Headline of the future:

Oat Bran – the Silent Killer.(1)

I’ve spent an amusing afternoon perusing the latest nonsense from the World Health Organization – their recent report telling us to stop eating meat because it causes cancer.(2) Almost as amusing was the hysterical (in both senses of the word) reaction to the report in the press. Suffice it to say that when a panel of “international experts” issues a report that is promptly ridiculed on the left by the New York Times and on the right by the Financial Times, the WHO has managed to give a whole new meaning to the word “laughingstock.”

Let me say upfront that I have no idea whether eating meat causes cancer. My point here is the abysmal quality of what passes for science in the public health space. We’ll get to all the defects in the WHO study in a moment – and then we’ll extrapolate those defects to what passes for medical advice these days – but first let’s ask ourselves how such a disgraceful report could be issued by people who actually appear, by their credentials, to be “experts.”(3) The answer is bias, specifically in the form of Groupthink.

Suppose that a group of “international experts” from such organizations as the North American Meat Institute, Kraft Heinz Company, the National Pork Producers Council, the National Meat Institute, and Beef Checkoff (all of whom were “observers,” but not participants, in the WHO study), had published a report assuring us that eating meat is perfectly safe in every way. Would anyone pay the slightest attention to it? Those organizations are obviously biased and putting them all in one room would certainly lead to Groupthink.

We are supposed to believe, on the other hand, that the “international experts” assembled by the WHO are completely impartial, but are they? If we think even for an instant about the sorts of people who get involved in international public health issues, and especially those who work with places like WHO, we will find that they share many characteristics. For example:

* They all believe fervently in climate change.

* They are certain that climate change is caused by human activity.

* They are convinced that grazing animals for meat is a primary human activity contributing to climate change.

* They are outraged that meat is so expensive and therefore unavailable to many poorer populations around the world.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these opinions, but there’s something very wrong with pretending that a working group consisting only of those people is unbiased. Put them all in one room and ask them to review hundreds of highly contradictory studies about the relationship between meat-eating and cancer and take a wild guess where they’re going to come out?

Certainly there are some ideological scumbags among the group who don’t care about the facts and just want to slam the meat industry. But that’s not the problem. The problem is Groupthink. These people, or the vast majority of them, all think exactly alike. They may seem to be debating the issues, but the differences in their opinions are trivial because, well, they all think exactly alike.

As a result, WHO publishes report after report telling us we’re going to die if we indulge in (as Anahad O’Conner pointed out in the New York Times) pickled vegetables, coffee, cellphones, frying, or working as a barber.(4) Other studies have concluded that cancer is also caused by such toxic stuff as carrots, tomatoes and eggs. A survey paper concluded that, “Associations with cancer risk … have been claimed for most food ingredients. Many single studies highlight implausibly large effects, even though evidence is weak.”(5)

This problem of bias-in-the-form-of-Groupthink isn’t limited to the public health arena, of course. (I would point out, however, that people who publish idiotic studies that terrify people into doing dumb things to protect their health should be tried for crimes against humanity at The Hague.) Consider my favorite bête noir, the world’s central bankers. There are only four central banks that matter in the world,(6) and, guess what? They all march in exact lockstep. Why do we need four of them? Why not just let the Fed handle it all, since no one seems to have an independent brain?

But it’s even worse than that. Richard Barwell recently examined thousands of votes cast by dozens of members of the BOE’s Monetary Policy Committee between 1998 and 2007.(7) Want to guess how many dissenting votes in all that time advocated a position more than 25 basis points away from the consensus view? One. Precisely one.

How is that even possible? It’s possible because only a very small subset of economists are interested in service on central bank rate-setting committees, and all of them think exactly alike. The difference between a “dove” and a “hawk” is exactly 25 basis points. As Barwell concluded, “[P]ut nine MPC members in the same room and almost without exception you will get one opinion.”

We’ll return to this problem of bias in the public health sector, but first (next Friday) let’s look at some of the (almost unbelievable) problems with the WHO report.

(1) I stole this from Woody Allen.

(2) See Bouvard V, Loomis D, Guyton KZ, et al., “Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat,” The Lancet Oncology, published online on 10/26/15.

(3) The IACN Working Group that undertook the study included representatives from Australia, Belgium, France, Italy, Switzerland, Japan, The Netherlands, Sweden, the UK, and the US.

(4) “So Will Processed Meat Give You Cancer?” 11/1/15.

(5) See Schoenfeld, JD and Ioannidis, JP, “Is everything we eat associated with cancer?” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Jan. 2013, pp. 127-34.

(6) The Fed, the BOE, the ECB and the BOJ.

(7) “The great Monetary Policy Committee mystery,” Financial Times, 11/6/15.

 

Next up: Why We Don’t Take Our Meds, Part 2

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