Quick Roundup 420

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Quote of the Day

It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people's minds.
Samuel Adams (HT: HBL)

Why Super Powers?

Science fiction fans who enjoyed yesterday's post on religion in science fiction might find Doug Reich's thoughts on "Why Super Heroes Need Super Powers" apropos.
[T]o be a Super Altruist would require Super Sacrifices.

This presents a practical problem for the producer or author of the fictional hero and exposes the essence of altruism. To the extent that you practice altruism, you will necessarily have to come close to death or actually die thus ending the series in the first scene. So for the Super Altruist to survive stepping in front of bullets and the like he must have supernatural powers. Otherwise, he would not live to the next episode nor could he perform super sacrifices.
This is an elaboration on and a sort of flip side to something I said a while back: "The whole idea of the heroes of Atlas Shrugged being re-cast as comic book-style heroes instead of normal men is completely inane."

Surprise, Surprise, More Panic in the Pantry

(Or: Why I Don't Do Paleo)

[Update: Or: Haste Makes Waste

I'd like to thank Diana Hsieh for her helpful comments on this post, which, as it turns out is a mish-mash of my own thoughts on the "Paleo" diet and some thinking I have recently done indirectly as a result of my encountering blog posts about it. Specifically, (cough) "Taubes' book is not a weight loss or diet book. "

Assuming crow was part of the Paleo diet, it would appear that she has managed to get me to adopt it, after all!

Note: It was, some time later, brought to my attention that someone took my use of the term "orthorexia" in the comments as a slight to advocates of the Paleo diet. That was not my intention.]

Amy Mossoff reviews a book many other bloggers in my neck of the woods have been raving about for some time, Gary Taubes' Good Calories, Bad Calories.
Taubes has a much more ambitious purpose than just to debunk the conventional wisdom, though. His goal is to inspire more formal study of the harmful effects of refined carbohydrates and sugars in the diet. Overall, I agree that this absolutely needs to be done, but I think, along the way, Taubes ends up making some of the same mistakes he identifies in the low-fat advocates. He puts too much faith in observational studies and anecdotal evidence. I was much more convinced by his skepticism than his positive thesis. To be more specific, I’ll use the author's summary of his own conclusions based on the evidence he collected, and put in my two cents (in italics)
The comments that follow are also worthwhile. Travis Norsen's, particularly, seem closest to where I suspect I would be after reading it:
[S]witching to a fully "paleo" diet (especially if it's to include only pastured meat) is very expensive and inconvenient, so I think it would only be reasonable to do that if the evidence for "carbs are bad" and "corn-fed beef products are bad" were fully conclusive -- or, I suppose, if you tried it and found that it was good for you personally. But at least given the evidence I've seen (which is admittedly not much, but still), I cannot accept that "carbs are bad, for everybody, always, period".
Another commenter weighs in (at a BMI of 18.5 no less) whose diet sounds almost "anti-paleo".

I am, if anything, underweight, not a nutritionist (but do understand what, chemically, happens to food during digestion), and have not read this book. But, based on what others have said about it, I will put in my $0.02 on a few points, anyway. Note that this is not intended to be a rebuttal of Gary Taubes, or of any of his fans.

First, the book does not resonate for me, personally, at least in part because I have long taken heavy government promotion of nutritional studies as prima facie evidence that something is amiss and have, therefore, largely ignored them. I have no government-sponsored "healthy" habits to break or misconceptions to shed.

This includes my not panicking when my cholesterol popped 270 during routine blood work in New Orleans a few years ago. Concerned about possible side-effects from taking them, I also decided not to rush to take statins until I did my own research even if a subsequent test confirmed the result. That was not the case, but then, I had had lots of fried seafood the night before.

Second, I am highly skeptical of any diet that rules out entire classifications of food wholesale. Practically all proteins are made up of the same 20 amino acids, all fats of glycerol and various combinations of fatty acids, and all carbohydrates of one or more of a variety of sugar molecules. The body breaks all of these down into their more basic constituents in order to use or store them. Chemically -- but read on -- all food "looks" the same to your body.

This diet appears to be low carbohydrate, with some debate over whether root vegetables like potatoes might be permissible. The two main justifications I have gathered for this are either that (a) a surfeit of simple sugars -- such as refining makes possible -- goofs up the body's metabolic regulation by introducing too many simple sugars into the bloodstream at once, or (b) grains contain "toxins" that act as slow poisons. I see merit in studying the first of these. And, along the lines of "not reverting", wonder whether the second of these, if true, can't simply be fixed by better processing -- or even (if the body can eliminate the chemicals, even if slowly) simply by not eating as much grain-based food at every meal.

Finally, the hypothesis that man hasn't (fully?) evolved coping mechanisms for the newer items in his diet is intriguing, but I doubt it is completely (or at least universally) true, either. I am really speaking off the cuff here, but many people of European descent have metabolic enzymes that are "missing" or not as functional in many members of other races. Among them are alcohol dehydrogenase and lactase (in adults):
Alcohol Dehydrogenase activity varies between men and women, between young and old, and between populations from different areas of the world. For example, young women are unable to process alcohol at the same rate as young men because they do not express the Alcohol Dehydrogenase as highly. Though, the inverse is true amongst the middle-aged.[4] The level of activity may not only be dependent on level of expression but due to allelic diversity among the population. These allelic differences have been linked to region of origin. For example, populations from Europe have been found to express an allele for the alcohol dehydrogenase gene that makes it much more active than those found in populations from Asia or the Americas. This may be a correlating evolution with the rise of aldehyde dehydrogenase, which has been suggested as one of the more recognizable recent evolutionary changes in humans (along with lactose tolerance) - in order to make water safe in cities too dense to use springs, Europeans fermented alcoholic (and hence antiseptic) beverages, while Asians typically boiled their water (creating, among other things, tea). This selected for those who didn't suffer from violent alcohol flush response in European populations. [bold added]
At least 95% of the people in Northern Europe (versus fewer than 10% in parts of Asia, for example) can metabolize lactose. Might there not be other metabolic or regulatory enzymes, as yet undiscovered, that allow some people to live for a very long time even though they eat things man might not have used as food during the Paleolithic Era?

In short, based on my limited knowledge of this diet and my less limited knowledge of how the body deals with food, the variability of the human genome, and the infancy of nutrition as a science (which government interference is crippling), I think Taubes probably is worth reading. However, I also think that whether one follows his dietary suggestions lies in a murky area between the purely optional and the somewhat empirical. If it sounds appealing, try it, and if it helps you achieve fitness goals that you judge beneficial, then stick with it.

One final point. Several people I respect follow this diet and strongly advocate it. The above is not to be taken as an indication that I respect them any less, but only that my layman's opinion differs from theirs. I have, however, gotten emails to the effect (based on one possible reading) that I am somehow not a "real scientist" (and, by implication, lacking in integrity as an Objectivist) if I don't read this book and spend as much time researching nutrition as some of the more fervent proponents of this diet do.

I am not accusing the sender of this email of making such an accusation, nor have I asked for any clarification. But in today's modern cultural context, it is very common to take one's level of interest in physical fitness and, especially, food, as a shorthand gauge of their moral stature. (And yes, in a completely different context, I have seen professed Objectivists do exactly this, hence my bringing this up at all.) Thus, it is extraordinarily easy for someone on the receiving end of such a missive (i.e., me) to wonder whether this is what's going on.

Using interest in diet or exercise as a kind of shortcut (as opposed to one of many data points) for passing moral judgment is wrong in part because it is context-dropping, and in part for the same reason that division of labor exists in an economy. Different people have different interests and needs (as the "anti-Paleo" dieter eloquently demonstrates), and all of us have only so much time to spend on anything.

Speaking for myself, the prospect of losing weight if I switch to this diet is completely unappealing, thin as I already am. Heck, my grandfather lived to be nearly a hundred without spending any time thinking about his diet. I already can't stand sweets and starches. The cost-benefit ratio of adopting this diet -- or even studying it -- currently makes absolutely no sense to me. The risks and consequences of this decision are mine.

Some people need to pay lots of attention to what they eat, and some people don't. Some people are fascinated by this topic, and some aren't. Within the present context of my knowledge, my interests, and my needs, my time is better spent on other things. This is something that should go without saying. If I discover a need to learn more about nutrition, I will do so and, thanks to Gary Taubes' fans, I know of a good place to start.

[Note: It was, some time later, brought to my attention that someone took my use of the term "orthorexia" in the comments as a slight to advocates of the Paleo diet. That was not my intention.]
Pillow Fight Stopped by Police

A news story out of Detroit speaks of the police breaking up a pillow fight in a "public" park.

My first reaction was, "What the hell?" But reading the story indicates that this was a huge, organized event that was going to trash a large area with feathers.

Were public parks privately-owned, people would not presume to be able to just go around littering "common" property. People would be in the habit of checking with the private owner whether such activity is all right, and paying for or arranging for cleanup.

This "raid", as Orwellian as it first looks, is actually the government performing a function it might in a fully free economy: stopping trespassers and vandals. But the improper context of the publicly-owned park makes it look improper.

Mob Rule

Amit Ghate points to a timely article by Peter Schwartz:
The administration's latest proposal, for a "systemic risk regulator," should leave little doubt that it seeks carte blanche in ruling the economy. This is a plan for an economic dictator, an "enforcer" who will have the frightening authority to oversee every decision that, in his opinion, significantly influences the economy.

Of course, once the mob-rule mentality takes hold, everyone becomes a potential target. If you obtain a mortgage or a college loan, the government may subject you too to "risk regulation." You may be told that you can’t buy a plasma TV or take a vacation or quit your job, because the risk to your finances is "unacceptable." But isn't that a purely private decision?--you will indignantly demand. If government power keeps expanding, however, there may no longer be any private decisions.
All the idiots clamoring for the heads of AIGs executives and anyone wonder what this means would do well to read this.

-- CAV

Updates

Today
: About an hour after comment number four, added note on an error in "Surprise, Surprise."
9-22-10: Added a note to beginning (and at the end) of same section.

16 comments:

Diana Hsieh said...

Gus -- Obviously, I have no problem with your lack of interest in the topic of diet. Food has always been a major personal value to me, but others may not and need not share that beyond some minimal concern for health.

However, what I find frustrating in your remarks is that you're drawing conclusions without adequate knowledge of what's being advocated -- because you're not interested enough to read even Taubes' book. (Yes, I regard that as a kind of minimum standard for intelligent discussion of this topic.)

For example, you say: "the prospect of losing weight if I switch to this diet is completely unappealing, thin as I already am."

That's just bizarre: weight loss need not be any part of eating "paleo." Sure, the diet can make fat loss relatively easy. Some of us have fat to lose, so that's quite helpful. However, my diet will continue as it does when I've lost all the weight that I want to lose. Many already-skinny "hard gainers" -- including our own Flibby, among others -- have benefited from the switch. In other words, "paleo" is a diet in the sense of "a long-term way of eating," not a diet in the sense of "a temporary measure for losing weight."

More generally, because I'm not sure that you're clear on this point: Taubes' book is not a weight loss or diet book. It's a survey and history of nutritional science.

Also, you say: "the book does not resonate for me, personally, at least in part because I have long taken heavy government promotion of nutritional studies as prima facie evidence that something is amiss and have, therefore, largely ignored them."

You fail to grasp the all-pervasive effect of government on the whole food industry -- and hence on your own eating. Unless you make deliberate effort to eat selectively, as I do, what you eat on a daily basis is profoundly affected by government-created nutritional dogma, as well as government regulations, subsidies, and controls.

For example, that fried seafood that you ate before your cholesterol test was surely fried in some kind of modern vegetable oil rather than lard. Why? It's not because it tastes better: lard is well-known to produce much yummier fried foods. Rather, restaurants (and most home cooks) fry in vegetable oil largely due to the government-pushed perception that such oils are healthier. (Agricultural subsidies also play a role in lowering prices.)

Similarly, the milk available for purchase in your local grocery store is pasteurized if not ultra-pasteurized due to government controls on the sale of raw milk. Grain-based products are cheap and plentiful due to massive government controls and subsidies in agriculture, as well as government-fostered demand based on the perception of them as "healthy." Soy has become so popular due to government controls, plus because many people think of soy as a healthy, low-fat source of protein. High fructose corn syrup can be found in almost everything, in large part due to corn subsidies. The long-term grain-feeding of cattle -- again the product of those corn subsidies and other controls -- affects the kinds of fats and other nutrients in beef.

Unless a person makes a conscious effort to go against the grain, his eating will be substantially influenced by government controls, subsidies, and dogma.

I could say more about other points of yours -- like that "all food 'looks' the same to your body" and your comments about more recent evolutionary adaptations, but I've written enough already. One final remark, however:

You say that Taubes is "probably worth reading" but that "whether one follows his dietary suggestions lies in a murky area between the purely optional and the somewhat empirical."

Gus, you're talking about a book -- a weighty, detailed tome on nutritional science -- that you've not read. How could you possibly evaluate the merits of its implications for diet without so much as reading it?

What would you think of someone who said the same kind of thing of _Atlas Shrugged_?

Gus Van Horn said...

"Gus -- Obviously, I have no problem with your lack of interest in the topic of diet."

And I thank you for that.

"However, what I find frustrating in your remarks is that you're drawing conclusions without adequate knowledge of what's being advocated -- because you're not interested enough to read even Taubes' book. (Yes, I regard that as a kind of minimum standard for intelligent discussion of this topic.)"

There are really two things I am discussing here.

One is, broadly speaking, "Just how much effort does one need to put into learning about any one specific area of his life." Nutrition is an example. Finance is another. Aesthetics is another.

All have been attacked by modern philosophy, and that attack has been aided by the government. If I am in good health, and am amenable to learning more about nutrition if further evidence indicates that I have a more urgent need to do so, I might reasonably conclude that I have more time to devote to some of these other areas. For that topic, the ongoing discussion of the Taubes book is really just a springboard.

Second, I am speaking about nutrition, generally. Certainly, if I want to critique Taubes' book, I should read it. I don't, so far, but if I did, I'd look at other sources as well, including the sum of the knowledge I already have.

But I don't want to write a comprehensive critique of Taubes. All I want to do is decide whether to invest the time in reading it at all. Based on my own personal circumstances, and what I do know about nutrition, I don't see the need.

"weight loss need not be any part of eating 'paleo.'"

Fair enough. That said, I was not clear about this, but I did, in fact, already know that paleo is a long-term way of eating. It's also a major change I find unappealing, and which I am unconvinced of the need to make.

Taubes' book is not a weight loss or diet book. It's a survey and history of nutritional science.

Thanks for emphasizing that point. If anything gets me to read it, that will.

"You fail to grasp the all-pervasive effect of government on the whole food industry -- and hence on your own eating. "

Not really. In terms of following government advice, I have ignored it. But I do notice it and do not follow it, when I am able to do so without an inordinate degree of difficulty. At the risk of sounding flippant, avoiding the fried entrees at my favorite restaurant in New Orleans would count as inordinately difficult.

"For example, that fried seafood that you ate before your cholesterol test was surely fried in some kind of modern vegetable oil rather than lard. Why? It's not because it tastes better: lard is well-known to produce much yummier fried foods. Rather, restaurants (and most home cooks) fry in vegetable oil largely due to the government-pushed perception that such oils are healthier. (Agricultural subsidies also play a role in lowering prices.)"

True, and extremely annoying. But let's compare notes here. Commenting on Amy's post, you mentioned something about severe crashes from your previously carbohydrate-laden diet. I have no discernible problems I can tie to eating, and no medical indications that I should start worrying about my diet.

I know that what I can get at restaurants is suboptimal, thanks to Uncle Sam, but probably not a huge risk to me. I love the cuisine in New Orleans. I personally don't see a need to deprive myself of this pleasure if it isn't such a risk to me.

"Similarly, the milk available for purchase in your local grocery store is pasteurized if not ultra-pasteurized due to government controls on the sale of raw milk. Grain-based products are cheap and plentiful due to massive government controls and subsidies in agriculture, as well as government-fostered demand based on the perception of them as 'healthy.' Soy has become so popular due to government controls, plus because many people think of soy as a healthy, low-fat source of protein. High fructose corn syrup can be found in almost everything, in large part due to corn subsidies. The long-term grain-feeding of cattle -- again the product of those corn subsidies and other controls -- affects the kinds of fats and other nutrients in beef."

As you know, I oppose all government interference in the agricultural sector, and you are right that this affects our diet in many ways.

Many of these foods -- especially the corn syrup, the grains, and (gag!) the soy -- I already tend to avoid by my own inclination. But I am not convinced that any or all of them are dangerous enough to completely eliminate from my diet (if that's what you advocate). Some or all might be for others.

"I could say more about other points of yours -- like that 'all food "looks" the same to your body'"

Regarding similarity of food, I said, "Chemically -- but read on -- all food looks the same to your body." All food is composed of protein, fat, carbohydrates, and other chemical compounds, like vitamins and poisons. That information on the first three one can get from any course in biochemistry.

The only two issues that make any sense to me regarding the first three of these are (1) what proportions of these three classes of compounds (and what types) one should have in his diet, and (2) how they should be brought into the body.

"You say that Taubes is 'probably worth reading' but that 'whether one follows his dietary suggestions lies in a murky area between the purely optional and the somewhat empirical.

"Gus, you're talking about a book -- a weighty, detailed tome on nutritional science -- that you've not read. How could you possibly evaluate the merits of its implications for diet without so much as reading it?
"

As I stated earlier, I am not offering a detailed critique. I simply putting out there why I am (or was) not planning to read it.

"What would you think of someone who said the same kind of thing of _Atlas Shrugged_?"

As great a book at Atlas Shrugged is, it would depend on why he said this, at least the first time I heard it.

Having said that, as Travis Norsen recently pointed out:

"Note also here that physics is relevantly different from philosophy. The subject matter of philosophy is, by definition, that which is accessible to any person in any era. No special training is required to understand philosophical issues and judge the veracity of philosophical theories. So it could be entirely reasonable and appropriate for someone with a revolutionary new approach to philosophy to address him- (or her-) self primary to an audience of non-professional-philosophers. This is not true for physics."

To a certain extent, it may not be true for nutrition, either.

The difference between philosophy and the nutrition, as a special science, means two things in this context.

First, one must be very careful about how one evaluates "expert advice". Correct me if I am wrong, but Gary Taubes, if I am not mistaken, is a physicist and a journalist, and neither a nutritionist nor a physician trained to conduct basic scientific research. Am I wrong about this? (He does seem to have some peer-reviewed publications, though.) Answers to questions like that are vital -- even as government-befuddled as science is today -- to my assessment over who qualifies as an expert. As far as I can tell, he is qualified to comment on how the government has distorted food science and the agricultural sector, but not necessarily to make dietary recommendations.

Second, the moral implications of choosing not to read Atlas Shrugged and Good Calories, Bad Calories are not necessarily the same. Every man needs philosophical guidance, but not every man need be an expert (or even widely-read) on any particular special science.

Thank you for taking the time to leave your comment.

Cogito said...

Gus,

To defend Diana a bit here, I don't think she was saying "the moral implications of choosing not to read Atlas Shrugged and Good Calories, Bad Calories are... necessarily the same", she was saying "the moral implications of choosing not to read Atlas Shrugged yet claiming that "whether one follows her philosophical suggestions lies in a murky area between the purely optional and the somewhat empirical" are the same as choosing not to read Good Calories, Bad Calories and saying "whether one follows his dietary suggestions lies in a murky area between the purely optional and the somewhat empirical."."

That was a bit dense, so I'll try to rephrase: I don't think Diana has a problem with you choosing not to read the book. I think Diana has a problem with you choosing not to read the book while at the same time passing judgement on its content, an example of which is saying "whether one follows his dietary suggestions lies in a murky area between the purely optional and the somewhat empirical." How could you know that without reading the book?

Diana, if I'm wrong, forgive me and feel free to correct me.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you. You are probably right and that's a point that needs clarification on my part, anyway.

After a lifetime of hearing tons of contradictory advice on nutrition -- and seeing ample evidence that one size does NOT fit all in nutrition -- I am inclined to regard any nutritional advice as tentative and in need of careful personal testing at best. In that sense, I see changing one's diet as empirical. I suspect and hope that Paleo-dieters would agree with me on that.

Since many people do get by just fine without giving much thought to nutrition at all, I see that as evidence that, probably, most people can be healthy without making a huge investment of time in nutrition. In that sense, I see changing one's diet as optional. I suspect that Paleo-dieters are more likely to differ with me on that.

My comments are, again, being made as a man deciding whether to read the book for guidance, and not as a critic.

Bill Brown said...

I think that you've hit an important point in saying that diet is optional beyond the need to meet the basic needs of maintaining life. So, in other words, you need food to sustain life but whether you choose to eat a tuna fish sandwich or a hard-boiled egg is up to you. One cannot say that one choice is more moral than the other.

I think this point is often lost, as you note. I call the phenomenon "optional intolerance" and I'm slowly working my way towards a hypothesis on the matter. Your identifications are most helpful.

Gus Van Horn said...

Yes, and thanks for noticing that despite my stupid mistake, I had something constructive to say.

You may or may not need to invent a term for this. Some pundits would already describe, for example, the five hour conversation about "healthy" food (!) I had to endure from the seat in front of me during a recent flight, as "orthorexia".

Unfortunately, the term itself suffers from another modern malady mixing (or substituting) psychoanalysis with/for philosophy.

Dismuke said...

I have not heard of "orthorexia" before. But I looked it up and realized I have met a lot of people who that term describes perfectly.

Personally, I automatically tune out ANY time I hear someone trying to hard sell a particular diet or anything else that would require me to make sudden and radical changes in my way of life. Perhaps what the person is pushing IS valid and has something of value to offer - but, nevertheless red flags and a wall of resistance towards such appeals go up in the same way and for the same reason that they do whenever it is necessary for me to deal with a car salesman or a Bible thumper.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where what can only be described as secular cults have sprung up around even the most mundane activities. Diet is certainly one area - observe the militant vegetarians and other assorted food fascist types. Such people tend to be Leftist and tend to be more fanatical about the rules of eating than even members of orthodox religions with certain dietary commandments and prohibitions. And, of course, it is not just food. There are recycling cults where adherents' lives are integrated and revolve around how much garbage they generate and what they do with it. If you have ever been cornered by someone trying to recruit you into some sort of multi-level marketing scheme going on about how it is not the product one is selling but the OPPORTUNITY to sell the product - well, most of those organizations are also pretty much set up and run like cults as well.

We live in a world where there are an awful lot of people desperately seeking a "rules book" which will tell them how to live their lives and give their lives meaning. These are people who find mainstream organized religions or a philosophy such as Objectivism to be lacking because they tend to deal with wide ranging issues and require the individual to apply their principles to their daily lives. Some people, for various reasons, have a great deal of difficulty identifying and integrating their lives around the specific and profoundly personal values and passions which make them unique and special. Sensing a void in their lives that an abstract philosophy alone is simply not capable of filling, they become extremely receptive to pre-packaged, pre-integrated "lifestyles" devised by others complete with a list of do's and don'ts. Diets can fill that role very easily because there are LOTS of opportunities for all sorts of concrete rules to follow.

Of course, the fact that a particular set of ideas is being pushed by such people is, in and of itself, NOT an indictment of the ideas themselves. Indeed, anyone who has been around Objectivism for awhile has come across newbie Ayn Rand fans who, in their enthusiasm, engage in VERY obnoxious and bizarre behavior based on all sorts of misconceptions about the philosophy. I once ran into such a newbie who deliberately blew cigarette smoke into the faces of non-smokers in the room (all Objectivists) on grounds that he is a selfish egoist (!) Obviously, this person in no way represents Objectivism and it is not at all valid to draw conclusions about the philosophy based on his misunderstanding of it. Nevertheless, it is VERY understandable and even REASONABLE for a person who is not familiar with Objectivism to have a bad impression of the philosophy and be LESS inclined to check into it as the result of such a person.

If you are interested in promoting ideas which are radical - well, you do NOT do your ideas any service by hard selling them. Perhaps it is unfair that a lot of people automatically group a rational philosophy in with bizarre cults - but given the sheer number and the obnoxious behavior of such cults in our society, it understandable why people do so. Perhaps it is unfair that rational and scientifically valid books and discussions regarding things such as diet are automatically grouped in with various fad and pop culture diets. But given the prevalence and bizarre nature of such diets, it is understandable why people quickly jump to such conclusions.

And there is another aspect of modern culture that relates to this subject. Have you even noticed that all these radical vegetarians and other similar types go around making pronouncements as though they are AUTHORITIES on the subject of nutrition based on the reading of one or two books they picked up at their neighborhood Barnes & Noble? It is not just diet, either. Again, anyone who has been around Objectivism for any length of time has come across newbies who have read The Fountainhead and suddenly go around making pronouncements as though they are AUTHORITIES on the subject of architecture or who read The Romantic Manifesto and are suddenly AUTHORITIES on various art forms which they have only had limited exposure to. Very often these people are well-meaning - but they do NOT do any service to the credibility of the ideas they seek to advance.

I suspect that a lot of this has to do with the decline in standards in our education system plus the very understandable and reasonable decline in respect for people in many positions of authority. I think a lot of people have lost a full understanding of what it means to be an authority on a subject. And having an entirely valid contempt for many people held up to us as alleged authorities: i.e., Leftist professors, Walter Duranty media types, public figures such as Algore, practitioners of politically motivated junk science, etc. can further erode one's understanding for what it means to be an authority on a subject. If Algore or a famous Marxist professor is an "authority" and some obscure nobody such as myself can easily debunk them - well, gee, does that perhaps elevate ME as an "authority" as well? I think a great many people in today's world regard themselves as being authoritative on a subject by virtue of the mere fact at they have very specific and strongly held opinions on the subject. Yes, it is true that one has to rely on one's OWN judgment and not just blindly follow what others say on grounds that they are held up as "authorities." But reading a book on nutrition, philosophy, aesthetics or anything else and being persuaded by the case that such books make to the degree that one applies them to one's own life does NOT make one an authority on the subject - and certainly does not give one a basis to go around preaching to others.

Personally, I am very picky when it comes to meat and include it in my meals far less than most people do - I have no interest in the paleo diet because it sounds rather yucky to me. But whenever I encounter a militant vegetarian, I immediately want to go out and order a huge steak, despite the fact that I don't care much for steak and would cover the thing up in steak sauce if I did order one. I smoked for a few years after high school and have long since given it up. Thank goodness there were no preachy anti-smoking Nazi types in my life at the time I gave up smoking otherwise I might still be smoking today as a result of my refusal to be nagged into doing ANYTHING. And whenever I encounter such people today, I want to run out and buy myself a pack of unfiltered Lucky Strikes.

As for those who DO have strong opinions about diet and nutrition and consider them to be valid and rational - well, my suggestion is that when it comes to the dietary habits of friends and acquaintances, that is something which is in the same realm as their spending habits and taste in decorating: while it is certainly ok to form opinions about their habits and taste, unless one is specifically asked, it is best to keep such opinions to one's self.

Gus Van Horn said...

Just a brief answer, as I am getting ready to fly back to Houston today.

One excellent point from your comment pertains directly to the broader issue of intellectual activism, and to one of the issues I have been grappling with during my thoughts on the various diet posts, and it is this. And let's use something for which the science IS settled for the sake of argument, smoking. And, further, you touch on lots of other issues here too, but let's focus on the idea of convincing others one cares about (versus random strangers) of why they might want to try this same GOOD THING.

There is no disputing that one is better off not smoking, and someone who quits the habit is certainly to be congratulated. But the former smoker who seems to have exchanged his smoking habit for a nagging habit becomes very annoying very fast and, if he's trying to get his parents to quit, can very easily cause them to tune them out by that fact. It's as if the ex-smoker has nothing else of value in his life, or at least spends all his time FOCUSED ON THE SMOKING, which, to someone still smoking has the double whammy of sounding hard AND crowding out other, legitimate values.

In other words, an evangelical ex-smoker makes his advice sound like far more trouble than it's worth, and, by focusing his audience on the difficulty as well as by chiding them that it's "for their own good," feeds into the altruistic trap of making a perfectly moral choice sound like an actual sacrifice. And one thing that fails to motivate is altruism.

This is PART of the answer to my original question, which I will rephrase as, "How best can you get someone (assuming it is in your best interest to do so) to see that he should reexamine long-held, and plainly wrong beliefs?"

Or, to put it in terms of someone on the receiving end, "Why should I quit smoking?"

Another part of the answer is that the smoker needs to see this for himself, in terms of the concretes of his own life.

Bill Brown said...

What I was referring to by "optional intolerance" is precisely the wider context that dismuke notes. I have seen it develop around lactation, recycling (as has dismuke), healthy food, vaccination, entertainment, and (bizarrely) diapering choices.

My initial definition is the elevation of equally-moral options into non-optional values. By definition (and sensibility), options are equally moral. I have seen this perspective crop up amongst leftists, conservatives, Objectivists, religious, atheists, etc.

I've got a post in me on this subject, but it's still very much "theory of the Dean" at this point. I think it's a very important topic.

Anonymous said...

Gary Taubes' book resonated with me on more levels than I could possibly mention in a Blog comment. As a person who has had to deal personally with a tendency since the age of 10 toward overweight and obesity and, more recently, the threat of Type 2 diabetes, I had the distinct impression that I could have been the subject in any number of the case studies Mr. Taubes documents in his excellent survey. It is a book that has helped to answer many of the questions that have arisen as a consequence of my own direct experience, but for which answers remained elusive in the past as a result of the inconsistent and contradictory information at the core of what is so frequently held out in doctors' offices, news articles, nutritionists' advice and, last but most definitely not least, government dietary-standard pronouncements as the "common wisdom" with respect to overweight and obesity.

The greater part of this supposed “common wisdom” flies in the face of the reality with which I and many like me have had to contend on a daily basis and, as Mr. Taubes illustrates, for at least the last 150 years of observational and clinical studies. Much of that, as it turns out, quite extensive material had either not been made publicly available or been discussed publicly prior to the publication of Mr. Taubes book. In addition, as Mr. Taubes demonstrates, there has been historically very little discussion or exchange of information among the various scientific disciplines for which that information was available.

For what it might be worth to this discussion, therefore, I offer the following:

Upon finishing Taubes’ book in late February, I decided to give a test drive to some of the Carbohydrate Hypothesis ideas he documents. I should note that my diet was already somewhat similar to the elevated protein/restricted carbohydrate Zone diet Mr. Taubes mentions in his book, though without the fat and sodium. For the past three years, I have maintained a fairly healthy weight, though one somewhat higher than I would like (15-20 pounds, as opposed to my previous excesses of 70-80 pounds). I increased my overall daily caloric intake by 500-1000 calories from my previous standard of around 2000 calories spread between 5 or 6 meals. To accomplish this, I increased the amount of protein at each meal to approximately 5-6 ounces (up from 3-4 ounces per meal previously) and expanded the types of protein consumed to include all the red meats, fowl and whole eggs, as well as my usual fish, chicken and turkey. I added back to my otherwise fat-free diet fat in the form of unsalted butter and olive oil only. I also reintroduced some dairy products (2-3 ounces cheese per day and light cream in the rather voluminous quantity of coffee I tend to drink during the day) and salt. As for carbohydrates, I set out to stay within the diebetologists’ recommended 130 gram upper limit: I continued to consume between 3 and 5 cups of vegetables, decreased the amount of grains/starches to a daily total of 1-1/2 cups cooked whole grains only (Kashi, etc.) (from a previous allotment of 3-1/2 cups), restricted my fruit intake to the equivalent of 1/2 grapefruit at breakfast, eliminated altogether potatoes and other starchy vegetables, and eliminated entirely all sugars (including alcohol).

I did not engage in any kind of special exercise regimen or any other physical activity out of the ordinary.

As of today, April 8, I have reduced an entire pant size and lost a total of approximately 15 pounds, all without any lingering hunger or (and this is fascinating to me) my usual, frequently obsessive craving for sweets and other goodies (while others might have gone to sleep counting sheep, I did so counting chocolate cakes). In addition, there has been a steady increase in my overall energy level and a marked decreases in allergy symptoms and sensitivity to temperature variations.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the relatively recent (1950s and 1960s) idea of a low-fat, high carbohydrate diet as the way to health was the radical departure from previous dietary norms.

Jaz said...

Gus,
I liked the style of your original post a lot. Dismuke's comment and your response to his comment each made some very important and perceptive observations.
On a personal level I do take care of what I eat for two reasons: to look good and stay healthy. As I grow older I have started to pay more attention to what I put in my mouth (mortality starts to hit one and also as the pounds get harder to take and keep off!). Also I enjoy food for the sheer pleasure and values it gives my senses of sight, taste and smell. Food after all is a life sustaining value on a very basic level. In my opinion therefore to have a positive response to great looking, beautifully cooked and exquisitively presented food is very appropriate on a metaphysical level (and emotional level also).

Having said the above, food and nutrition are means to ends for me and not ends in themselves (or to put it another way food is not my foremost value). Also as far as nutrition is concerned one cannot drop the context of the individual or one would be making the fundamental philosophical folly of intrinsic or good of and by itself with no relation to a valuer -which is obviously bizarre. To illustrate this with a universally known example- individuals allergic to peanuts obviously cannot eat them (may even be fatal) and have no value for them but on the other hand many of us are able to eat nuts, enjoy them, like their taste and crunchiness and get great nutritional value from them.
Discussions on diets, food and nutrition foremost need to be rational and any claims need to be supported by enough evidence to support the case including enough clinical trials, if the claims are to be given scientific consideration.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you for your comments. Just returned from a long day of travel, so please excuse me for not replying at any length to them individually.

Fortunately, each is very good, and stands on its own merits.

Well, okay, one. Bill, I know very well what it's like having a "Dean's Principle" (albeit on a totally unrelated subject). Indirectly due to an OAC lecture, I got one of those. I need to finish articulating it, and then think of a good way to blog it, if there is one.

Dismuke said...

Anonymous -

I am very happy that Taube's advice has worked out well for your situation and hope that it continues to work out well for you.

But part of the problem for someone on the sidelines such as myself is the fact I am quite sure that I could find without a great deal of difficulty similar enthusiastic testimonials from people who found great success with other diets as well - vegan, low fat, high carb, etc. And my guess is that all of them will be very sincere and genuine. You have the benefit of your first hand experience and you should continue to act on it. But for an observer, everything appears contradictory.

Given my respect for and what I know about some of the people I have been reading online who have been singing Taube's praises, my guess is that there is a very strong chance that if I were to read his book I might find his arguments to be convincing. But the question that brings up is: so what? I don't mean to sell myself short, but considering my lack of specialized knowledge about even the PREREQUISITES of an understanding of nutrition, being able to get someone such as myself to say an argument in this area sounds convincing is not all that great of an accomplishment. Look at it this way, if someone diametrically opposed to Taube were to make a well crafted and reasonable sounding argument and not go off the deep end with stuff about saving the planet and the alleged rights of animals, there is a strong chance that I would be just as likely think that argument sounds convincing as well.

In other words, because of my lack of knowledge in that area of study, I am the last person in the world who is in a position to challenge potentially false or misleading premises that an otherwise reasonable sounding argument rests on. And I am the last person in the world to know whether such arguments drop context or whether any inductive arguments made are sufficiently thorough.

For example, I am familiar with terms such as "cholesterol" "fat" "carbohydrate," "vitamins," "flavonoids," etc and that some of these things are good, some are bad and some are in dispute by different people as to whether they are good or bad. But if you were to ask me to provide an intelligent DEFINITION of any of those terms - well, unless I were to consult and read back from a reference book, I would not be able to do so. If I am not even able to provide an intelligent definition of the basic terminology of a field of study, how valid and credible can any conclusion I might reach about debates in that field which are highly controversial even among those who have a LOT of specialized knowledge?

I am NOT suggesting that a layman is not able to acquire knowledge about nutrition or should refrain from exploring the field. What I AM saying is that it is crucial for every person to be VERY aware of what the limitations of their knowledge are and to be extremely careful about pressure from others to make judgments about issues outside of those limitations. At the very least, doing so helps prevent one from being properly perceived as a pretentious blowhard. And, it could potentially save one from negative consequences of acting on judgments one had no business making in the first place.

Anyone who has limited background in a field requiring specialized knowledge who reads a few books on the subject and has suddenly "seen the light" and starts talking like they are an authority and suggesting to other people that they need to make radical changes in their lifestyle needs to be regarded with a GREAT deal of caution and skepticism. That's not to suggest that such a person does not have something valid to say or that they have not "found the light." But such behavior IS a red flag. If your background in the area is limited, why would you take as "expert" testimony someone whose background is also limited? Personally, I tune such people out so that some off-handed comment they make does NOT sneak in and influence my thinking. If what they say sounds potentially interesting, I would ask for their source material and get it for myself first hand.

I have a fascinating book that details the history of various health and nutrition related crusades and movements in America from the Revolutionary War era down to the present. Such movements have been all over the place - and a lot of them tend to come back in cycles. In the 19th century, for example, enemas were a big deal and one group even demanded its followers to take cayenne pepper enemas. Others took milk and even turpentine enemas. In recent years, colonics are suddenly really trendy in some circles - including coffee colonics.(!) Assertions that one should refrain from grains, or even meat from animals fed on grain - well, on the surface and in the context of all the various movements that have come and gone over the decades, that sounds suspiciously like just another fad. I am NOT suggesting that it IS merely a pop culture fad and I am NOT suggesting that there is not merit to such views - I don't know as I have not studied them. But what I AM suggesting is that my red flags that pop up ARE valid and reasonable and that people with limited backgrounds in nutrition who are interesting in exploring such viewpoints need to do so with caution and a very healthy degree of skepticism even AFTER the arguments seem to make sense and have merit. Again, people with limited backgrounds in a field of study are inherently more susceptible to being misled or misinformed by slick arguments.

In life it is necessary from time to time to make decisions involving fields that one does NOT have specialized knowledge in and where it is either not practical or in one's overall interest to acquire such knowledge. A good example besides nutrition is finance and investing. The decisions one makes regarding one's investments can have VERY significant long term consequences. And, as with nutrition, there is no shortage of people out there proselytizing and peddling various theories, books and seminars claiming to be THE starting point of all truth and understanding of the field. There are people who are perfectly rational and make CAREERS out of investing who have fundamental disagreements on what does or does not constitute a good investment at any given time. So what is an ordinary layman to do? Basically, they have to rely on common sense to apply what limited knowledge of the subject they HAVE managed to acquire and tailor it towards their own unique context and goals. The couple who dreams of spending their retirement digging in the garden and fishing in the lake near their trailer house do not need to make a killing in the stock market. But someone with more costly dreams might.

One can only make decisions based on the context of knowledge that one has. The question of whether or not it is worth one's time or effort to acquire additional specialized knowledge is highly individual and personal. And acquiring that knowledge is going to come easier to some people than it is to others. Sometimes having to make decisions without the necessary specialized knowledge can be very difficult. Typically, in such situations one relies on the advise of experts - but, as any intelligent person eventually discovers, a lot of alleged "experts" are full of hot wind.

How much knowledge one should acquire about nutrition is also a highly personal issue. At the very least, a person needs SOME knowledge of the subject and at least needs to be AWARE of what they are eating and not just indulging in junk food.

Personally, when I started gradually putting weight on after spending my life being able to eat gargantuan quantities of food without any weight gain, I was able to get the weight off simply by cutting back sharply on how often I ate at restaurants and imposed portion control on things such as bread and pasta and rice at home. I have always loved vegetables and fruits and, since I still enjoy eating large amounts of food, I allow myself to eat as much vegetables as I wish. Nobody ever got fat off of turnips, cabbage and carrots. I have concluded that arguments against processed grains sound reasonable so I have switched to whole grains which I tend to like better anyway. I occasionally will make white basmati rice as a treat because that variety of rice DOES taste better than the brown. I am a fanatic for Indian cuisine, much of which is vegetarian and make it several times each week - sometimes with meat on the side, sometimes not. I enjoy fish but only like skinless white meat when it comes to poultry. Other than smoked sausage an occasional hamburger on my backyard grill, I never prepare beef or pork at home - but I do have beef when I occasionally eat out at Tex-Mex restaurants and such. I have read about the Mediterranean diet and noticed that it is very similar in many respects to what I already tend to eat and that people who grow up on that diet tend to live long healthy lives. That's nice to know. My one change when I read about that diet was to start using more olive oil instead of canola oil. In short, I make decisions based on common sense and within the context of my knowledge. Not only that, my diet is extremely frugal. Cooking with basic ingredients instead of pre-packaged is far less expensive and the ingredients required to make the Indian dishes are dirt cheap. About 75 percent of my grocery bills is spent on fresh seasonal produce. I have yet to come across ANYONE who suggests that eating lots of fruits and vegetables is unhealthy. As for other types of food, I get at least get SOME amount of them in my diet and none of them I eat in large enough quantities that I think I have too much to reasonably worry about. And, best of all, I get to eat stuff I enjoy.

Would having more knowledge of the field put me at a better advantage when it comes to making choices? No doubt. But that is not a field that I find especially interesting - I am NOT a science type person and too much thought about health I find morbid and depressing. Nutrition is, after all, only one of several factors that determine one's long term health. And considering the vast amounts of highly contradictory information that is out there being advanced by all sorts of self-proclaimed experts and my limited background to sort through it all, I am not all that convinced that I would do all that much better than my current course if I were to take the time.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for leaving that excellent comment, as well as the one before it, Dismuke.

Gus Van Horn said...

In the above discussion, a long-overdue clarification is in order.

As now noted twice in the body of this post: Some time after this post, it was brought to my attention that someone took my use of the term "orthorexia" in a comment above as a slight to advocates of the Paleo diet. That was not the case.