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Meat the war on science

09 Oct 2019 | News Roundup

Increasingly loud voices are demanding that scientific results in fields unrelated to climate, even if true, be suppressed if they don’t serve the climate agenda. For instance a National Post report on a Canadian-led study questioning the link between red meat and cancer or heart disease quoted Dr. David Jenkins of the University of Toronto criticizing the publication of the findings because, while the authors are “excellent scientists”, they “should not be making recommendations on this highly connected and sensitive issue, namely, meat consumption, linked as it is to GHGE (greenhouse gas emissions), climate change, our whole attitude to other life forms — in short, connected to existential issues for life on this planet.” Because the climate emergency, even if untrue, trumps everything else, including the true stuff.

In fact the authors don’t really make recommendations except “Don’t panic”. The National Post article led with an intentionally provocative headline “No, beef isn’t bad for you”. And the authors of the study nailed their colours firmly to the fence, saying you should keep eating what you’re currently eating because who knows? Or, in academese, “The panel suggests that adults continue current unprocessed red meat consumption (weak recommendation, low-certainty evidence). Similarly, the panel suggests adults continue current processed meat consumption (weak recommendation, low-certainty evidence).”

The reason they have low-certainty evidence is that they reviewed a bunch of massive studies that had the same low-certainty, particularly in relying on self-reporting of what people ate. As Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s scarily named Office for Science in Society, noted reasonably, “People tend to claim that they eat more of what they think they should have eaten instead of what they ate.” But Schwarcz then went on very unreasonably to set out how science will look once it is bent to appropriate social ends: “While eating less meat may not have a great benefit for the consumer, it can have a significant impact on the environment. And it certainly has an effect on the animal that is not consumed.”

The impact of eating beef on the environment is unclear. So in fact is its impact on cows; if we did not eat them, we would not feed and care for them either. But neither has anything to do with whether scaring you out of the meat aisle is sound science. Apparently such a question is no longer relevant in the way that it was back in the days of the Office for Science in the Laboratory. So Jenkins and others pressured the Annals of Internal Medicine to delay and possibly cancel publication of the study.

In response, lead researcher Gordon Guyatt of McMaster University accused critics of "a hysterical response." Good for him for standing up to the mob. But why should he have to?

In the face of such pressure to conform to socially correct norms, it might seem almost beside the point to observe that even on something as cut and dried as salami the science turns out not to be “settled”. But here as so often there’s a strong suspicion of a neo-Puritan war on pleasure. As Guyatt observed of the clamour to sweep meat from our plates, “So far, nobody has cared about the downside of quality of life reduction associated with decreasing or stopping eating meat”. As for the people who want to suppress his study because it doesn’t suit their environmental agenda, Guyatt says it amounts to saying “let's not have scientific discourse operate as it should operate”.

Exactly. Real science depends on truth and on fearless truth-telling, not social conformity and dogma. Even, or perhaps especially, on contentious issues like climate.

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