30 November 2007

Saturated fat and climate change

A story in the November issue of Men's Health, What if bad fat is actually good for you? by Nina Teicholz tells us that, after numerous studies, there is no convincing evidence that saturated fats are bad for you. But the far-reaching implications of this fact have been widely ignored. Of wider interest are the difficulty of getting work published that contradicts accepted dogma, and the disconnect between scientific fact and policymaking. Medical research is bedeviled by many of the problems that afflict analysis of social and environmental problems, especially extreme complexity and the difficulty of performing controlled experiments. So it seems quite plausible that beliefs and policies accepted by the broad establishment can diverge from reality in medicine just as much as in social welfare or environmental policy. Vested interests form and co-operate with each other to resist change. Very low priority is given to the essential (but admittedly complex and unexciting) task of monitoring policies for their effectiveness. It can take a crisis to force policy to adapt to reality.

One way of resolving this problem would be for policymakers to stay out of complex areas. The difficulty with this is that government has already moved in to such a degree that it has crowded out society's other ways of dealing with problems. We can actually see this process happening today when government, for reasons that appear compelling, becomes involved in such issues as disciplining children. Nothing necessarily wrong with this sort of encroachment but the danger is that they substitute for society's own coping mechanisms, which then disappear permanently - and that these evolved customs and taboos might have been more efficient than the policies that replaced them. We begin to depend on government intervention, even when such intervention defies all commonsense: take a look at the long and lamentable history of farm support policies for the best-documented example.

If withdrawal of government is no help, might not the answer lie in the replacement of a handful of experts by a diverse, adaptive group of motivated people? Very often, in matters of complex policy like, say, heart disease or climate change, we know exactly what we want: longer, healthier lives or climate stability. But we have no clear idea of how to get there, and probably the best approaches vary unforseeably with time, geographical area and a host of other variables. By targeting our desired outcomes, and rewarding people for achieving it, we could replicate, accelerate and even improve on the evolution of sensible, diverse, adaptive approaches that in natural societies, as in the individual organism, make for long-term well-being in ways that are socially and environmentally sustainable. This is the essence of the Social Policy Bond approach.

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