It’s time we stopped calling anything published or PR sponsored by a company with an interest in the outcome science. We have a term for this sort of thing. It is called advertising. I am not saying that big companies don’t do science – I worked in a industrial research lab, and companies sometimes do publish science in peer-reviewed journals, but it’s always worth asking who pays the piper. Particularly if the conclusion is consuming more of something novel and unnatural is good for you. The Escape Artist gives you a rough guide if the simplicity of Michael Pollan’s Eat Food, mostly plants and not too much is too simple –
- Eat as close as you can to what a caveman / cavewoman would have eaten
- This means eating real, natural food that used to grow (vegetables, salad, fruit, nuts), swim (fish), fly (birds) and run (red meat)
- Do not eat things that were made in chemical plants (e.g. margarine) or factories (e.g. Ready meals, Smash, Custard Powder, Vienettas)
As an Imperial alumnus, I received this stirring letter from Professor Alice Gast, current Rector of Imperial. Heck, it makes even this retired Ermine a little teary-eyed to recall the young pup who started Physics in the dog days of the 1970s
Throughout history universities have been founded with the purpose of creating new knowledge and producing educated citizens. Imperial College London is no exception.
Ah those distant days, when the goddamned market hadn’t grabbed our hearts and minds, when institutions like schools and universities had qualitative human values rather than make the fastest buck we can, ASAP. When governments and universities did the blue sky research she was talking about, and when basic science was paid for by governments, and indeed we were not so solipsistic as to fondly believe that 50% of our children are academically gifted, because it’s pretty obvious that they aren’t, now we’ve tried the experiment. Proust made the distinction between involuntary and voluntary memory with his madeleines in In Search of Lost Time and Alice Gast’s letter was an involuntary memory of this more human and less market-centric time. Though let’s not forget the dreadful draughty cold, the insipid food, unreliable electrical goods and cars and then tremendously racist and sexist attitudes of the time Before Thatcher too!
I’m glad that research is still considered important at Imperial – when I went to university academic research into discovering new stuff and how the world worked was the whole point of a university (in science, I confess I have no idea even now what the equivalent is in the humanities – I was born after CP Snow’s Two Cultures). There was the suspicion that the undergraduates were a bit of a PITA and got in the way somewhat of the real work of the university. Whereas now it seems the point of a university to make shitloads of money out of as many people as possible, some of whom aren’t bright enough to see they’ll never get a return on that investment. This is in the same vein as some other once fine institutions – like the point of a hospital used to be to try and make people better, as opposed to try and stop the marketised and cash-starved company running it going bust, all the while overseen by some prize prick who in other news, wants us to work like the Chinese because work is good for you in and of itself, as opposed to a way of paying the rent.
The scientific method from the Enlightenment to 1980
Anyway, back to science. Science is a methodical process which seeks to determine the secrets of the natural world by using the scientific method. A lot of people miss the boundaries there, which then gives us materialist rationalism – science will never tell us the meaning of what it is to be human, or how to organise our societies or even just plain be nice to each other – these are not its job. Once we have determined the overall aims it can help us with the how, but not with the why. But since I was grouching about the trouble with science now, let’s remind ourselves of the principles of the scientific method, which haven’t really changed that much since the Enlightenment:
- Observe the natural world
- Develop a hypothesis as to why things are so
- Experiment to test the hypothesis
- Review if your hypothesis matches observations
- repeat – and modify your ‘king hypothesis rather than your observations where there are discrepancies, people
That’s how it should work. But science costs money, all that Wrangling Stuff, and expensive kit, there are always more nooks to poke an inquisitive snout into than there are resources. So we had the Science Research Council to match this and allocate resources. Now we have the market.
The scientific method from 1980 onwards, a.k.a. market driven science
Ah, civil servants shouldn’t be picking winnners. etc, etc. Let the market decide sounded the battle cry in the 1980s. Now I worked in an industrial research lab for a long time. Industry is perfectly capable of applying science, and obviously they get to pick and choose the bits that are profitable or help them make profitable products.
But industry is shit at doing science1, because science is meant to inform us about our world. And industry wants you to buy its stuff. Let’s take the scientific method according to Coca Cola. The Telegraph is there with a repeat for free
- Observe your product – water, sugar and flavouring. One of these is bad for people because it makes them fat
- Develop a story to sell more of it
- Take a partisan view of the world and amplify the reasons to buy your product as opposed to using a common and cheaper alternative – water
- if desperate simply lie and falsify results (that’s the VW arm of the decision tree) – in Coca Cola’s case you consumers are fat because they don’t exercise enough, not because they are chugging 35g of sugar per can
- Obfuscate information, spawn endless organisations such as the European Hydration Institute to add puffery and ways of disseminating your
advertising/sponsored factual information, like this example published by Oxford University Press
- shut down all the council-operated water taps in parks and public places[ref]I totally made that up, but WTF, what’s sauce for the goose is good for the gander. Anyway, there used to be working municipal water taps in Britain when I was a child and I can’t recall the last working one I’s seen recently[/ref]
Rinse, repeat, collect £loadsamoney in shorter and shorter time increments, for ever. Marvellous, innit? Trouble is we are getting fat bastards and it’s harder to lose weight than it used to be in the 1980s. And I (and more knowledgeable folk) charge Coca Cola and manufacturers of ‘sports drinks’ with a modern lie that many people seem to believe, but was considered garbage when I was a kid. Listen to the winsome Rosie Huntington-Whiteley give us this line
Now ask yourself, did she get to look like that drinking a couple of cans of Coke a day? Probably not…
The Exercise Myth
“Exercise is the key to losing weight”
This is bullshit. It is one of those things that is true in theory but not in practice. In theory you could do enough exercise to compensate for drinking a 330 ml can of Coke at 140 calories, but the truth is that Britons don’t generally do that – you have to walk about 45 minutes. Coca Cola want to sell us more sugary shit, so they tell us exercise is the way to get fit. Well, it helps, but you’re always better off not drinking the Coke in the first place. That’s the sad truth about losing weight – stopping the calories getting into your gob is by far the easiest win. You cannot outrun a bad diet.
Eat less and for God’s sake don’t drink Coca Cola. The retired Ermine weighs less than the in work Ermine. One day I would like to have the same waist size as when I was 21, but it’s going to be a long way coming. Yes, I probably do more exercise than when I was working, but it’s of the order of Mike Evans with occasional bursty peaks over at times
It’s eating less that made the difference, and it kinda just happened. There are all sorts of minor second-order things about life that improve when you control your own time, and it so happens eating less is one of those things. The amount of calories consumed by half an hour’s walking is jack shit, about 120 calories, about a slice of bread. It’s irrelevant – it’s about 5% of the daily calorie consumption.
Exercise over your normal level does use calories, but it hardly shifts the needle on the dial. This was brought home to me when I discovered that the 13-mile round bike trip to work and back consumed less than the 220 calories in a Mars Bar of the time. A man on a bicycle is an incredibly efficient transportation system – the bike journey used about 140 calories. The next problem with exercise is that it makes you hungry, particularly if you are unfit. The exercise only helps you slightly lose weight if you fight that urge to eat more, and don’t even think about consuming sports drinks to replace the calories you worked so hard to try and lose.
We took a big wrong turn in the 1970s when we decided fat was the enemy rather than sugar, because there’s another dark truth – it’s much easier to overeat sugary calories that fatty calories. Let’s take a Coke at 140 calories a can – it is more calorific than beer by volume, so I’d go for the healthy option, better for your teeth, too. Looking at how people use it, it’s not unreasonable to imagine someone getting through four of those in a day, particularly if they are doing some sort of sport 😉 That’s like eating an extra Big Mac that day. If you wanted to eat those 140 calories as butter that’s about a tablespoon and a half, it’s easy to drink two cans of coke in one go but you’d be queasy on three tablespoons of butter. Six? I battle tested this with crackling. The crackling you have to eat first as it comes out of the oven, else it draws water from the air and becomes a soft dog treat. You can only eat about three square inches of crackling before you just can’t physically do it any more. That’s probably 500-800 calories, we aren’t talking healthy living, but you wouldn’t reach the same total endstop after troughing a whole one of TEA’s Vienettas
Now somebody like TFS can make a dent in that 500 calories in half an hour and five miles. But he’s running a bloody marathon, and he’s not your average Brit, who apparently does a lot less exercise than me! I am definitely among the idle bastards of the PF community compared to all those marathon runners and mountain cyclists, and yet despite having never, ever, been inside a gym for my entire adult life I am in the upper half of British adults physical activity by a long chalk
It found that just over 8% of adults who could walk had not – with the exception of shopping – walked continuously for five minutes within the previous four weeks, while 46% had not walked for leisure for 30 minutes continuously over the same period.
Now I’m of the opinion that it doesn’t matter if your walking is for shopping or for going to work or just for the hell of it, and indeed I am a utility cyclist and walker. I walk to the shops, and I walk to the library for instance, but half of British adults not walking for half an hour in four weeks? C’mon guys! Anywhere less than 1.5 miles away is walkable, and a bike more than doubles that. Anyway, if these guys want to lose weight they should start by eating less. And hydrating using water, or tea and coffee, or if push comes to shove drink beer, not Coke.
My mother2 had a simple motto on diets: Friss die Hälfte – eat half. It’s not about what you do eat, just eat less. Having said that, do be careful of sugary stuff, because the energy in it is so concentrated you can trough down a lot very quickly. Take a Starbucks Frappucino with cream and caramel It sounds truly disgusting, and note Starbucks make it pretty hard to find out the calories in their stuff because you have to download a PDF and cross-correlate it, but order any of these in Venti size3 and you’re north of 400 calories.
For comparison a Big Mac is 550 calories, but the thing is, you’re unlikely to be able to chow down two Big Macs in one session, whereas sit in Starbucks for an hour with your iPad and you could quite easily get through two of those.
Let’s take a look at sports drinks. This again is not something I know from experience because a) I have avoided sports ever since school, which made me hate it with a vengeance which hasn’t faded in 30 years and b) such sports drinks as I have tasted tasted like disgusting sugary shit. So I took a look at this from the Guardian as research and came to the conclusion I am on a different planet. I am okay with doing exercise to do something, like chopping wood, or to get somewhere useful cheaply like cycling, or to see something interesting in the case of walking. I can understand going to a gym to lose weight, but to do it for fun beats me. Anyway, apparently a sports drink is there to replace the calories you use while exercising, and here is where I lose the point totally. Why? And when I see a large individual come out from a gym and glug down a sports drink I ask myself WTF are you doing this to yourself?
If you’re Usain Bolt, you may have use for a sports drink. If you went into that stinky gym because you are too fat, then you just paid the sports drink maker good money to sabotage the whole reason you paid the gym operator to go there. The terrible conversion rate of calories to exercise is the reason you feel shit, and feeling shit is the whole point, to rip some of the fat out your lardy flesh, not go replace the stuff you sweated buckets to use up. Just save the money on the gym and the drink and do something else with your time.
Given the level of physical activity of Britons, there is no need for supermarkets to stock sports drinks, because not enough sport goes on to make that sort of demand. Just. Say. No. to fizzy drinks. Oh yes, and parents – don’t do it to your kids. As a measure of how far Coke has advanced, yes I did have Coke as a child – but only on birthdays and maybe Christmas holidays – you can get away with 35g of sugar a few times a year. You just look at the pallets of the stuff in Tesco to see a lot more is being shifted. My mother did me a great kindness early on when she suggested knocking out the sugar in tea (nearly everyone seemed to add sugar to their tea in the 1960s). It was a fight for two weeks, and has served me for getting on 50 years.
The Escape Artist has a nice piece on this – basically follow Michael Pollan on food. I disagree with TEA regarding science that used to be funded by governments – the UK used to have government agricultural and hydrological research labs that published some good stuff which is still to be found in obscure places but since 1980 this is increasingly done by the big ag chemical and biotech firms which seem to have infested Defra, and surprisingly the ‘evidence based research’ so happens to point towards we need to get bigger, more high tech and use GM. Obviously some of these chemicals end up in the watercourses, but hey, some other bugger can pay for that, eh, and we have to ram our big scale factory farm animals with antibiotics to control disease, but again, pfft, your children can deal with the problem of antibiotic resistance but at least you can buy a chicken for £2 so it’s all good.
Keep it simple, and go easy on anything your great grandmother wouldn’t have recognised as food. That includes puffery like vitaminwater which is also brought to you by Coca Cola. The bastards are at it again – adding 65 calories of sugar to every bottle of something marketed as ‘water’.
Coca Cola screwed up selling real water in Britain in 2004. When I was in the US I observed Americans are perfectly happy paying for purified tap water. Now it has to be said that some of the water I got from motel rooms on that trip was worth paying to avoid, but in Europe we are only happy to pay for water if it has been purified from a natural source coming out of the ground. Of which Britain has plenty – every supermarket seems to be able to find a source. Coca Cola decided to try and sell us Dasani purified tap water from Sidcup in south London, and it didn’t go right for them at all.
What is now often reported as ‘science’ is nothing of the sort
The trouble with saving money by not doing science as a country is that you lose impartiality, and increasingly you just can’t tell what the bloody hell is what in a ghastly echo chamber of special interest pleading masquerading as science. It applies in many fields, but nutrition seems to be a particularly bad case – as Scott Adams said, pretty much everything about nutrition and diets is 100% Science Fail. Doing science on living things is hard because it’s difficult to separate the variables, and it’s a lot easier to do science on things like fruit flies that only live for a short time than on a beast that lives for 70 years and gets ornery as soon as you try and control what it does. It’s particularly hard when you’re doing the science like an A level student where you know the result – Coke is good for you – and have to munge the experimental results to give you that answer and ignore any counterfactual evidence. That’s advertising, not science. It’s done by “scientists” working for firms like this
The European Hydration Institute (EHI) was founded in response to the need expressed by a number of scientists, nutritionists and health care professionals, for a one stop shop relating to hydration where: All hydration science and knowledge could come together; strategies for further advancing understanding in the area of hydration could be developed and support for efforts designed to ensure people across Europe are properly hydrated could be provided.
What need was that? If you’re thirsty, drink water, tea, weak beer. How did previous generations ensure people across Europe were properly hydrated? They provided municipal water fountains in the 1960s and 70s FFS. When was the last time you heard on the news that somebody going about their daily business died of thirst in Britain? It’s just not a problem that needs a hydration institute to sort out. There are parts of the world where hydration is an issue. That is what Water Aid is for.
Why can’t we do science any more?
We can. Although there are some who ascribe the dropping of productivity and the return on capital as being due to the wellsprings of science and technology running dry, it does still go on. The problem is that the quality control department has downed tools and gone AWOL. So much crap is being published that you can’t tell the science from the puffery, and because even those doing research are incentivised by publications and citations we get exactly what we incentivise – these are bright people, after all. We get loads of publications and citations, but unfortunately nobody is making any more time for people to keep up with this or referee the papers properly. The signal stays roughly the same but the noise increases.
Companies have jumped to the fact that the modern creed is science but few people can actually recognise science, so they are incentivised to create spurious rubbish that looks like science, and since everybody needs to pay off their student loans they can hire scientists with the right credentials to write claptrap that looks like science and pollutes the scientific literature and tell us great big porky pies like that you can exercise your way out of eating too much. Marion Nestle (author of Big Soda) has been collecting sponsored studies and their sponsors and has found that 95% of the results favour the sponsors. How, er, tremendously odd that is. Looks like it is game, set and match though – a 95% confidence interval is a commonly accepted benchmark of a clear result, so yes, sponsors do fix the results of their studies, either by selective hypotheses or by more nefarious means. The piper really does call the tune. I’m shocked.
The FT’s Izabella Kaminsky roughs out the wider problem
For what Rogoff is saying is that if we are experiencing technology stagnation, it’s not because humanity has suddenly become less innovative. Rather, it’s because incumbent interests now have the biggest incentive ever to impose artificial scarcity, which is stopping the speed of innovation.
One of those artificial scarcities incumbents need to create is in information. It’s become much easier to disseminate information, so they do it by flooding the information space with false information. It’s a propaganda war – all advertising is propaganda along the lines of We want to make You buy Our Shit and Believe Our Story. There aren’t any principles beyond the love of money, so if it’s bad for you then we start with propaganda to make you believe the bad effects are due to something else you’re not doing, and dress it up as science.
Reference for Coca Cola’s denialists:
The European Hydration Institute
downloaded on 9 Oct 2015 at
The Coca-Cola Company
In 1886, Coca-Cola® brought refreshment to patrons of a small Atlanta pharmacy. Now well into its second century, the Company owns more than 500 brands which are enjoyed in more than 200 countries. Innovation and solid science are the foundation of everything the company does, from the development of new sparkling beverages, juices, waters, sports drinks, energy drinks, coffees and teas, to the environmentally-friendly packaging and refrigeration equipment and the new (and the world’s largest) plastic-bottle-to-bottle recycling plant and other actions to support recycling in the U.S.
The Coca-Cola Company is committed to advancing scientific knowledge, awareness and understanding of beverages, and recognises the importance of an active, healthy and balanced lifestyle. Initiatives like the “Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness” are part of this commitment, serving as a valued resource for health professionals and others worldwide on the science, safety and benefits of beverages and their ingredients, as well as the importance of diet, nutrition and physical activity to health and wellbeing.
The Coca-Cola Company is also committed to local markets, paying attention to what people from different cultures and backgrounds like to drink, and where and how they want to drink it. With its bottling partners, the Company reaches out to the local communities it serves, believing that Coca-Cola exists to benefit and refresh everyone it touches.
The Coca-Cola Company has been instrumental in supporting the establishment of the EHI. It is providing funding to the EHI as part of its commitment to a better scientific understanding of human hydration and related societal issues.
More information at www.thecoca-colacompany.com
- now – arguably some of the great industrial research labs of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s did do science and advanced knowledge, but this started to fade by the 1990s as timescales shortened ↩
- she is German ↩
- That’s huge, for those of us who don’t frequent Starbucks. It’s a pint. When was the last time you drank a pint of coffee at home? I have never, ever, seen a reason to buy a large coffee unless there are two of you and you want to split one ↩