Demonstrating the Social Construction of Knowledge: The Myth of Killer Saturated Fat

Out of all the uncertainty that can be found in the vast ocean of knowledge claims “out there,” at least one thing is certain today: saturated fat is bad for your heart and if you stop eating it you will live a longer, better life.

Now we know better. Or do we? In this post I want to briefly discuss the so-called “lipid hypothesis,” which according to wikipedia, claims that “lowering definitely elevated blood cholesterol levels (specifically, blood levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol) will reduce the risk of heart attacks caused by coronary heart disease.” Aka, saturated fat is bad for you and reducing your saturated fat intake is good for you. Before I continue, I want to encourage everyone to take a cursory look at the freely available article “The Oiling of America“, by Mary Enig, renowned expert on lipid biochemistry and member of the International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics. Of particular relevance to my concerns in this post is the section “The ‘Evidence’ for the Lipid Hypothesis,” which beautifully illustrates how a socially constructed fact can attain the status of “objective knowledge” in spite of many researchers sincerely striving for “The Truth” (Also see the Science article “The Soft Science of Dietary Fat” by Gary Taubes). Fate is a curious thing, often taking a twist or turn just at the right time to set off a chain reaction of self-reinforcing soundbites that coallesce into “common knowledge” (now we know better).

I have usually refrained from discussing personal, social or political issues on this blog in order to reserve somewhat the tone of academic philosophy. However, this issue of nutrition is a particularly good example of where philosophy makes itself highly relevant to society “at large” and I can’t help but comment. The history of anti-realism in continental philosophy, (as described in Lee Braver’s excellent book A Thing of This World; which is being discussed here, at PerverseEgalitarianism) provides the penultimate theoretical framework to discuss the ways in which handy political stereotypes get overblown and solidified into “well known” maxims and soundbites (the War on Drugs comes to mind here). Such facts can by all means be considered “socially constructed”. Heidegger, Foucault, and Latour are good resources for developing a theoretical framework to think about such issues of social construction. However, although academic philosophy is an excellent way to think through these issues of subjectivity and objectivity, it is by no means difficult to come to a similar conclusion by simply watching something like Fox News. The elevation of empirically weak knowledge claims to the status of “objective fact” is only accelerated through the potentially dangerous social mediums of network news, poor journalism and the more modern ubiquity of talking head commentary and the  information cesspool that is the internet.

It is ironic however that the most reliable way to rid yourself of such scientifically unsupported delusions is to utilize the collectively skeptical analysis of knowledge that constitutes a growing subset of internet culture. Google “saturated fat heart disease” and the third link will be a scientific editorial discussing the “paradoxical” aspects of the current nutritional dogma in regard to factors such as the deadly metabolic syndrome, which will effect at least 30% of Americans born after the year 2000. The fourth link is a Men’s Health article which asks, “What if Bad Fat is Actually Good for You?“. On Wikipedia there is a “contrary research” section on the page for saturated fat.

Moreover, I find it interesting that on websites conducive towards “natural selection” and the critical analysis of scientific data, one can more quickly triangulate on what is bullshit and what isn’t. A search for “saturated fat” on reddit will not turn up results which are favorable for the lipid hypothesis. Even youtube, not known for its rational discussion, will turn up a host of videos condemning the dogma of current mainstream nutrition agencies around the world if you search for “saturated fat heart disease”.

It seems then that the only way out of the knowledge hole we have dug ourselves into through truth-corrosive social factors like modern media circlejerks is through more media, albeit analyzed through the proven filter of scientific, rational debate. However, it isn’t going to be through pure assertion that we overcome the idiocy that is American nutritional advice; it will be through careful analysis of empirical data in light of the best theoretical frameworks available. Sadly, it won’t be easy to disseminate factual knowledge concerning nutrition when the biological reality is ridiculously complicated and not easily reducible to something the Average Joe can understand in a two minute blurb.

But do we now know better? Yes, yes we do.

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Filed under Philosophy, Psychology, Random

3 responses to “Demonstrating the Social Construction of Knowledge: The Myth of Killer Saturated Fat

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