Improvisation 4

Appealing Narratives Untethered from the Truth

Narratives are powerful because humanity has a natural inclination to tell stories. We seek to understand our world through the stories we tell. But this sets up a problem for nutrition and obesity science. Appealing narratives untethered from the truth can take decades to recognize as misleading. All too often, this happens only after policymakers have used those narratives to justify their work on nutrition policy or efforts to overcome obesity.

Most obesity could, with care, be prevented.” Only “charlatans and quacks” try to treat obesity. Low-fat diets have “unique merits” for weight control. Sugar is “toxic.” The addictive properties of ultra-processed foods make them a “primary causal driver of the obesity epidemic.”

These are all narratives that capture the human imagination. They give life to policies that address nutrition and obesity – policies that have a poor record for delivering intended results.

The Narrative Fallacy

In The Matter of Facts, Gareth and Rhodri Leng describe the narrative fallacy:

“Simple stories that create a coherent explanatory chain and which are given salience by emotional cues in the telling of them are those most easily remembered and which will be most commonly repeated. But the problem with prioritizing the story in a scientific work is that it engages those very biases that we have recognized as subverting the “integrity” of science.

“Evidence that does not fit may be excluded from the account of the results or may be tortured by questionable analysis to make it appear to fit. Experiments are designed to support the chosen narrative, not to challenge it rigorously. The discussion cites supporting evidence and ignores contradictory evidence.

“Bold claims are made of potential importance, and are allowed to go unchallenged because the emotional salience of a story is an essential element.”

Narratives Help Only if Grounded by Facts

So clearly, narratives can create tangled problems when they are both appealing and untethered from the truth. But for advancing sound policies, a compelling narrative is essential. Because without such a narrative, the response will always be indifference. Persuading people to act on anything requires us to engage both rational and emotional thinking.

For that, we need narratives with emotional power, and also with a strong grounding in facts. Nothing less will suffice. Too often in nutrition and obesity policy, one or the other is lacking.

Click here for more about The Matter of Facts and here for a perspective on the appealing bias of false narratives in obesity and the COVID pandemic.

Improvisation 4, painting by Wassily Kandinsky / WikiArt

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March 31, 2024

5 Responses to “Appealing Narratives Untethered from the Truth”

  1. March 31, 2024 at 8:03 am, David Brown said:

    Typically, in false nutritional narratives, the problem is widely held and promoted myth information that has no basis in fact.
    During his June 11, 1962 Commencement Address at Yale University John F. Kennedy said, “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth–persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

  2. March 31, 2024 at 9:56 am, Allen Browne said:

    “ Persuading people to act on anything requires us to engage both rational and emotional thinking.”



  3. April 01, 2024 at 1:18 pm, Sossity Fair said:

    Great article. However, would it be possible to point me to studies, articles, etc about your last two examples: sugar is toxic and processed foods. The more I dive into the topic of obesity, the more I lean towards the view that sugar and processed foods are to blame, at least for a large part.

    Appreciate your thoughts and info you can provide.

  4. April 01, 2024 at 5:35 pm, Sossity said:

    Quite helpful. Thank you!