Arguing With Idiots

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It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is after all a specialized discipline and one that most people consider a dismal science. But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance. — Murray Rothbard, economist

Don’t worry, this isn’t a post about economics. It’s a post about the strange combination of ignorance and arrogance. As I’ve told my wife more times than she’d probably prefer, it doesn’t bother me much when people are arrogant but well-informed, and it doesn’t bother me much when people are ignorant but humble. But when ignorant people are arrogant, that gets me riled.

Long before I became fascinated by nutrition science, I became fascinated by history and economics. I’m not sure exactly how many books I’ve read on economics, but it’s easily more than 20. I certainly don’t know everything about the subject, but I know more than most people by a long shot.

I saved the quote from Murray Rothbard because over the years, I’ve been amazed at how many people I’ve encountered who are exactly like he described: never took a class in economics, never read a book on economics, but are nonetheless full of loud and vociferous opinions on everything from the economic effects of tax rates to the cause of high oil prices. They know what they know, and by gosh, they don’t need to bother with any research to keep knowing what they know, because they already know it — and anyone who disagrees must be an idiot. (This attitude was rampant in Hollywood.)

Since creating this blog and putting my YouTube clips online, I’ve noticed the same phenomenon in discussions about health and nutrition: once some people form an opinion, they are incapable of changing their minds. I can more or less understand why researchers whose reputations or grants are tethered to a particular theory will cling so tightly to it. As described brilliantly in the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), they engage in mental cherry-picking of the evidence to convince themselves they are Doing the Right Thing. It’s not good for science, but at least their opinions are based on research, even if the research if flawed or incomplete.

What I don’t understand are laymen who have nothing at stake professionally, yet form strong opinions about diet and health without looking at any research whatsoever, then go ballistic if those opinions are challenged by someone who, heaven forbid, might actually know something they don’t. One of the Fat Head clips I uploaded to YouTube is titled Why You Got Fat and explains how insulin drives fat storage. That clip recently drew this comment:

you know what would really make your body stop storing fat??? if you got off your lazy f@#$% asses and did something!!

Ignorance and arrogance combined … my favorite combination. For some reason, challenging the simple “eat less, move more” advice for losing weight seems to bring these goofs out of the woodwork. Some people just know it’s all about counting calories — in my experience, they’re usually people who’ve never had to lose weight, and therefore consider themselves experts in how it all works. Since they’re thin, that proves they know how to be thin … MeMe Roth comes to mind.

I kept my reply to the arrogant ignoramus short:

Glad to see you’ve done so much research on the biochemistry of weight loss. If only I’d spoken to someone with your deep understanding of metabolism and endocrinology before shooting the film, I might have gotten it right.

Agreeing with arrogant ignoramuses is my preferred method for dealing with them, and has been for well over 24 hours.

The way I see it, anyone who challenges your current beliefs with logic or evidence is an opportunity, not a threat. When I sent the first cut of Fat Head to Dr. Mike Eades, he replied with a long email telling me which parts he liked, but also informed me some parts were scientifically incorrect. It never would’ve occurred to me to dig in my heels and tell him I already know what I know, so that’s it, and he must be wrong. I asked him to explain why those parts were wrong and point me to the evidence. He did. I learned valuable new information precisely because he disagreed with me.

But arrogant ignoramuses don’t see it that way. They believe changing an opinion, no matter how uninformed that opinion might be, can cause paralysis below the neck, or erectile dysfunction at the very least, and must be avoided at all costs.

I’ve tried replying to their comments with logic or evidence, but they have this amazing ability to shrug it off and go on repeating themselves. So I’ve ended up engaging in what my wife calls (by way of encouraging me to stop) Arguing With Idiots. It’s pointless, as last night’s online debate eventually convinced me. Here are some highlights, with the opponent’s comments in italic, mine in plain text:

If carbs and so evil than why are so many chinese and japanese and indians, who eat white rice on a daily basis, thinner and healthier than americansky?

Their thinness is partly hereditary; Asians have higher levels of osteoporosis because their bones are thinner. Thin-boned people also tend to be more resistant to becoming obese. As for the carbs, they actually consume fewer of them than a typical American. They eat rice, yes. We consume rice, pasta, french fries, donuts, sodas, frappucinos, bagels, breakfast cereals, deli sandwiches, Snickers bars, Little Debbie Snack Cakes and ice cream.

they consume fewer? Hmmm, eating LESS seems to be the determining factor, hein?

If only it were as simple as that. By eating fewer carbs and (especially) a lot less fructose, they are less likely to become insulin resistant and therefore less likely to go into fat-accumulation mode. It’s not just about how much you eat; it’s about the hormonal changes produced by what you eat. If hormones signal your body to store more fat, yes, you will likely eat more because you’re storing more calories and therefore running short of fuel for your cells.

how about the nutrition professor who lost 27 pounds eating mainly junk food?

He averaged 173 carbohydrates per day, which is less than half of what a typical American consumes. By his own estimation, he reduced his carb intake by over 100 grams per day on the “junk” diet. His food log is online, so I ran the numbers. “Mainly junk food” was media hype. He ate many meals consisting of steak, chicken, protein shakes, etc., then tossed in some donuts and twinkies. It wasn’t a junk food diet, it was a diet that included some junk food.

So on one hand you say sugar and carbs are evil, but when I point out about this nutrition professor you counter by saying that he simply was not eating too many carbs, which is exactly what I have been saying. You can eat anything: as long as you less calories than you need, you will lose weight!

No, I’m saying if you restrict calories AND keep your insulin low enough to allow your body to burn fat, you’ll lose weight. Professor Haub ate twinkies and donuts but still consumed a LOW number of carbohydrates while restricting calories, same as I did in my documentary. That means his insulin likely dropped. If insulin stays high, your body reacts to calorie restriction by slowing your metabolism, eliminating or reducing the calorie deficit. That’s why so many diets fail.

Right, he restricted CALORIES. If i eat 100% sugar everyday, but only eat 500 calories I will lose weight.

Duh, do you think? First off, that’s 125 carbohydrates, second, your body would suck up every calorie so there’d be no need for insulin to convert carbohydrates to fat and store them, which is what happens on high-carb diets, and third, you’d also become sick and lose muscle mass.

So you admit that to lose weight, you need to eat less calories?

Go to YouTube, search ‘Taubes science weightloss,’ watch the lecture on the actual science, pay close attention to the sections about populations where food intake was low, malnutrition was rampant, yet a high proportion of adults were obese. Then see if you still believe it’s all about simply counting calories.

then why do all scientists disagree with taubes, who is a journalist?

Really, all the scientists disagree? That must be news to the many scientists whose articles I’ve read, whom I’ve interviewed or corresponded with, who agree very much with Taubes. As for him being “just a journalist,” he’s a journalist with a degree in physics from Harvard and a master’s in engineering from Stanford. He’s won the science writer of the year award twice. Try coming up with something besides a weak appeal to authority to prove your point.

many of them do. the majority. sugar is bad for you, no doubt, but taube’s takes his reasoning too far. and he doesn’t have a masters in engineering.

This is like talking to a child. Yes, he has a master’s in aerospace engineering and another in journalism. Look it up. If you’re more psychologically comfortable deciding you already know how metabolism and fat accumulation work than with looking into the actual science, be my guest. I really don’t care if you choose to stick with your current beliefs.

not just my beliefs, but the beliefs of the majority of nutrition scientists.

Well, that explains the fabulous success rate of the diets they’ve designed. Nearly 2% lose weight and keep it off — can’t argue with those credentials! Like I said, if you want to simply declare that already know how metabolism works and avoid looking into the science for yourself, I don’t really care.

[Yes, this is the point where I should’ve stopped replying to the ignoramus. Took me a while longer to wise up.]

you thesis is completely wrong. plenty of people eat carbs and sugar and are thin. it’s because they simply don’t eat more than they need. you even admitted it, so i am not even sure what point you are trying to make

Yes, because plenty of people are what they call “metabolically gifted,” which means they don’t become insulin resistant. Most people don’t fall into that category. Plenty of people smoke two packs per day and never develop lung cancer, so I guess to your way of thinking, that proves smoking isn’t a cause of lung cancer.

No, you are wrong. There may be mulitple ways to lsoe weight, but eating less calories will result in weight loss. I didn’t see any fat people in the concentration camps.

You didn’t see any healthy people in concentration camps either. If you starve people, duh, they’ll lose weight. They’ll lose muscle mass and eventually digest their own organs, too. That isn’t the point. The question is whether you can burn body fat without sacrificing your muscles and wrecking your metabolism simply by restricting calories without changing your hormonal balance, and the answer is no. That’s why people who starve themselves on diets usually end up fatter.

you don’t have to starve yourself; you can just eat less. instead of eating and 8 inch grinder and bag of chips for lunch, you can eat a 6 in grinder and an apple.

[At this point, I began to realize I was talking to wall and decided perhaps the smart move would be to just agree with him.]

Thank you for sharing your superior biological knowledge with me. I appreciate it. You’re right and I’m wrong. Weight loss is purely about counting calories, hormones have nothing to do with it, diabetics don’t become emaciated and die without insulin, and there’s never been a poor population that became obese despite living on less than 2000 calories per day. None of that ever happened. You’re clearly correct, and I thank you.

So how do devout hindus who don’t eat meat and eat rice and lentils and such be healthy? or are they really unhealthy?

If you consider having one of the highest rates of heart disease and diabetes in the world, “healthy,” okay, yeah. You might want to do some research on this stuff before popping off.

[Oops, my mistake… I backslid and actually replied.]

Indians have a high rate of heart disease and diabetes?? Where is your source? Remember, I am stalking about people from India, not Native Americans. Also, what group of peolple were obese despite eating less than 2000 calories a day?

[I was trying to figure out how he decided I believe Native Americans are Hindus, then reminded myself to just agree with him.]

You’re correct, I simply made up the statement that people in India have high rates of heart disease and diabetes. I admit it here and now. Same for the obese populations who live on little food. As you’ve surmised, I don’t actually put any research into my documentaries, speeches, or blog posts. I thank you for sharing your superior knowledge of biology, endocrinology, metabolism, and Gary Taubes’ resume. Your beliefs are 100% correct and I urge you to keep them.

So you can’t provide one source to back up the claim about heart disease in India?

Like I said, I don’t actually do any research. I just make stuff up, as you’ve surmised. Do a little Googling and I’m sure you’ll instantly confirm your belief that heart disease, obesity and diabetes are low in India.

Oh yes, the good old “Google it for yourself and find out!” You made a claim that Indians suffer high rates of diabetes and heart disease. It is up to you, the claimant, to provide proof. All I am asking for is one link to a study that support your claim. You made the claim. So provide support for your claim.

Like I said, the claim was pure drivel, all made up. I do no research whatsoever. So instead of troubling yourself with spending, say, 20 seconds doing Google research, I urge you to cease your relentless open-mindedness and try very hard to simply accept that you already know everything. I know it’ll be difficult, but try, man, try.

You made the claim. I am waiting for evidence for you claim. If it only takes 20 seconds to retreive, then it should be no trouble for you.

You’re right. I suddenly feel an overwhelming need and obligation to convince you. Please sit there staring at your screen, and I’ll provide you with sources as soon as I can. Do not leave your chair until you hear back from me.

[At that point, I went to the kitchen for a small dish of almonds and then watched Sunday Night Football. I enjoy a good debate with people who’ve actually done a bit of research and can back up their beliefs, but no more arguing with idiots. That’s my rule.]

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167 thoughts on “Arguing With Idiots

  1. Tony K

    Hey Hector,

    I think that a diet to maximize athletic performance within some timeframe isin some cases different than a diet to maximize health in the long term.

    Many athletic trainer/dietician types dispute the Taubes hypothesis because in their experience. Calories in-calories out (CICO) is what makes the difference. Thing is they’re mostly dealing with younger people whose metabolisms have not been “perturbed” by 50 years of the standard american diet and who do a lot of high intensity exercise (which allows for greater muscular absorption of the sugars).

    Lyle McDonald has done some interesting work putting together diets and exercise programs that maximize fat loss with minimal loss of muscle. His basic approach is to make sure you get plenty of dietary protein, which would then act as sort of sacrificial protein–using it for gluconeogenesis, rather than your body’s muscle. Lyle and others such as John Berardi and Martin Berkhan put forward a diet where you target higher carbs around your workout.

    Lyle is at http://www.bodyrecomposition.com.

    Tom,

    Thanks again for fighting the good fight. May you have a joyous solstice.

    Regards,
    Tony (emotions for engineers)

    Thanks for the info, and for your many enjoyable posts.

    Reply
  2. John

    One of the wisest things my dad has ever said to me is, “Son, you can’t argue with someone you have to educate first.”

    Well said.

    Reply
  3. Tony K

    Hey Hector,

    I think that a diet to maximize athletic performance within some timeframe isin some cases different than a diet to maximize health in the long term.

    Many athletic trainer/dietician types dispute the Taubes hypothesis because in their experience. Calories in-calories out (CICO) is what makes the difference. Thing is they’re mostly dealing with younger people whose metabolisms have not been “perturbed” by 50 years of the standard american diet and who do a lot of high intensity exercise (which allows for greater muscular absorption of the sugars).

    Lyle McDonald has done some interesting work putting together diets and exercise programs that maximize fat loss with minimal loss of muscle. His basic approach is to make sure you get plenty of dietary protein, which would then act as sort of sacrificial protein–using it for gluconeogenesis, rather than your body’s muscle. Lyle and others such as John Berardi and Martin Berkhan put forward a diet where you target higher carbs around your workout.

    Lyle is at http://www.bodyrecomposition.com.

    Tom,

    Thanks again for fighting the good fight. May you have a joyous solstice.

    Regards,
    Tony (emotions for engineers)

    Thanks for the info, and for your many enjoyable posts.

    Reply
  4. John

    One of the wisest things my dad has ever said to me is, “Son, you can’t argue with someone you have to educate first.”

    Well said.

    Reply
  5. Rob

    Yeah, I know an Indian guy who eats mostly carbs, and he is really thin. But he has type II diabetes…

    Reply
  6. Rob

    Funny, I wrote that comment before I read on to where you started saying type II diabetes is common in India.

    Reply
  7. dlm

    Arrogant bullies. As well as wrong. How do you not react? When do you decide to give it up?
    The Canadian Medical Association has a new website started by the new president, Dr Jeff Turnbull, asking for input from the public on Canadians Responsibilities, Receiving Good Value, and should the scope of coverage be Broadened, and other topics can be added. Of course, the public consensus is you must exercise to lose weight, eat a low calorie/low fat diet, and you haven’t done your homework if you believe otherwise; Gary Taubes is just a writer out for money. ACKCKCKCK!!!

    Reply
  8. dlm

    Arrogant bullies. As well as wrong. How do you not react? When do you decide to give it up?
    The Canadian Medical Association has a new website started by the new president, Dr Jeff Turnbull, asking for input from the public on Canadians Responsibilities, Receiving Good Value, and should the scope of coverage be Broadened, and other topics can be added. Of course, the public consensus is you must exercise to lose weight, eat a low calorie/low fat diet, and you haven’t done your homework if you believe otherwise; Gary Taubes is just a writer out for money. ACKCKCKCK!!!

    Reply
  9. Bunni

    I always have to chime in about Japan after living there for five years:

    Rates of diabetes in Japan are comparable to America and are on the rise. No, they don’t seem to get as fat as we do in the US. Some of it is illusion (fat distribution is different in their bodies, so it’s not as visible) and some of it is just a different metabolism. But the end result is the same.

    And they’re getting fatter. Mostly you see it in men and kids. Anorexia is still pretty common among women, since doctors kind of promote it. (5’4″ and 115? Too fat. Pregnant? Better not gain more than 10% of your body weight!) Sometimes you see normal-to-large women too. But it’s a bit more rare. (Sexism and how it destroys women’s bodies is another discussion for another day.)

    The Japanese diet is very starch-based. You have the sticky rice and giant bowls of ramen, but they do like their pasta and bread too. There are bakeries on every corner, and if you can’t get to your corner bakery, the supermarket and convenience stores are willing to sell you breads full of shortening and vegetable oil-creme filling. Yum. Nearly every food is full of sugar in some form. Sushi is obvious (it’s in the rice), and then most other foods have a sweet sauce or broth. And bean jam! That might as well be sugar!

    Then they turn around and talk about how healthy their diet is. I just saw an article today about how 7-11 is going to start looking at the trans-fat issue. If they remove every food with trans-fats … won’t be a lot left. I became gluten-intolerant in Japan, and so I had to read my labels carefully. Food there is chock full of CRAP and FILLER and MORE CRAP. If you’re subsisting on rice and baked fish and miso soup with a side of natto, yes, maybe you’re very healthy. But that’s what old people eat. Everyone else is eating CRAP.

    Then they complain that “American food is much too sweety.” When Japanese food was killing me with its sugar content. (I also got to hear a lot of, “You can’t be American! You’re not fat!” as well as open speculation right in front of me about my background, given my lack of pudge. Good times.)

    Reply
  10. Bunni

    I always have to chime in about Japan after living there for five years:

    Rates of diabetes in Japan are comparable to America and are on the rise. No, they don’t seem to get as fat as we do in the US. Some of it is illusion (fat distribution is different in their bodies, so it’s not as visible) and some of it is just a different metabolism. But the end result is the same.

    And they’re getting fatter. Mostly you see it in men and kids. Anorexia is still pretty common among women, since doctors kind of promote it. (5’4″ and 115? Too fat. Pregnant? Better not gain more than 10% of your body weight!) Sometimes you see normal-to-large women too. But it’s a bit more rare. (Sexism and how it destroys women’s bodies is another discussion for another day.)

    The Japanese diet is very starch-based. You have the sticky rice and giant bowls of ramen, but they do like their pasta and bread too. There are bakeries on every corner, and if you can’t get to your corner bakery, the supermarket and convenience stores are willing to sell you breads full of shortening and vegetable oil-creme filling. Yum. Nearly every food is full of sugar in some form. Sushi is obvious (it’s in the rice), and then most other foods have a sweet sauce or broth. And bean jam! That might as well be sugar!

    Then they turn around and talk about how healthy their diet is. I just saw an article today about how 7-11 is going to start looking at the trans-fat issue. If they remove every food with trans-fats … won’t be a lot left. I became gluten-intolerant in Japan, and so I had to read my labels carefully. Food there is chock full of CRAP and FILLER and MORE CRAP. If you’re subsisting on rice and baked fish and miso soup with a side of natto, yes, maybe you’re very healthy. But that’s what old people eat. Everyone else is eating CRAP.

    Then they complain that “American food is much too sweety.” When Japanese food was killing me with its sugar content. (I also got to hear a lot of, “You can’t be American! You’re not fat!” as well as open speculation right in front of me about my background, given my lack of pudge. Good times.)

    Reply

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