Dr. Stephan Guyenet’s “Default Scientific Statism”

I liked Dr. Stephen Guyenet’s book, The Hungry Brain: Outsmarting the Instincts that Make Us Overeat. Even though I don’t agree with all of it within my admittedly very limited purview of nutritional knowledge and observations, it changed the way I think about what I eat and is undoubtedly a key component of my current understanding of nutrition. However, the last chapter of the book, entitled Outsmarting the Hungry Bain, is bad. This is the only part of the whole book where Guyenet strays from his core competencies of nutrition and neuroscience to wander into the realms of politics, economics, and activism. The results are about what you’d expect from a non-expert professing to be an expert with the confidence of a legitimate expert.

I call Guyenet’s general political/economic outlook, “Default Scientific Statism,” because scientists tend to gravitate towards this extremely simplistic model of politics wherein they see the government as analogous to scientists, and the population as analogous to experimental subjects, but completely misunderstand the dramatically different incentive structures and coordination issues at play between scientific experiments and public policy.

I don’t want to be too hard on Guyenet. His errors seem to be extremely common among academics and especially scientists, outside the fields of political science and economics. Like nearly all smart, well-educated experts in other fields, Guyenet naturally assumes a highly statist political perspective in which society can be altered through precision policies just as a lab rat’s weight can be altered by precision dietary changes. The false presumption Guyenet makes is to treat social science, and especially human behavior, as if it were no different from any other variable in a controlled, hard science, laboratory environment. In doing so, Guyenet ignores virtually all literature on the nature of governments, markets, public policy, and naturally assumes a preference for strong government interventions and anti-market bias.

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Guyenet starts the chapter with a recap of his book’s thesis on the obesity crisis: modern America has an overstimulating food environment where every possible variety of delicious, calorically dense food is offered at low prices and great convenience, thus Americans are driven to overeat. Therefore, we must work to change the food environment in America to incentivize healthier eating. Fair enough. How do we do that?

“The first strategy is simply to give people information on how to eat a healthy diet. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, that approach by itself seems to have little impact on calorie intake. People do need good information to make good choices, but information alone isn’t enough to substantially change behavior because it doesn’t target the primary brain circuits that are in charge of calorie intake.

Nutrition labelling is an example of this approach. While labelling has had some victories like pressuring manufacturers into reducing the trans fat content of processed food, telling people how many calories a food contains seems to have little impact on their overall calorie intake in real life. I would argue that it targets the wrong brain circuit.”

Guyenet’s discussion of “brain circuits” references earlier parts in the book where he attributes overeating to an individual’s “pleasure brain circuits” over-riding their “reason brain circuits.” That is, even if individuals are consciously aware they are over eating, or even if they are trying to diet, their compulsive desire for good tasting food will override their conscious desire to limit caloric intake. Thus people become fat. Here Guyenet extends this claim to society as a whole. Simple education will not cause people to reduce their eating habits, they need something more!

“For example, our consumption patterns can be shifted by a pattern called countermarketing. This basically means running negative ads that associate certain products with bad feelings, unpleasant images, or disturbing information (an example of negative reinforcement). It’s the opposite of what ads normally do. Antitabacco countermarketing, with its gory images of blackened lungs and tracheostomies, included ads on television and billboards, and stern warnings on cigarette cartons…

While the decline in cigarette smoking is a huge public health victory that has prevented a great deal of disease and suffering, it was only possible due to a unique combination of factors that don’t exist for fattening food. First of all, cigarettes aren’t essential for life, whereas food is. This means we would have to countermarket against fattening foods but not others. It’s much more challenging to split nutritional hairs than it is to oppose an addictive drug wholesale.”

Gary Taubes goes to great lengths in Why we Get Fat and What to do About It, the heterodox counter to Guyenet, to describe the entire nutrition field as obsessed with blaming obesity on “gluttony” and “sloth.” When I read Taubes I thought he sounded hyperbolic, but it’s hard not to read his sentiments here in Guyenet. Dr. Guyenet may be putting it in a nice way, but he’s essentially say that many (most?) Americans are so short sighted, weak-willed, and probably stupid that the only way to stop them from being manipulated like mindless drones by subversive advertisements which hijack their pleasure centers is to fight-fire-with-fire by subversively reverse hijacking their disgust centers. Given his background, expertise, and writing tone, Guyenet can’t help but come off like a snooty intellectual rolling his eyes at the idiot peons who don’t know what’s best for themselves.

“Another way to guide our eating behavior in the right direction is to make fattening foods a less attractive “deal” to the brain regions that guide our economic choices. Monetary cost is part of this equation, and as such it has received a lot of attention from public health professionals. Simply stated, we tend to buy less of specific foods as they become more expensive and more as they become cheaper. By making fattening food more expensive and slimming food cheaper, we can shift the cost-benefit balance to favor a more moderate calorie intake.

Several countries have already implemented taxes on foods that are considered unhealthy, including Denmark’s tax on saturated-fat-rich foods and Mexico’s tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. Yet fierce opposition from the food industry and the general public led Denmark to scrap its tax a little more than a year after it was implemented. Mexico’s soda tax has effectively, if modestly, reduced sugar-sweetened beverage intake in one of the fattest countries in the world. At the time of writing this, it’s already vulnerable to new legislation only two years after being implemented. Not surprisingly, the soda industry has been working hard to undermine it, and they have a lot of leverage since Mexico’s government has strong ties to big soda (for example, Vicente Fox, the president of Mexico from 2000 to 2006, is the former president of Coca-Cola Mexico).

An alternative way to financially nudge our diet is the right direction is simply to change the way government subsidies are allocated to commodity crops, such as corn, soybeans, and wheat. These three food crops receive more subsidies than any others in the United States – totaling over $10 billion per year. They also happen to be the basis for our most fattening food ingredients… Essentially, taxpayers are subsidizing the very foods that make them fat and sick. Shifting subsidies away from foods that make us fat, and towards foods that don’t, is a common-sense idea that could have a substantial impact on the American food system…”

I don’t have too much of a problem with this section, but it serves as an important contrast to the following section (which is the last part I will quote from Guyenet’s book):

“The food industry has long known that one of the most effective ways to get a person to buy a particular food is to show her an appealing image of it. If she has eaten the food before, or something similar, this visual cue triggers dopamine release and the motivation to eat the food (craving). This fundamental property of the human brain is one of the main reasons why the food industry spends tens of billions of dollars in advertising each year. The public health intervention here is obvious: Regulate food advertising. The research of the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity shows that both children and adults in the United States are inundated ever day by a deluge of food advertisements, most of which promote unhealthy, calorie-dense items. Americans are well aware of the insidious effect of food advertisement on our food preferences and eating habits, yet we’re reluctant to let the government step in…

The fundamental problem is that the food industry is governed by the incentives of a fiercely free market economy, and these incentives sometimes conflict with human health. For example, in the 1970s, Nestlé initiated a campaign to promote its infant formula over breast milk in developing countries despite the fact that contaminated local water supplies often made formula feeding dangerous. It was a profitable venture, but at the cost of infant mortality. The situation was eventually resolved by boycotts and international regulation. Although not all instances of conflict between profits and human health are so egregious, competition nevertheless creates a “race to the bottom” in which companies jockey to produce the most compelling foods possible and advertise them in the most visible, attractive ways. To do this, they titillate the brain circuits that determine our innate nutrient and economic preferences – which are the same circuits that push us to overeat. The end result is a food system that’s expertly, if unintentionally, crafted to drive overeating.

Because many of the qualities that coax us to purchase a food are also those that make us overeat, any individual company that voluntarily makes its food less fattening is effectively entering the boxing ring with one hand tied behind its back. Executives and shareholders both realize that having one hand tied behind your back usually leads to getting punched in the face. This creates a fundamental conflict between profits and public health – and in the grand scheme of things, profits usually prevail. In my view, the only realistic way out of this downward spiral is nationwide regulation that encourages a more slimming food environment while maintaining a level economic playing field for the food industry. This could happen through industry self-regulation and/or government regulation, but I seriously doubt industry has what it takes to self-regulate us out of our overeating problem.

Although public health legislation would undoubtedly be an antiobesity tool if we got serious about it, few Americans and even fewer food industry executives, have much appetite for it. We tend to have a dim view of government meddling in general, and in particular when it comes to our food. I can sympathize with that perspective – we want to forge our own path through life. Yet we’ve already walked many miles down the wrong path, and it has caused millions of American children to grow up with obesity-related physical and metabolic disabilities before they have a choice. These children will have a much higher chronic disease risk, a lower life expectancy, and a lower quality of life as a result of improper nutrition. This tragic situation is largely preventable, yet our halfhearted attempts to do so have failed. It’s time to ask ourselves a serious question: What do we are more about, the health of our nation’s children or our freedom to be bombarded by cheap, fattening food?”

Note the contrast between the last two sections of quoted text. First Guyenet calls for government regulation of nutrition even though he admits that numerous such attempts have failed and the government has actively made the obesity epidemic worse through many of its policies. Then Guyenet criticizes the actions of individual food companies for contributing to the obesity crisis, but ultimately places the systemic blame on free market capitalism for creating the incentive structure that drove the companies to create our modern toxic food environment.

So when government actors fail to carry out supposedly well-intentioned programs while other government actors literally work against those programs, Guyenet believes this is a failure of particular government actors and their corporate influencers. But when private companies create an undesirable outcome through no coordinated effort, Guyenet believes this is a failure of markets in a structural sense. To put it even simpler, government fails because people make mistakes, but markets fail because markets are inherently bad.

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I think Guyenet and many scientists like Niel Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye take this stance because they view the government and its actors as analogous to a science lab and its scientists. They think that if a bad outcome occurs in society, it’s because the people in charge either have the wrong ideas and merely need to be corrected, or because the men in charge are corrupt.

If a scientist performs an experiment and the results don’t come out as expected, oh well, he just needs a better understanding of the methods or maybe new tools, and then surely the results will align with his hypothesis. Therefore, if the government has been supporting policies for decades which have contributed to the obesity crisis, then oh well, we just need the government to change its policies to what the experts know is best, and all will be well.

In contrast to governments, markets are messy, complicated, uncontrollable, and subject to the whims of innumerable forces beyond the control of the experts. Scientists always search for the objective truth and can advise politicians to follow their advice, but individuals in the market place have their own agendas. Consumers are controlled by their lizard brains which mindlessly drive them to base pleasures even at the obvious expense of their long-term health. Greedy profit-driven companies facilitate these drones and gleefully commit society to a destructive path for the sake of the bottom line.

Yes, some consumers might be smart and want to get healthy, and some corporations might be benevolent and try to make society better, but in the free marketplace there’s no one to order their behavior! Everyone just wanders around like an amoeba driven by instinct to the nearest pleasure or profit, and as a result society degrades. The obesity epidemic, global warming, the degrading ozone, oil addiction, waste build-up, air pollution, and so many other great modern problems are entirely the fault of short-sighted markets letting people screw everything up rather than listen to the experts.

Guyenet and the Default Academic Statists essentially have a “Philosopher King” view of government and a “Hobbesian” view of markets. This outlook overestimates the competence and willingness of governments to achieve good goals, misunderstands the purpose and function of markets, and ignores the validity and right of individuals to pursue alternative goals which don’t align with supposedly expert opinions.

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Notice that at no point in this chapter or the entire book does Guyenet even consider the possibility that people eat lots of delicious food because they gain some sort of legitimate value from doing so. Every culture on earth has centuries or millennia of food-based cultural products. Most holidays around the world are based around eating (or fasting). In every region of the earth with a high population density, from Europe to China, you can’t go 100 miles in any direction without running into a population with its own unique cuisine derived from its own unique history, geography, and traditions.

Clearly food is important to humans. And humans like food that tastes good. Yes, many people want to lose weight and it would be objectively beneficial to their health to do so. But all people objectively love good tasting food, and it’s not apparent to me that sacrificing delicious food for discrete health benefits is necessarily beneficial to any given individual. I believe that plenty of people, even morbidly obese individuals would not want to go on Guyenet’s proscribed “Bland Food Diet” even if it could guarantee significant weight loss and better health.

Not only does Guyenet completely ignore the legitimate value of good taste, but he implicitly devalues it to such a degree that he advocates for the government to use its coercive power to punish or stop people from eating fattening food. This is the single-mindedness of Default Scientific Statism. Nothing else matter besides implementing the expert’s narrow outcomes on society that he has deemed absolutely essential according to his own work. The fact that many people have entirely different values than him and may be entirely opposed to his views either on moral, preferential, or even scientific grounds is irrelevant. The government can and should force the population into line for its own sake.

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For instance, Guyenet supports government taxes on fattening food and drinks. This policy has a clear logic to it: the more something costs, the less people will buy it. So if the government makes fattening food more expensive, people will buy and eat less fattening food and obesity rates will decline. It’s just like when Guyenet’s colleagues want a lab rat to lose weight, so they switch out its tasty but fattening human food for dry, purposefully bland rat food pellets. Simple enough.

But the United States is not a laboratory. We humans are not rats in cages with extremely limited options. In real life if you try to “nudge” people by forcibly manipulating their value systems, not everything goes according to plan.

For  instance, Guyenet never stops to consider that there is a correlation in the United States between being overweight or obese and being poor. So the people most financially impacted (ie. harmed) by such policies are poor people. In a hypothetical-Guyenet’s eyes, this could actually be a good thing because it is more likely to curb the most obese population’s food consumption habits. But poor people eat lots of fattening foods for a variety reasons, including not just taste and cost, but also convenience. Perhaps an urbane Manhattanite has the money, time, and inclination to spend $15 on ingredients at Trader Joes so he can spend an hour preparing, cooking, and eating a kale wrap filled with quinoa and arugula, but many people don’t.

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And what of the non-fat people who like eating fattening foods (like myself!)? Why should we be punished by other people’s bad decisions? Keep in mind that even in America, one of the fattest countries in the world, about one third of individuals are obese and another third are overweight. That leaves the final third of Americans who are normal or underweight. Why should a third of the population be punished for the behavior of the other two thirds (assuming this is an entirely behavioral issue)? Guyenet’s much lauded cigarette taxes only effect smokers, but a tax on fattening food effects every America who like fattening foods, which is… every American. Oh well, I guess some lab rats need to be sacrificed to get good experimental results.

From the Default Scientific Statist position, all of these mere personal preferences are simply uncontrolled variables that infect the market. Uncontrolled variables distort data and lead to inaccurate experimental outcomes, and therefore they must be suppressed for the good of the experiment. In Guyenet’s perfect world, regular people wouldn’t let their pleasure “brain circuits” drive them to eat fattening food, and they would have the wisdom to recognize that the marginal effects of a kale wrap filled with quinoa and arugula on their cholesterol outweighs the marginal value of food that actually tastes good and enables more free time to be spent on other pursuits. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in annoying markets where people do what they think is best for themselves instead of listening to the experts. So we should use the government as an instrument to override the peons and make them do what is best according to rat experiments and epidemiological surveys.

Why do ordinary people, who don’t have PhDs and run multi-million-dollar nutrition labs, resist the guidance of experts, who do have PhDs and run multi-million-dollar nutrition labs? Guyenet explains:

“Although public health legislation would undoubtedly be an antiobesity tool if we got serious about it, few Americans and even fewer food industry executives, have much appetite for it. We tend to have a dim view of government meddling in general, and in particular when it comes to our food. I can sympathize with that perspective – we want to forge our own path through life. Yet we’ve already walked many miles down the wrong path… This tragic situation is largely preventable, yet our halfhearted attempts to do so have failed. It’s time to ask ourselves a serious question: What do we are more about, the health of our nation’s children or our freedom to be bombarded by cheap, fattening food?”

I don’t doubt Guyenet’s motives. I know he has good intentions. But in this paragraph Guyenet sounds like he is scolding fat, irresponsible children. It’s as if the desire to control what food you put into your own body is like an adolescent rebellion against your wise parents that can only end in the metaphorical equivalent of a crashed car or dumb tattoo. American suspicion of both the efficiency and benevolence of government is treated like a medieval superstition. And Guyenet tops the paragraph off with a severely condescending condemnation of the American people as so incredibly weak willed and corrupt that they would send their children to an early death in exchange for Tony the Tiger TV commercials.

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It seems like Guyenet wishes the American people were just like the caged rats in his laboratory. They live their lives not just in physical confinement, but mental confinement as well. They know nothing beyond their cage. They eat, play with, and have sex with whatever is put in front of them, because they know nothing else. As a result, the rat’s nature can be manipulated by its intelligent, well-meaning scientist overlords with ease. If the rat gets too fat, it’s food is cut and it quickly slims down without even the temptation of buying a Snickers Bar at the nearest gas station. If the rat lacks Vitamin C, the scientists can just give it a high-dose injection, and the rat won’t complain or fight back because it can’t.

If only the American people were like the rat. If they accepted the experts’ will, Americans would be thin, non-diabetic, healthy-hearted, and happy. Only their own short-sighted stupidity, laziness, and lizard brains stop them from realizing the truth: they are better off not being free.

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Also notice the sky-high confidence Guyenet has in the government’s ability to rollback obesity rates through public policy. He literally has no doubt that the government could be an effective antiobesity tool. Of course, the US government is the most well-funded organization in the history of planet earth, yet after spending a trillion dollars across 40 years, to fight a “War on Drugs,” drug use rates in America  pretty much haven’t changed and are the highest in the world. The US government also declared a “War on Poverty”  over 50 years ago to which it committed over $22 billion. And yet American poverty rates basically haven’t changed in that time, and may have gotten worse in specific demographics. So of course the government should be able to steer minute consumer preferences, choices, and behaviors so as to trigger a massive cultural reversal on the acceptance of nearly everything that we eat in order to win a “War on Obesity.”

Of course the Drug War and War on Poverty are extreme examples of the government’s failure to accomplish complex society-restructuring goals through public policy (though I could list hundreds of other examples). The fundamental point is that public policy is hard. People are not intimate objects, They can’t be made to change in a discrete and orderly manner through such blunt instruments as taxes and business regulations. People make decisions on their own behalf for a massive variety of both implicit and explicit reasons. Getting any single individual to change his views or behavior is often a monumental task in and of itself. Forcing an entire society of individuals to change their average views is virtually impossible to do except under the rarest of circumstances in which every possible variable lines up in the same direction. Guyenet’s belief that a Philosopher King government and its advisory panel of nutritional experts can “undoubtedly” steer Americans away from obesity is delusional.

Also, imagine if Guyenet is named dictator (or gets to choose his own dictator) and all of his wildest public policy dreams are automatically enacted and perfectly enforced by a fanatically loyal government bureaucracy whose sole function is to cure societal obesity. Even if that occurs, what if… Guyenet is wrong?

Science is wrong all the time, especially nutrition science. Even if Guyenet doesn’t think the last 50 years of nutrition science is as awful as Gary Taubes thinks it is, surely Guyenet sees mistakes that have been made along the way. He also sees errors in government policy concerning nutrition, like corn subsidies which support the production of high fructose corn syrup, one of the most fattening substances out there. Without going through the historical data, I have no doubt that decades ago some scientist somewhere argued that high fructose corn syrup was a perfectly healthy alternative to natural cane sugar, and therefore of course the government should subsidize its production.

Yet Guyenet shows such little doubt in his beliefs that he advocates for a massive public policy overhaul to force his nutritional views on the entire population. Putting aside whether or not these policies would be effective or how difficult it would be to enforce them, what if Guyenet’s view of nutrition based on rat experiments and epidemiological studies don’t exactly translate to a massive population level?

Guyenet apparently doesn’t care. Or more likely, Guyenet never even thought of that. He is willing to bet the forceful extraction of billions of dollars and the freedom of hundreds of millions of Americans on the efficacy of his ideas. How many of your ideas would you place such a heavy wager on? The Default Scientific Statist would seem willing to make that bet on any subject claimed by the mantle of “science.”

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The Default Scientific Statist sees market actors as uncontrolled variables which might occasionally align with objective good, but usually don’t. But the worst market actors are those which dare to use the instruments of good for the sake of evil. See, when scientists advocate for massive overhauls in government laws, taxes, and objectives to coercively force people to abide by new norms so as to enact grand societal visions, this is a benevolent expansion of scientific progress into the social sphere for the good of all. But when market actors advocate for government action, it is merely to parasitically leech off society for the actors’ own selfish gain.

Guyenet points out a few instances of private companies influencing governments into retracting laws which supposedly benefit the health of the population (ie. Coca-Cola fighting against the soda tax in Mexico). Notice how Guyenet doesn’t even consider the possibility that there might be legitimate reasons for the repeal of those laws. Maybe a lot of people don’t want to pay more money for a beverage they enjoy. Maybe other people don’t want to lose their jobs at bottling plants because of decreased soda sales. Maybe small Mexican vendors who make American minimum-wage level salaries don’t want their livelihood’s threatened. Maybe others see the law as unfairly punishing to the poor. And maybe even Coca Cola is somewhat justified in trying to defend itself from a government which is coercively taking money from it.

But instead Guyenet believes that the only possible reason a law supported by the experts could be opposed is because the opposition is stupid or evil. The heads of a multi-national corporation probably aren’t stupid, so they must be evil. Because pursuing profits is evil. Trying to make people lose weight by forcing them to pay extra taxes for buying a beverage they enjoy is good, but a company voluntarily offering a beverage to a person who enjoys it at a mutually agreed upon price without outside coercive interference is evil.

Ok, Guyenet doesn’t actually call Coca Cola evil. But as evidence of the free market being filled with awful, horrible, terrible people, he gives the example of Nestlé poisoning babies with formula in the 1970s. First of all, I don’t know anything about this event, Guyenet offers no further explanation then “Nestlé kills babies,” so I’d like to hear Nestlé’s side of things. But even if Guyenet is right that Nestlé acted horribly evil in that situation, and really did put profits above human life… why doesn’t Guyenet extend that same analysis to the organizations he wants to empower with the ability to coercively steer, if not control our diets? Why doesn’t Guyenet express the same skepticism towards governments?

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It’s not difficult to find instances of governments doing bad things with people’s food. If you want to go really hardcore with that line of inquiry, you could point out that multiple governments manufactured massive famines in the 20th century under the justifications of noble objectives like economic prosperity, which led to the deaths of tens of millions of people. Is that a fair comparison? I don’t know, but it’s telling that however bad Nestlé’s baby formula sales were, they cannot compare to Mao’s Great Leap Forward starving somewhere between 18 and 50 million Chinese in less than a decade.

No, the American government probably wouldn’t cause massive famines if it gained more control over our food supply (though Gary Taubes would [I think] argue that the US government has caused tens of millions of early deaths by promoting bad nutrition). But then again, bad things tend to happen when you turn control over what we eat to elected officials whose long-term goals don’t go past the next election.

Because Guyenet views the government as analogous to a scientist and the population as analogous to a test subject, he doesn’t recognize the complex incentives at play in actual public policy. He doesn’t get that politicians and market actors have the same fundamental goals: profit. The only difference is that a market actor’s profit is monetary for businesses or satisfaction for consumers, while a politician’s profit is an extension or increase in power. Either way, the individual pursues what is best for himself. If that which is best for the individual aligns with what is best for society (or at least doesn’t hurt society), then we all win. If that which is best for the individual hurts society, then we lose.

So instead of thinking of the government as an impartial tool to be directed by experts for the good of society and markets as chaotic uncontrolled variables which promote destructive selfishness, we should look at both markets and governments as vehicles for accomplishing goals. The key question is: which vehicle has the best incentives for accomplishing a particular goal?

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Guyenet wants the government to manipulate or control what people eat, but he never questions either if the government is capable of doing so effectively (he assumes it “undoubtedly” is) or if the government is willing to do so. I’ve already tackled the first point, but on the second point, hypothetical Guyenet might say that we first need to convince enough people to support healthy diets to elect politicians which will enact healthy laws.

There is an inherent circular logic in this common statist sentiment. Somehow people are supposed to be so possessed by their “pleasure brain circuits” that they literally can’t stop themselves from eating unhealthy food and getting fat, yet they are rational enough to vote for politicians who will force them to stop eating unhealthy food and getting fat. I fully acknowledge Guyenet never makes this argument, it’s just my speculation that he and likeminded people would. But the question remains, why would a democratic government pass laws which are contradicted by the apparent widespread behavior of the population? Would Guyenet prefer a dictator or executive order to initiate these laws instead?

Guyenet also suffers from the tendency to think of special interest groups as purely exogenous forces in a democracy. If Default Scientific Statists see the government as scientists and the population as lab rats, then it sees interest groups as random individuals breaking into the lab to mess with the test equipment for their own arbitrary ends. It’s as if massive, multinational, multi-billion dollar corporations which employ hundreds of thousands of individuals across the world are somehow separate from the population itself. Therefore any attempts by interest groups to support, resist, or alter public policy is seen as distortionary instead of an inherent component of the very democratic system the Default Scientific Statist is attempting to steer.

Why does this matter? Because Guyenet doesn’t realize that the more power the government has, the greater potential private interests have to exert their will on the population by manipulating the government. If the government regulates wages, prices, the ability to start businesses, fire employees, and just about every other aspect of running a company, then of course corporations are going to try to manipulate the government to make sure the rules of the game support their own interests. Likewise, if the government is given the directive to control what we eat, even with the best of intentions, then private interests will fight each other for control over this immensely powerful tool over society. Some of these interests will be benevolent, like health-conscious allies of Guyenet, but many will be financially self-interested, like any food producing company which stands to gain by having the government use its power to push consumers towards their product.

So on top of Guyenet’s massive overconfidence in the government’s ability to effectively change eating habits, his callous disregard for the diverse preferences of individuals, and the extreme difficulty of actually getting the state to implement his fairly radical proposals, Guyenet doesn’t realize that handing such power to the government may actually make things worse. Even if some miraculous alignment of political incentives occur, and the three branches of government work together to pass Guyenet’s package of dream policies, this opens the possibility that during the very next election cycle the political winds will blow the other way and politicians with the exact opposite values could take power. Except now the precedence of the government manipulating the population’s diet is established, so who knows what policies the new order’s financial and popular backers will support. Maybe a conglomeration of Coca Cola, Nestlé, and other aligned evil corporations will buy enough influence to legally enshrine the “toxic” food environment created by the market. Or maybe a rival do-gooder like Gary Taubes will lead an alternative health-food philosophy with the best of intentions that ends up horribly backfiring because he is scientifically mistaken.

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These sorts of things never happen in a laboratory. Yes, experiments can go wrong, but such errors are reducible to measuring mistakes, bad equipment, or mistaken knowledge. But laboratories deal with controlled variables in controlled environments. Real people in the real world are not so simple. Everything can and often will go wrong when attempting to change an entire population with the brute force of a democratic government. Despite their considerable intelligence, Dr. Guyenet and the Default Scientific Statists seemingly fail to see this distinction.

 

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One thought on “Dr. Stephan Guyenet’s “Default Scientific Statism”

  1. TL;DR: Guyenet needs to do a little elementary reading on public choice theory. [Actually, it wasn’t TL; I read the whole thing. But I stand by my summary.]

    correlation in the United States between being overweight or obese and being poor

    Ah, but that’s feature, not a bug. It means Guyenet can have the effect he wants with what looks like a comparatively modest tax. If rich people were the folks getting fat from drinking Coke, the tax would have to be $10 a can.

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