself isolated or expelled from your community. History holds stories of some gruesome deaths for heretics.

On the subject of obesity, nutrition, and health, uncomfortable questions are often unwelcome. Especially at the intersection of science and policy. But more questions, more answers, and less blind faith is precisely what we need for better policies to address obesity.

Raining on an Advocates’ Parade

For passionate advocates, questions can seem like nihilism. That’s a perfect tool for defeating progress.

To deal with nihilists, advocates have talking points to deflect questions. Is a soda tax regressive? No, diabetes is regressive. Will a radical transformation of food systems solve the problems of hunger, obesity, and climate change all at once? It must, because survival of the human race depends upon it.

A skeptic who questions these talking points is not welcome at the table. So separate tables develop, just like a school cafeteria. There’s one table for the science geeks, another for the activists, and yet another for people who have no interest in the subject. To them, both the geeks and the activists seem insufferable.

The Power of Positive Thinking

Just as nihilism can be a problem, so too can excessive faith in the power of positive thinking. With apologies to Shakespeare and Norman Vincent Peale, thinking something is good will not inevitably make it so. Some ideas are genuinely bad and will have bad effects. Low-fat nutrition policy might or might not have made us all fatter, but it certainly didn’t turn the tide on obesity trends.

Right now, the true believers are declaring that soda taxes are a glorious success without a shred of evidence that they are having any effect on health. Advocates for radical changes in agriculture dismiss questions about the sustainability of a radical shift to plant-based diets. “Listen, we’ve got to address factory farming,” they tell us. Don’t you get it?

Questions, Curiosity, and Objectivity

When a subject arouses passions, tough questions can be annoying. But they still deserve answers. Perhaps the antidote is to promote curiosity and objectivity. One can be curious without being either a nihilist or an optimist. Good scientists are essential for this task because their true passion is for objectivity.

So let’s ask hard questions about the best way to make our food systems healthier and more sustainable. Let’s also ask hard questions about which obesity prevention policies are really having an impact on population health. If we don’t care to ask the questions, then we don’t really care about the goal.

Click here for thoughtful questions about more sustainable food systems and here for more on the need for a more effective approach to obesity prevention.

Talk Among Friends, photograph © Jose Maria Cuellar / flickr

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March 10, 2019

2 Responses to “Fear of Questions About Cherished Beliefs”

  1. March 10, 2019 at 6:40 pm, Michael said:

    A big question;

    Has the decades-long emphasis on lifestyle as the treatment of choice for obesity had the following unintended negative consequences?

    First; the perception that diet and exercise are sustainably and broadly effective treatments for all classes of obesity, secondly; that people with obesity (especially classes II and III) who are ‘still fat’ despite the ‘simple’ lifestyle education must be ‘really stupid/lazy’, thirdly; ‘they’ don’t deserve access to expensive medical or surgical treatments when lifestyle changes are free, and finally; that physicians and especially surgeons treating obesity are just exploiting vulnerable people.

    • March 11, 2019 at 4:02 am, Ted said:

      These is a good question that many people shrink from considering because of the widespread bias that obesity is a behavioral condition, rather than a metabolic disease. Thank you, Michael, for asking it.