Monday, May 9, 2011

What do you think about cholesterol?

The tectonic theory is an example of a theory that was rejected and ridiculed for many decades before being accepted in the second half of the twentieth century and then coming to dominate geological thinking. If you were to walk into a university today and declare that you thought the tectonics theory was wrong, you would face severe criticism.

However, just because the prevailing orthodoxy has lined up decisively behind a theory does not make it true. In fact, there is extensive evidence (see for example the discussions here and here) that the theory of plate tectonics is incorrect. It may appear to explain the evidence, but the actual underlying explanation may be quite different.

Erroneous theories based upon incorrect interpretation of the evidence can lead to serious consequences. To use an example that may be even more familiar to readers, imagine that instead of walking into a university and declaring your opposition to the theory of plate tectonics, you were to walk into your doctor's office and declare: "I think fat and cholesterol are actually good for me, and all the medical literature that says it causes heart disease is based on flawed interpretation of the data!"

This is in fact what some detectives are concluding after looking at the evidence (these outside voices of course are ridiculed and marginalized by the "authorities," in exactly the same way that Sherlock Holmes or the gang from Scooby Doo are resented and marginalized by the authorities in crime fiction).

For example, Uffe Ravnskov (who is an MD and a PhD) has written numerous books challenging the theory that consumption of cholesterol and fat in the diet is responsible for atherosclerosis and heart disease. His numerous books, articles and research pieces, some of which are listed here, argue that the data in the studies during the twentieth century which led to the adoption of the hypothesis that atherosclerosis and heart disease are caused by cholesterol was wrongly interpreted. His examination of the evidence is quite detailed and extensive, and his conclusions are convincing.

Dr. Ravnskov argues that cholesterol is not the cause of the atherosclerosis and blood clotting that can lead to heart disease and death, but rather that it is found near such atherosclerosis and clots because it is part of the body's defense against the real culprit, which is microbial infection and arterial inflammation. The body sends LDL cholesterol to fight the symptoms of the microbial attack, and the cholesterol that is being blamed is actually beneficial: it is the microbial invaders that the current theory overlooks which are the actual problem.

Dr. Ravnskov outlines this theory in his book Fat and Cholesterol are Good for You! In the introduction to that book, he explains the attacks that his arguments have endured:
When the cholesterol campaign was introduced in Sweden in 1989 I was very suprised. Having followed the scientific literature about cholesterol and cardiovascular disease superficially I could not recall anything in support of the idea that high cholesterol or saturated fat should be harmful to human health. I became curious and started to read more systematically.

Anyone who does that with an open mind soon discovers that the emperor is naked. But I also learnt that my critical comments were met with little interest from the editors of the medical journals or with mocking answers from the reviewers. [. . .]

My first book on this subject, the Cholesterol Myths, was published in Sweden in 1991 and in Finland in 1992, and has since then been translated into five languages. It made little impact. In Sweden the science journalists usually lost their interest in the subject when they, after having read the book, consulted the researchers or health authorities that I had criticized. In Finland the book was actually burnt in a television show after having been denigrated by some of the Finnish proponents to the cholesterol campaign.
Sadly, this kind of ridicule and marginalization often characterizes the response of those who uphold the prevailing theory (as stated above, the currently-popular tectonic theory was subjected to exactly the same kind of treatment). Instead of trying to silence dissenting voices, alternate views should be welcomed and the arguments and evidence brought forward by those with a different interpretation should be examined on their merits.

Dr. Ravnskov typifies this approach in his own work: he states that his explanation is only a hypothesis, and invites his readers to examine the data and decide for themselves. In the same book cited above, he tells his reader: "remember, my idea is only a hypothesis, just as the idea about good and bad cholesterol is a hypothesis. I may be wrong, and most doctors and researchers who have been accustomed to the cholesterol hypothesis for many years will probably shake their heads uttering: It is high cholesterol, stupid! but if you have an open mind and if you are willing to spend a little time by following my arguments I think that it will be very difficult for you to find anything in conflict with my hypothesis" (193).

Other medical doctors have reached similar conclusions, such as Dwight Lundell, MD, who argues that inflammation in the arteries is the problem and that it is not caused by cholesterol. Others have put forward the possibility that the oils used to fry and cook food, which changed significantly during the twentieth century due to a variety of social factors and medical theories, are the real problem, rather than the foods themselves.

The point of this discussion is not who is right in the topic of diet and heart disease, which is outside the scope of this particular blog about mankind's ancient history. The point is that in one very important topic, open examination of the prevailing theory is not permitted, and even contrary opinions put forth by sincere professionals and backed up with extensive evidence are mocked and even burned in public. Since the cause of heart disease is an actual matter of life-and-death, uncritically accepting what "the authorities" say can lead to serious consequences if their theory is wrong, and individuals would be advised to conduct at least some level of due diligence on their own.

The question of mankind's ancient history is perhaps not as immediately important to human health, but it does carry important implications for the health of a society. Following the wrong theory about history and origins can lead to societal "heart disease" over long periods of time.

Because these issues are so important, we should be alert to those whose response is to ridicule or even burn contrary opinions or conflicting evidence. We should adopt the attitude expressed by Dr. Ravnskov in the quotation above, which freely admits that his hypothesis and the prevailing hypothesis are each only hypotheses, and that individuals should be encouraged to examine the evidence for themselves.

Dr. Brown adopts the same attitude in his books on the hydroplate theory, and suggests that teachers should say to students: "Don't be concerned with what I believe. What matters in this class is how thoroughly you examine the scientific evidence on both sides of this issue" (7th edition, 285).

It may turn out that the current cholesterol theories are incorrect, based on what was originally a sincere but misguided interpretation of the evidence. I would argue that the tectonic theory may in fact misinterpret the evidence in much the same way.

While the original errors may have been based on sincere misinterpretation, I would further argue that the more the defenders of an interpretation use ridicule and marginalization instead of honest examination and argument to protect their position, the more we might suspect that their theory is in need of the attention of a Sherlock Holmes or a Scooby Doo.