New Guidelines: No Need for Kids to Cut Back on Running with Scissors for Their Good Health. (Except, again…not really.)
When just this variety of nonsense can blow to smithereens a news cycle or several, and along with them trust, understanding, and the life’s work of innumerable careful scientists, we have seemingly gone well beyond the pallid mischief of “clickbait.” We have seemingly contrived something like “information terrorism” - if that can be a thing.
We live, of course, in a world where preoccupation with terrorism is ubiquitous yet intimate, subtle but constant. The fixation is part of the background noise of modern existence; it oscillates in our collective conscious.
We are awash in constant information, too, and much of it is wrong. Opinion masquerades routinely as authority; expertise is actively disdained; and fallacy propagates faster and farther than verity. Clickbait is mundane enough to be misconstrued as quaint. Misinformation prevails, often with quite dire consequences- from the fate of elections, to that of our planet.
Where these two colossal forces of modern existence collide like tectonic plates, is there a new peril: information terrorism?
To be clear, terrorism need not be an act of physical violence per se. It need not kill anyone, although we all know it often does. The definitions vary, but Merriam Webster gives us this: “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.”
This will sound rather horrible, but it’s true just the same: you can neither terrorize nor coerce the dead. Those who die as a result of terrorism are its tragic means, rather than its loathsome ends. Terror and coercion are directed at the living.
So the goal of terrorism is to hold the vital attention hostage, to infiltrate culture at large and shift its currents. Where coercion is involved there may be some specific objective, but our own reality suggests that the goal may simply be to savage social norms and ravage peace of mind. The aim of anarchists is not a system that works better, but no system at all. The terrorism in the constant background of our routines and ruminations seems to want nothing more from us than our unfailing attention. It tells us: this is how the world is now, so you will not go through a day without homage directed here.
Ultimately, terrorism is a message, however pointless and aimless and abstruse. Terrorism is a memo. Terrorism is information coercing us by commanding our anxious preoccupation and an army of attendant inconveniences.
Which leads us back to: can information be terrorism?
These reflections follow a great debacle of public health, with innumerable lives at stake. We heard only recently, and rightly, that diet is the leading cause of premature death in our culture, killing at a scale vastly beyond the toll of bullets and bombs. Admittedly, of course, bullets and bombs are more immediate; there is more ghastly carnage in plain view. But for sheer scale- years lost from lives, and life lost from years, year after year- diet is massively more lethal.
Isn’t it terrifying, if not terrorizing, to be told that our food is the leading source of disease and demise threatening us and those we love- and then get diametrically clashing messages about how to fix it?
Everyone knows the Oklahoma City bomber; everyone knows the Unabomber; everyone knows the perpetrators at Columbine. That’s not because these people were right- it’s because they did terrible things. They took our attention hostage not with valid messages, but with heinous assaults.
That can be done to understanding, too.
The researchers who this time lobbed what the Union of Concerned Scientists called a “nothingburger” to refute the consensus about harms of processed meat have done much the same before. The same source, in this same journal, using just these methods- repudiated the links between added sugar and adverse health outcomes just a few years ago. In that instance, the paper trail led to industry beneficiaries, called out in high places. Whether that is true again is a matter of on-going investigation.
If processed meat is not a problem, and added sugar is not a problem…then where are the problems that account for poor diet as the leading cause of premature death, as it is known to be? Must we now anticipate “guidelines” based on such methods advising against intake of whole vegetables and fruits (for want of evidence); in favor of consuming ultraprocessed foods (for want of evidence opposing)?
There is but a hyphen between the dis-ease of such relentless worry, and disease of body, mind, and culture.
How can science be so readily corrupted? Science may have the force of a freight train, but sense must lay its tracks. Absent that, you get a train wreck- like the one we’ve all just witnessed.
Consider that any researchers so inclined could readily apply these same methods of systematic review and grading evidence to…children running while holding scissors. They would surely find a complete lack of randomized trials, and would certainly score the evidence as extremely deficient if not absent altogether. Recent history suggests they would accordingly publish guidelines advising children to keep running with scissors.
If you believe that’s a good idea, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. There’s plenty of room for children to run there, with scissors or otherwise.
Science is for advancing understanding of what’s true. This is not science; it’s anti-science. It’s a nothingburger, or nothingbomb, lobbed at understanding to blow it up.
Why? The only apparent reason is notoriety. Blow up understanding, and own some number of news cycles, as surely as if you blew up a building. Blow up understanding, and you take our collective attention hostage.
Corrupted information about a corrupted food supply has been killing relentlessly for decades. In the age of Internet echo chambers, has it evolved into information terrorism? I won’t presume to answer my question. But I do presume to say: it’s time we ask it.
Science can be weaponized to blow up understanding rather than advance it. The only real defense is sense. Would that it were common.
David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, FACLM, is the Founding Director (1998) of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, and former President of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. He has published roughly 200 scientific articles and textbook chapters, and 15 books to date, including multiple editions of leading textbooks in both preventive medicine, and nutrition. He has made important contributions in the areas of lifestyle interventions for health promotion; nutrient profiling; behavior modification; holistic care; and evidence-based medicine. David earned his BA degree from Dartmouth College (1984); his MD from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (1988); and his MPH from the Yale University School of Public Health (1993). He completed sequential residency training in Internal Medicine, and Preventive Medicine/Public Health. He is a two-time diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, and a board-certified specialist in Preventive Medicine/Public Health. He has received two Honorary Doctorates.