Should science drive policy?

As a fat person who is coping using a method I call “episodic Atkins” (I am now in a vigorous carbohydrate avoidance phase, alas. Texas without corn or beans is a much less interesting place… ) I take an interest in obesity stories. Here’s one that in addition to being intrinsically interesting overlaps with our interests here. In a radio interview on Australia’s ABC, Dr. Robert Lustig talks about the influence of dramatically increased sugar intake on obesity.

Two points:

1) It’s interesting that I find him quite convincing even though I don’t entirely follow his arguments. This is a part of the “consilience” argument that Oreskes doesn’t get into. The guy sounds to me like a scientist. This intuition as to who is the real deal is well developed among scientists and ill-developed among the general public. It’s not obvious how to develop this intution. Nevertheless, he is far from any area of my expertise, so my confidence is not perfect, and I am only vaguely able to recapitulate his argument.

2) It’s interesting that he says “the science is clear, the science is there and the science has to drive the policy.” It seems sadly familiar somehow. It is not hard to imagine the manufacturers’ argument; freedom, consumer choice, obviously people prefer their hamburger buns spiked with corn syrup. The marketplace optimizes for what we choose it to optimize for. If we make no choices, some of what it will optimize for will be very bad. Good regulation is difficult but that is no excuse for no regulation.

I’ll quote the last part of the interview. See, fellow climate worry-warts, if it doesn’t seem strangely resonant:

Norman Swan: So do you check your home garage floor for brake fluid every morning, I mean you can’t be the most popular person with the food industry?

Robert Lustig: Well I’m not, I am not, very much so. The Corn Refiners Association and the Juice Products Association have been on my tail, but the fact of the matter is the science is clear, the science is there and the science has to drive the policy.

Norman Swan: So what about the regulators?

Robert Lustig: Well we’re trying to work with them, we are trying to do something about it. They are not moving very fast. In fact you may be aware of the International Obesity Task Force that met at the Sydney meeting in October and they came out with something which they called the Sydney principles. The Sydney principles involved marketing and advertising to children and trying to get rid of that, and they basically said that you have to do something about this and it has to be statutory in nature, it has to be regulated, it has to be a law. In fact in Europe 52 health ministers from the World Health Organisation from all the different European countries got together in Istanbul in August and agreed that marketing to children had to stop. Well in fact that is not happening in America.

Norman Swan: Nor is it in Australia.

Robert Lustig: Well probably not, but I just met with the commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, Miss Deborah Taylor Tait, and she mentioned that she expected that the food companies would police themselves, that regulation would not be necessary. In fact I said, excuse me but I disagree. In fact in 1978 the US Federal Trade Commission had an entire congressional hearings on marketing and advertising to children and the food companies actually lobbied congress to actually have that killed. And they knew why, they knew what they were doing then, and they are going to do it again because it’s not in their best interest. They couldn’t increase their profits by 5% a year if they didn’t advertise and market to children.

Norman Swan: Dr Robert Lustig is Professor of Pediatric Endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco.