Football

A Quick Note on Jerry Jones's Opinion Regarding Head Trauma

We can all learn something from Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, but not for the reason he thinks.
November 16, 2016, 10:10pm

Deep inside a very, very long Sports Illustrated package about football in America is an interview with Jerry Jones that covers a lot of ground, including his opinion on head trauma in football. Normally, I would be happy to ignore a non-doctor's opinion on the subject—especially one who doesn't specialize in the brain in some fashion—but I wanted to spend a moment discussing it because, as a football coach might say, Jerry Jones's mistake is a good teaching moment.

Jones falls for a very common logical fallacy, especially in the field of quackery, that a lot of people nevertheless find convincing. Here's Jones:

"We're drawing conclusions so far out in front of the facts. I can live with that, as long as we understand that I've seen milk and red meat [debated] for the last 30 years, whether they're good for you or not."

Let's ignore the bit about drawing conclusions "so far out in front of the facts." That's mostly untrue, but not a teaching moment. I want to focus on the second bit, about milk and red meat.

This is a classic bait and switch in two respects. First, Jones has recategorized two unrelated fields (nutritional science and neuroscience) into a single umbrella (all health science) and then, in his mind, demonstrated that science has been wrong before, so it can be wrong again.

But what does red meat and milk have to do with head trauma? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. A mistake in one field 30 years ago has no bearing on what is currently going on in the other.

Even granting Jones's very flawed redefinition of all of health science as single field of inquiry, this is still bad logic. There's no reason to believe that, because science was wrong about Issue A, it is also wrong about Issue B (unless you believe the entire scientific method ought to be called into question, which is an even more untenable position). By that logic, I could posit that literally every conclusion doctors have ever come to about our health is false. Such as:

Smoking is good for you, because red meat and milk.

Vaccines cause autism, because red meat and milk.

You get the idea.

While we're on the subject, Jones could use the example of red meat as a lesson about health science, but not for the reason he thinks. The meat industry has repeatedly been accused of influencing the USDA dietary guidelines to group red meat—which has been linked to higher rates of heart disease and premature death in a multitude of studies—with less harmful foods like seafood and poultry, despite the American Cancer Society and the USDA advisory board recommending it be grouped with processed meats. Dr. Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition at Harvard, told TIME that the meat industry has historically had a "huge influence" on the USDA.

If Jones really wanted to use red meat as an example, maybe it would be about how industry interfering with science can lead to grave repercussions affecting the health and lives of millions of people. Or maybe Jones and his colleagues have already learned that lesson and are choosing to apply it.