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November 17, 2013

We Call It Smart Development

Dear Smarts:

A reader sent me a picture of a poster that he wrote was appearing “all over Capitol Hill.” The poster pictures DC Director of Planning Harriet Tregoning, with the caption, “We call it ‘Smart Development’ so you know you are stupid for even trying to disagree with us.” The reader writes that he wants to remain anonymous, but he believes the poster indicates, “There may be a bit of a backlash.” The backlash is real, and it results from the arrogance and superciliousness that is so cleverly captured by the poster. Smart Growth advocates think only one lifestyle is suitable for living in the city, and that the city should be planned, designed, and built only for whose who conform to that narrow pattern. Opponents of that orthodoxy are scorned and disrespected, and. as much as possible, kept out of positions of power and planning.

There’s no chance of respectful debate when one side doesn’t respect the other’s viewpoint or lifestyle. In the Cleveland Park controversy over the four-block service lane on Connecticut Avenue, some debaters have expressed the wish that “the olds” who want convenient parking for a shopping strip would just die off, so that younger residents, who would prefer the cars be banished to make more room for sidewalk seating for outdoor drinking at restaurants, could champion “progress” without opposition. Yikes. Smart indeed.

Gary Imhoff


Richard Stone Rothblum,

In his response to Gary’s criticism of food fads, Gabe Goldberg [themail, November 13] maintains that the present state of nutritional science is better than trusting one’s gut instincts. There is a reason that nutritional science and behavioral sciences such as education lag the physical sciences. It is impossible to test nutritional hypotheses in human populations conclusively and ethically. To have a reliable test, there must be a double-blind experiment in which all possible factors that could affect the outcome are, ideally, controlled or the test population is sufficiently large and random that certain errors tend to cancel. Double-blind means that neither the experimenters nor the subjects have knowledge of the nature of the substance administered, or of which group is the control group. It is especially difficult to get human subjects to comply with experimental protocols. Humans are generally aware of whether or not they are the controls and they often have an interest in the outcome.

Even in the case of compliant participants, imagine how difficult (aside from ethics) it would be to conduct “gold standard” nutritional experiments. Suppose it were desired to test the effect of transfats (or whatever) in diet on mortality. To perform a conclusive study you would have to have at least two groups of identical twins raised in identical circumstances except for the factor you were examining. Ideally, you would have several groups so that you would not only measure any differences between the control and the experimental group, but you would also determine whether there was dosage dependence. Of course, the study would have to extend over the lifetime of the subjects.

(A famous example of the difficulty [ethics aside] of doing this type of human experiment is the work supposedly carried out by various tyrants, starting with the Pharaoh Psamtik I, and later by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. In these cases, the experimenters wished to determine whether there was such a thing as a natural language that humans would speak if deprived of exposure to normal human speech. Babies were taken from their parents and isolated. Their caregivers were forbidden to speak in their presence. After a period of years, they were examined to see what language they “naturally” spoke. Unsurprisingly, they all spoke the local dialects.)

So, what do nutritionists do to gauge the effect of diet? They simply correlate the consumption of whatever food they are testing with whatever outcome they are interested in. For example, the famous Framingham study that linked heart disease to high levels of blood cholesterol (no differentiation between LDL and HDL) and smoking, among other “risk” factors, led nutritionists to conclude that consumption of cholesterol in food was bad. This led to the conclusion that margarine was “healthier” than butter. When it became obvious that this was incorrect (large groups that subsist entirely on dairy products are known to be free of heart disease), the nutritional hypotheses that replaced it were also found to be wanting, one by one. The “Mediterranean” diet is an egregious example of regression or correlation fallacy. Are nutritionists homing in on a theory of good diet, much as relativity theory refined Newtonian mechanics? Or, are they just casting about, jumping from one conclusion to another in the absence of hard evidence?


Larry B. Lesser,

For once I agree with Gary our leader [themail, November 13]. My own preferred approach to diet is to do what feels right to me — paying attention to how I feel. I like to think of myself as an animal — with special attributes to be sure but still an animal like the beasts of the field, etc. — and I believe in evolution. So I figure out what seems to be a healthy diet and leave it at that: trust to nature that I’m built to last. At age 73 it seems to be working so far.


Not Faddish
Gabe Goldberg,

[To Larry Lesser] He may be your leader; Gary’s sure not mine.

So you both discount research and current best-practices? Because someday they might change? And rely on seat-of-pants how-you-feel intuition? Because evolution works over millions of years? OK, whatever works for you. Good luck figuring out and managing blood pressure, cholesterol, whatever else is actually researched.

[Cholesterol guidelines changed again last week. Have they changed back, or are you satisfied that you are up-to-date on what the conventional wisdom dictates this week? — Gary Imhoff]


About the Goats
Rachel Thompson,

My message [themail, November 13] ought to have said, at the bottom, “Sent to you on my &%@!! iPhone.”

The “We had goats milk . . .“ should have come through as “WF had goats milk . . . ,“ meaning that Whole Foods had it for a while. Alas no more.

I am not in the habit of using the royal “we.”


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