Consensus guidelines are anti-science, says Noakes

Here’s an elegant lesson in salesmanship at the expense of principled communication about science. It’s from Professor Noakes™, as so many of my recent examples have been – the popularity of his lifestyle/diet message means that here in South Africa, source material is unlikely to run dry anytime soon.

Earlier this year, Noakes™ addressed a conference in Australia on the “Medical aspects of the low carbohydrate lifestyle”. Those interested in his arguments around health should watch the video below – it’s one of the better ones of his that I’ve watched, in that it’s clear, succinct, and mostly free of conspiracy and ad hominem argument.

The bit I want to focus on starts at 10:17, where he says:

And you must never trust consensus guidelines, because they are anti-science. Science is not about consensus, it’s about disproof, disbelief and skepticism. It’s not about consensus. When you’ve got consensus, you’ve got trouble.

This conflates two very different stories into one, to serve the rhetorical purpose of granting credence to the underdog-story. The two stories are first, that yes, dogma is antithetical to science. The second is that if a preponderance of evidence points in a consistent direction, consensus guidelines could be well-justified, and it would only be irrational or inattentive people who would not believe in that consensus.

In the second story, you’d have been rational to believe in the consensus account even if it later turns out to be false. I spend a lot of time talking about this at TAM2014 as well as in the paper I gave at a recent nutrition conference, so won’t repeat all that here, but the point is that denying a well-justified consensus doesn’t make you a better scientist – it makes you a conspiracy theorist (or simply wrong).

In other words, consensus guidelines that emerge out of honest engagement with the evidence, and that are open to correction, are not anti-science at all. They are the product of good science, and their later overturning (if that happens) in favour of a new consensus is also the product of good science.

You don’t measure or identify good science from its conclusions – because we don’t know that those will survive future data – but by method, and by openness to correction in light of evidence. The first kind of story mentioned above, involving dogma, is of course an example of bad science. That doesn’t mean that consensus is by definition bad.

Science is indeed about “disproof, disbelief and skepticism” – but all of these serve to challenge any existing view and replace it with a better one. They are tools, or methods, for reaching a better consensus, not for rejecting consensus in general.

The simplest way of putting the point is this: Noakes™ would like it to be the case that medical practitioners and educational programmes see the light, and teach the same message he professes. In other words, he’d like his own views to be the basis of a new consensus, because he believes that the existing consensus is wrong.

When you’ve got dogma, you’ve got trouble. And when you’ve got consensus, you might have dogma. But you might also have a bunch of responsible people agreeing that yes, that’s what the data imply, and until we learn something to overturn our view, the evidence leads us – as rational, responsible scientists – to a certain consensus.

In short, while the quote above can play as a sexy soundbite for undercutting received wisdom, it’s another instance of Noakes™ playing scorched earth with understanding of the scientific method.


Also published on Medium.

  • Leon

    In your words: In other words, consensus guidelines that emerge out of honest engagement with the evidence, and that are open to correction, are not anti-science at all. They are the product of good science, and their later overturning (if that happens) in favour of a new consensus is also the product of good science.
    ‘Nuff said.

  • Alastair McAlpine

    The usual garbage from Noakes.

    ‘Consensus guidelines’ dictate oral hypoglycaemic agents for those with type 2 diabetes. Noakes has no problem taking these for his diabetes. ‘Consensus guidelines’ advise exercise as part of a weight-loss regimen. Noakes has no problem running (with his shirt off, nogal) through Newlands.

    In other words, Noakes sensibly follows consensus guidelines when they suit him, and disregards them when they don’t. I very much doubt that Noakes would be singing this song if the consensus guidelines backed him up.

    And when doctors point this out to him, he sneeringly refers to us as ‘The Anointed’ and implies that we are all Big Pharma shills. Sigh.

  • Robard

    Noakes is guilty of rhetorical overreach, but why not give him the benefit of the doubt? Within the context of this debate, many of those who defend the consensus aren’t actually prepared to directly engage his arguments or evidence but are simply using it as an argument from authority.