Ask Matt Labash: Deadly Diet Coke, artificially-sweet lies, and blinding me with ‘science’
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Your essay on the fickle nature of dietary guidelines reminds me of a question regarding my caffeine delivery vehicle of choice. I don’t drink coffee (denying myself society’s most convenient means of expressing misplaced superiority) or tea (denying myself soda’s most convenient alternative) and energy drinks, of course, are for dim people. But I am a Coke guy. Formerly the real thing, now the wretched diet version. I’m not one of those worriers, compelled to wear a crash helmet for anything more adventurous than sitting atop a bar stool, but I suspect that on balance I’d be better off without all the aspartame and whatever else they put in there to make it taste like metal shavings. Since the medical community has a harder time making a decision than Sir Galahad at the Bridge of Death, I’ll ask you: Concerned about artificial sweeteners? – Muhtar in Atlanta
First of all, I’m flattered that you assume that everyone, like you, follows my essays that appear in places other than in this space. Or as I prefer to call them, “pieces,” since my primary objective in life is to not be the kind of finger-sniffing tool who insists on calling his pieces “essays.” (Also, these “word pictures” as a twee essayist might call it, tend to reflect little “pieces” of me. Though I strive not to be as pretentious as self-identified essayists, I am clearly every bit as solipsistic.)
The piece/essay you are referring to is one I wrote a few months back for my home pub, The Weekly Standard, in which I questioned the reliability of the schizoid health-science that comes down your homepage pike each day in the form of take-it-to-the-bank health squibs announcing new medical studies, the intended purpose of which seems to be to scare the bejeezus out of us. That is, until a future health squib touting a new study tells us that the polar opposite is true. (Alcohol kills! No, alcohol prolongs life!)
I don’t mean to suggest I’m anti-science. It’s not that I’m some kind of mouth-breathing denialist, immune to the charms of fossil records or carbon-dating. Personally, I prefer to think of myself as being descended from higher forms than monkeys. (I like to think I’m fashioned in the image of a deity – due to my Messiah complex.) But I’m completely prepared to admit that Darwinian-style evolution isn’t such a stretch either, since plenty of people I could name clearly have ape-like properties – Ben Stiller, for starters. (And please do not write in to lecture on the differences between apes and monkeys – those are the kind of pedantic fine points essayists might appreciate, but we piece-writers will delete before reading.)
The point I strived to make is that while we should respect science, on one level, for being a primitive map of a very mysterious planet, we should also recognize its limits. Health science, in particular, has turned into a seedy little racket where very imperfect knowledge is passed off as incontrovertible truth. When the truth is, much of science is little more than a snapshot of our best understanding at any given moment. Which in the fullness of time often turns out to be something closer to misunderstanding. Worship science if you want. Make science your god. Marry science, if it makes you feel better about your sad, lonely existence, you science dweeb. But recognize that science is only perfect knowledge until it’s found to be otherwise, which it frequently is.
As the Science Channel recently detailed, if you believed in the science of the day as an ancient Greek, you were convinced that the liver circulated blood, instead of the heart, while also believing that the heart circulated “vital spirit.” Similarly, it took Copernicus and nearly 1,400 years after the un-fact to disabuse “science” of the second-century astronomer Ptolemy’s assertion that Earth is the center of the solar system. And even as late as the 19th century, doctors felt that washing their hands was unnecessary before surgery, since contagions were attributable to “bad air” and disease was a result of the imbalances of the four humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile.) All of which is to say if you were a science-absolutist of the day, back in that day, you’d have a bit of yellow bile on your face now. And that’s just a small taste. You can say the same of everything from Maternal Impression (the belief that mothers’ thoughts create birth defects) to Spontaneous Generation to phrenology to Hollow Earth Theory.
Which is precisely why I highly recommend science writer David H. Freedman’s “Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us – and How To Know When Not to Trust Them.” As I wrote previously, it cites the work of John Ioannides – who undertook the arduous task of studying the studies – and who found that two out of three times it takes only a matter of months-to-a-few-years until studies published in respectable peer-reviewed medical journals are either fully refuted or need to be walked back. Thus confirming my suspicion that it is a fool’s errand to set your watch by health “experts,” since you can never be sure which time zone they’re living in. Wait around long enough, and science eventually becomes as predictably contrarian as a Slate piece – everything you thought you knew always ends up being wrong.
Which is why, to answer your original question, I drink enough Diet Coke that the case should come with an IV-drip. That is, when I’m not drinking enough saccharine-sweetened iced tea to kill an elephant, if the pseudoscience is to be believed. (Snopes.com says the aspartame kills myth is just that. And though I long ago forsook all sugar in beverages, coming to actually prefer the delicious artificial chemically-infused beaker-scrapings flavor of Diet Coke, since science also says that sugar kills, I intend to start ladling in a teaspoon or two just to make sure my bases are covered.)
Will we eventually be killed by Diet Coke? I suppose anything is possible. But depending on which “scientific” study you choose to cherry-pick, we could also be killed by excessive standing or excessive sitting, by too many vitamins or too few, by drinking alcohol or abstaining, by eating red meat or by not eating red meat, by doing too little cardio or by doing too much, by being too fat or not fat enough. It seems our expiration is the only certainty that all science can agree upon.
So Diet Coke is welcome to kill me. But it’s going to have to wait in line.
Matt Labash is a senior writer with the Weekly Standard magazine. His book, “Fly Fishing With Darth Vader: And Other Adventures with Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys,” is now available in paperback from Simon and Schuster. Have a question for Matt Labash? Submit it here.