I don’t have much time to sit down and read an actual book. When I do read the old-fashioned way, it’s usually a book someone sent me to review on the blog. Hey, I like reading and reviewing those books, but I don’t want to be limited to them. There are more fascinating books that have already been published than I could read in a thousand years … and while I plan on living to a ripe old age, a thousand years seems overly optimistic.
Since driving to and from work takes a big chunk of each week, I make the commute useful by listening to books I don’t have time to sit and read. My Audible.com library online shows that I’ve downloaded 25 books so far this year. Yup, that sounds about right, a book every other week or so. I like a variety of genres: history, economics, psychology, and of course fiction. I’m a big fan of mysteries by Jonathan Kellerman and Michael Connelly.
I rarely listen to books on diet and health, but I often find myself connecting ideas from audiobooks to the topics I cover on the blog. (I also find myself slapping the steering wheel and grumbling aloud when a fiction writer refers to foods like bacon and eggs as “artery-clogging.” Kellerman does that on a fairly regular basis.)
Last week, I posted Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s essay about what he calls the Intellectual Yet Idiot – a description very much like Thomas Sowell’s description of The Anointed, the term I adopted for the blog. These are the people who think they know better than the rest of us and thus feel qualified to impose their Grand Plans on us. Think U.S. Dietary Guidelines.
Based on recommendations from readers in comments, I listened to three of Taleb’s books in the past year: The Black Swan, Fooled by Randomness and Antifragile. I don’t remember exactly which idea came which book, but I do remember that much of what he wrote applies to health and the health sciences.
One reason Taleb is so critical of the Intellectual Yet Idiot types is that (as he explained in all three books) human beings don’t know what they don’t know and are thus lousy at predicting future consequences. They don’t consider the rare or black-swan event that can cause everything to blow up or go sideways. So they make Grand Plans and 10-year forecasts that are nearly always wrong – way wrong.
As he explained in one of the books (I believe it was Antifragile), that’s why he considers centralization (especially a big, centralized government) dangerous. Centralization amplifies mistakes. Instead of small groups experimenting with their own ideas and producing results others can learn from, we get one plan and one set of results for everyone – often bad results.
Once again, think about those Dietary Guidelines. Back in the day, people decided which foods were good for them based on something like the Wisdom of Crowds. They learned from their grandmothers, their coaches, their friends, and perhaps their doctors – most of whom were speaking from experience.
Then for some reason, The Anointed decided we needed a national nutrition policy. Medical protocols, school lunch programs, nutrition labels on foods, you name it, they were all based on federal guidelines that told us saturated fat is bad, cholesterol causes heart disease, and grains are good for us. Those guidelines were a mistake – and centralization amplified the mistake. The national policy produced a national disaster for health.
Taleb also has rather a lot to say about education and experts. Many of us believe (because we were taught to believe) that most scientific knowledge comes from academics toiling in universities. They produce the pure science, then tinkerers and entrepreneurs put that pure science to practical use.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, according to Taleb. More often, it’s the tinkerers who produce new knowledge. They tinker and tinker and find something new that works. Then the academics come along and figure out why it works. Then they run off and write their papers. As Taleb explains, it’s not necessary to understand exactly why something works to know that it does, in fact, work. For example, the guys who invented the jet engine couldn’t explain the physics. They just knew they’d tinkered their way into something that worked. Academics figured out the physics of the thing later.
I of course related that back to diet and health while listening. Think of all the dietary wisdom our ancestors carried with them. They knew they should feed their growing kids saturated fats and cholesterol. They knew they should eat fermented foods. They knew they should eat organ meats. If you asked your great-grandmother which foods make people fat, she probably would have blamed sugar and flour, not butter and lard.
Could these people cite scientific papers to support their beliefs about diet? Not likely. But they knew what works. I believe that’s an important lesson for all of us: it’s more important to find and adopt what works than to read all the science.
The “settled” science, is of course, often wrong. Taleb points out several examples in his books. I was reminded of further examples in two books by David McCullough, The Wright Brothers and The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Orville and Wilbur Wright were master tinkerers. They were also geniuses. When they began designing their first airplane, they consulted the established books on physics and aeronautics. They were dismayed to discover that much of the “settled” science was clearly wrong. It didn’t hold up to their own tests and measurements. So they had to toss the books and tinker their way into finding what worked.
The Brooklyn Bridge was designed by another genius named John Roebling. The bridge was a mammoth undertaking, and when Roebling submitted his plans, some society of learned engineers in New York City published a long article explaining why his design would never work. The bridge would fall down, you see. The experts cited plenty of science to explain why.
The bridge not only didn’t fall down, it now easily withstands the weight of countless cars and trucks – despite being designed for pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages. The society of learned experts was wrong, despite their scientific citations.
Does that remind you at all of current dietary science?
Another book that reminded me of diet and health topics despite not being about diet and health was Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive by Noah J. Goldstein, Steve J. Martin and Robert B. Cialdini. (I know, the title makes it sound like a book on marketing and sales. Trust me, it’s more about psychology.)
One major point the authors make is that warning people about a problem without also providing a solution that works is pointless – unless your goal is to make people depressed. In fact, if you regularly offer warnings without workable solutions, people will just avoid you.
That made me think of all the morons who believe we can fat-shame people into losing weight. Doctors need to more aggressive in telling people they’re overweight, ya see (according to some health official the U.K., if memory serves.) We need to make it socially unacceptable, blah-blah-blah.
Warning people that being overweight will kill them doesn’t provide a solution. Telling them to just cut calories or go on low-fat diets also isn’t a solution for most of them. So if health officials convince doctors to be more aggressive in telling people to lose weight (i.e., engage in white-coat fat-shaming), what do think will happen? Well, studies have already shown what will happen: people who can’t lose weight will stop going to the doctor to avoid the lectures. Someone please inform Meme Roth.
The book also explains that many people are persuaded by what the authors call social proof. If everyone else seems to believe something, they’ll believe it … even if logic and experience should tell them otherwise.
I think it’s safe to say that social proof had a lot to do with the low-fat diet craze. The government experts told us we should be on low-fat diets, major media began promoting the idea, and eventually everyone seemed to believe it. Watch reruns of TV shows from the ‘80s and ‘90s, and I guarantee you’ll hear references to arterycloggingsaturatedfat! I’ve noticed at least a dozen of those references while watching Seinfeld reruns.
I like to think of myself as someone not persuaded by social proof, but apparently I am – or at least I was then. I kept trying low-fat diets, despite feeling lousy and not losing any weight. Everyone says this is a healthy diet, so it must be a healthy diet! I hope I’ve become less easily persuaded as I’ve gotten older. I’ve certainly become more skeptical of experts and authorities.
But I also believe social proof can work both ways. Not everyone has the time or inclination to experiment with different diets or look into the research, so many just follow the herd. If the herd is moving towards paleo, or low-carb, or gluten-free, that’s not a bad result.
Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to leave the office and drive home while listing to a Jonathan Kellerman novel. I hope he doesn’t make any cracks about bacon and eggs clogging our arteries.
I’ll be taking Thanksgiving week off from both work and blogging. Jimmy and Christine Moore will be visiting, and when I’m not socializing or playing disc golf with Jimmy, Chareva and I will put in extra time on the book. I’ve asked The Older Brother to take over the Fat Head chair if the mood strikes him.