Rationality Case Study—Ad-36

Edit: Title change—may cause RSS resend.

There is a widespread belief here that we pretty much have epistemic rationality nailed. Instrumental rationality, … well, nobody is perfect. We are still working on that. But epistemic rationality? That is a breeze. Simply a matter of avoiding some well known biases, doing Bayesian updating, and maintaining a certain kind of mutual respect in discussions. Maybe throw in a bit of Pearl, if you need to address causality in addition to correlation. We know how to handle evidence. And what is epistemic rationality, after all, besides the optimal evaluation of evidence?

A recent posting made the suggestion that we ought, as a community, to make our expertise available to society, by tackling important and controversial questions and (presumably) then sharing our consensus with the world. But will we reach a consensus? A simple test case might be useful. The purpose of this posting is to propose a test. I am providing some links to an ongoing scientific controversy which (judging by press coverage) is of considerable interest to the general public. Given the attention given to health issues here, I suspect that it will also be of interest to the LW population in general. So here goes.

There has been some suggestion that a particular strain of the common cold virus—Ad-36 - might be a major contributor to human obesity. Become infected by the virus, and you are at increased risk of becoming fat. However, a certain amount of skepticism has been expressed—the evidence may not be as good as it is made out to be.

I’m completely new to this controversy—just found out about it today. I think that it would be an interesting test case to have LW as a group look into this question (quite a lot of information is available online, and what is not can be found in university libraries to which I assume many of us have access). So, what do you all think? Does Adenovirus strain #36 cause human obesity? If so, how much? If not, where exactly have the doctors and scientists who believe otherwise gone wrong in their thinking?