Bullies have been stealing other kids’ lunches for centuries. A recently announced policy in Britain aims to change that, instructing teachers to take the food away instead. In addition to many other over-the-top proposals (including bans on fast food and limits on sugar, fat, and salt in restaurant food), a new UK obesity strategy includes a "Packed Lunch Policy"—an initiative that tells parents what they can and cannot feed their own children.
When asked to justify this gross intrusions (and others) on our personal freedoms, health officials overseas and in the states hide behind “the research.” British writer Frank Furedi offered some insight into this phenomenon. His latest column in Spiked commented on the manipulation of science as Big Brother’s crutch:
This is a striking story: today, it frequently seems as if scientific authority is replacing religious and moral authority, and in the process being transformed into a dogma. At first sight, it appears that science has the last word on all the important questions of our time.
“Science” as we used to understand it was defensible, but that transparency is long gone in the arena of public health. For instance, the New York City Board of Health passed a new law this week, mandating calorie-counts on the menus of a select group of restaurants. Before their vote, Board members hosted a panel to hear our thoughts on the issue and promised to respond to each concern raised. Not surprisingly, our most damning objections were conveniently absent from the city’s response.
Most notably, the Board failed to address menu labeling’s unintended consequences. Brian Wansink, the newly-appointed executive director of the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, coined the term "health halo" to describe the negative response of many people to nutrition labels on menus. Wansink’s research found the consumers at more calories at restaurants that displayed calorie information, because they compensated for meals perceived as "healthy." Consequently, menu labeling could lead to weight gain.
Worse still, dictatorial policies like New York City’s new nemu mandate suggest that the judgment of “experts” is better than our own. Even though our personal experience might not hold much scientific value or amount to a legal precedent, it enables us to instinctively question dogmatic advice about our own health and safety. As philosopher Blaise Pascal once said, “We know the truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart.” And the truth is that we’re smart enough to choose for ourselves.