Nutrition and Economics

Nutrition is a strange science, if science is the right word for it. It acts like a science. It has hypotheses and experiments and studies. There are nutritionists who make a living studying nutrition. They write peer reviewed articles about nutrition. It feels very scientific.

But there’s a problem. Nothing appears to be certain in nutrition. In a sense, that shouldn’t be a big deal. All scientific knowledge is provisional in that it is only true to the extent that no one has found a better explanation yet. The classic example is the way Newton’s theory of gravity was true until Einstein’s theory of relativity improved it.

Unfortunately, that’s not the way nutrition is uncertain. With nutrition, if you want a vegan diet to be healthy, there’s a study that shows that. And if you want a carnivorous diet to be healthy, there’s a study that shows that, too. According to some studies, fat is good for you, while there are others that show that fat is bad for you. A few of the diets out there are Keto, Paleo, Atkins, Weight Watchers, and The Zone. They are all backed by “science”, but say quite different things. It’s really confusing for those of us who aren’t nutritionists.

Economics is almost the same as nutrition. It acts like a science. Economics has hypotheses, experiments, and studies. There’s even a Nobel Prize in economics. But, like nutrition, you can find an economic paper that will prove anything you want to prove. Some studies show that planned economies are better. Others show that they are worse. There have been tons of papers showing the benefits of the free market. There have also been tons of papers showing the damage done by free markets. Libertarians have their defenders and communists have theirs. Pure capitalism, pure socialism, and mixed economies are all backed by “science”. What is a non-economist to do?

In most sciences, there are standards and norms that keep the truly bizarre theories in check. There’s just no way a physics journal would accept a study that shows the accuracy of astrology. A medical journal would never accept a paper that shows that illness is caused by an imbalance of the humors. With nutrition and economics, there don’t seem to be any similar types of standards or norms. What else explains the studies that show that alcohol is healthy or that trickle down economics works? It feels like anything goes.

This isn’t just a problem for people who desire the truth, it’s a problem for everyone. But, it’s more of a problem with economics. With nutrition, we’ve been eating for millennia. Evolution has made us in a way where we know what to eat all on our own. That’s not to say that people always eat what they should. But it means that common sense tells us which is the healthier option between an apple and a candy bar. We don’t need a scientist to enlighten us. With economics, we don’t have any equivalent kinds of instincts. Common sense won’t tell us what to do in a Prisoner’s Dilemma or how to handle a tragedy of the commons situation. We do rely on experts to help guide us, but those experts don’t seem to be able to come to a consensus.

This is how it appears to outsiders. I am willing to give these two disciplines the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps there is a lot of consensus within nutrition and economics. If that’s the case, they both have a communication problem. We don’t get to see an accurate picture of either of them. It seems to be a problem with the press. The press is only interested in gathering as large an audience as possible. So they only report on the findings that are likely to get clicks rather than the findings that reveal something true. It gives an outsized voice to the sensational and those views that align with the press’ corporate owners’ agenda. We are all worse off for it.

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