This is not a clash over the science—it is a clash of paternalism about how much risk we should acceptby Michael Blastland / October 16, 2019 / Leave a comment
Whose risk is it anyway?
Where there’s meat, there’s blood. Even academic research into the personal health risks of eating it has become vicious. Cut down, says the old; eat what you like, says the new, only for advocates of the old to beat up the revisionists (“these authors are wrong about absolutely everything” … “the most egregious abuse of evidence I have ever seen”). Experts, eh?
The funny thing, though, about the latest research on the health effects of eating red and processed meat is that the risk has hardly changed. Research new and old arrived at similar numbers. Why, then, the bust up? Because both sides felt obliged to pronounce on whether that same risk was tolerable.
This was not a clash over the science, it was a clash of paternalism about how much risk we should accept. There is nothing in the data itself to define acceptability. Only competing ideas as to what “acceptable” should be.
One question then, is why they don’t just give us the data and stop there. Leave us to make up our own minds. Whether to inform or to try to persuade is a choice—not always an easy one, but a choice all the same. It’s also one colleagues at the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication think could be exercised more judiciously. For whatever reason, the personal health risk of eating meat has become a war of persuasion with reputational cost to science that might have been avoided.
After all, whose risk is it anyway? Because if it’s personal, then we all define our own fears. I flinch my way past raised umbrellas. Others wonder what I’m fussing about. Scarier even than that, the climber Alex Honnold scaled El Capitan without ropes, as captured in the film Free Solo. Some I know couldn’t watch, wondering ‘how could he?’ Well, perhaps you couldn’t, but he could, and he did. Clearly, the numbers matter, but so do our own values and preferences—and this subjectivity is inherent to risk.
So, how scary is the meat data for you? There are various ways to interpret it, and this variety helps explain how people come to different conclusions.
We can, for example,…