Book Learnin’ Stuff

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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.

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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.

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45 thoughts on “Book Learnin’ Stuff

  1. Tom Welsh

    Social proof is interesting. I have recently been reading “Crowds and Power” by Elias Canetti, in which he explains (from a strictly practical viewpoint) the psychology of crowd membership. It seems that just being a meber of a crowd gives most people a warm glow, like being drunk but even better. This joy is amplified when the crowd does soemthing that the individuals in it would never dream of doing – such as burning things, smashing things, or lynching people. Fun, fun, fun!

    My reaction was horror on several levels. Partly because I immediately believe it. Partly because it explains a lot. Partly because I have a strong dislike of anything like a crowd – I’m pretty shy about even small parties among friends. So I suppose that’s one advantage of being an introvert – you aren’t tempted to join a crowd and commit hideous crimes. (For which being a member of a crowd is no more an excuse than being drunk or drugged).

    On the other hand, one of my favourite writers, Robert A Heinlein, had his character Lazarus Long state that:

    ‘If “everybody knows” such-and-such, then it ain’t so, by at least ten thousand to one’.

    Reply
      1. Brandon

        I’ve realized being in a group makes you very vulnerable to “going a long with the group”/group think/your favorite term. I have personal experience with this in philosophy/political groups. So I’ve had to actively ensure I don’t get too attached to most kinds of groups. It helps me keep myself objective.

        I’m in a strange position where I like being a lone wolf and a social butterfly and I can pull off both (somehow).

        Reply
  2. Jeff

    Not related to your main points, but David Baldacci does the same thing: eggs and bacon bad, oatmeal and the like good. Drives me nuts.

    Reading this: “I hope I’ve become less easily persuaded as I’ve gotten older. I’ve certainly become more skeptical of experts and authorities” for some reason made me think about FatHead: follow the money. The phrase wasn’t new to me, but it really made me think about it, particularly as it relates to government, and it sure has made me quite skeptical (not that I placed a lot of faith in government before).

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Yeah, I’ve read several of Baldacci’s as well. It’ll take a long time to undo 35 years of bad P.R. for bacon and eggs.

      Reply
  3. Tom Welsh

    Social proof is interesting. I have recently been reading “Crowds and Power” by Elias Canetti, in which he explains (from a strictly practical viewpoint) the psychology of crowd membership. It seems that just being a meber of a crowd gives most people a warm glow, like being drunk but even better. This joy is amplified when the crowd does soemthing that the individuals in it would never dream of doing – such as burning things, smashing things, or lynching people. Fun, fun, fun!

    My reaction was horror on several levels. Partly because I immediately believe it. Partly because it explains a lot. Partly because I have a strong dislike of anything like a crowd – I’m pretty shy about even small parties among friends. So I suppose that’s one advantage of being an introvert – you aren’t tempted to join a crowd and commit hideous crimes. (For which being a member of a crowd is no more an excuse than being drunk or drugged).

    On the other hand, one of my favourite writers, Robert A Heinlein, had his character Lazarus Long state that:

    ‘If “everybody knows” such-and-such, then it ain’t so, by at least ten thousand to one’.

    Reply
      1. Brandon

        I’ve realized being in a group makes you very vulnerable to “going a long with the group”/group think/your favorite term. I have personal experience with this in philosophy/political groups. So I’ve had to actively ensure I don’t get too attached to most kinds of groups. It helps me keep myself objective.

        I’m in a strange position where I like being a lone wolf and a social butterfly and I can pull off both (somehow).

        Reply
  4. Kayla

    Living out in the country does promote audiobook consumption 🙂 These may not be to your taste at all, but I’m really enjoying Brene Brown’s “The Power of Vulnerability”, and Fredrik Backman’s novel “A Man Called Ove”.

    Reply
  5. Mike

    This may be a ridiculous reason to read fiction but Michael Z. Williamson’s Freehold series has a libertarian bent and viewpoint character of the 2nd volume is very definitely a low carb eater.

    Reply
  6. Angel

    If you like historical fiction, I can heartily recommend Lindsey Davis’s Marcus Didius Falco series, set in ancient Rome around 80 A.D. She is an excellent and entertaining writer, and the books are very well researched. The first book is “The Silver Pigs”.

    Reply
  7. Rick Bauer

    “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.”

    Including:

    Human. Caused. Global. Warming.

    And this gem from the year 2000:

    “Snow will be a thing of the past.”

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      When I read his descriptions of how lousy humans are at predicting things we supposedly understand — such as the future market for housing or oil — I couldn’t help but think of how lousy we must be at predicting the climate, which we barely understand.

      Reply
      1. Rick Bauer

        I agree and the Weathermen like Weather Channel founder John Coleman (demonized by the very network he founded) tell us that a good chunk of our weather cycles are based on the earth’s orbit around the sun and it’s affect on it’s energy…the dogmatics go all Medieval on him and want to burn the heretic.

        Truth no needs no law to support it!

        Reply
      2. Mike

        To paraphrase The Big Bang Theory:
        If all chemistry is physics,
        and all biology is chemistry,
        and all behavior is biology,
        a physicist ought to be an expert at dating and relationships.

        Economic theory is pretty well understood, except that humans aren’t always rational actors, and they don’t always have perfect information.

        Climate consists of the relationship between many disciplines that we do understand very well, but it may not be that great a bet that any model simple enough for humans to understand is detailed enough to give the right answers.

        Reply
        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          I’ll put it this way: I think human beings are a long, long away from 1) identifying all the factors that affect climate, 2) understand how those factors interact.

          Reply
        2. gollum

          I used to joke that physics is really applied computer science. Entropy (Neginformation) is very important in physics, and physicists build mathematical toy models (= computer simulations) of the world to predict it.

          Thus, programmers are experts in relationships. I only need a way to explain it to that buxom blonde I spotted.

          Reply
  8. Orvan Taurus

    I think it was Isaac Asimov who stated that progress is not normally marked by the exclamation of “Eureka!” but by, “Gee, that’s funny.” Here, funny being odd or unexpected rather than humorous, of course.

    Reply
  9. Orvan Taurus

    I think it was Isaac Asimov who stated that progress is not normally marked by the exclamation of “Eureka!” but by, “Gee, that’s funny.” Here, funny being odd or unexpected rather than humorous, of course.

    Reply
  10. Drew @ Willpower Is For Fat People

    If you asked your great-grandmother which foods make people fat, she probably would have blamed sugar and flour, not butter and lard.

    I’m pretty sure you’ve linked to this one before: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihOi56J17Hw

    I know, the title makes it sound like a book on marketing and sales. Trust me, it’s more about psychology.

    Marketing and sales are psychology. https://www.newdesigngroup.ca/blog/short-history-psychology-advertising/

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Sales and marketing are about psychology, but not all psychology is about sales and marketing. The book covers more topics that go way beyond sales or marketing.

      Reply
  11. Lori Miller

    Funny you should mention a book on persuasion. I’m reading Book of Value, a book about investing that includes a lot of behavioral economics. It mentions that emotions are more persuasive than reason, and strong emotions (and hunger) tend to turn off thinking. My take is that what advertisers and other persuaders try to do is get people to stop thinking.

    Reply
  12. Lori Miller

    Funny you should mention a book on persuasion. I’m reading Book of Value, a book about investing that includes a lot of behavioral economics. It mentions that emotions are more persuasive than reason, and strong emotions (and hunger) tend to turn off thinking. My take is that what advertisers and other persuaders try to do is get people to stop thinking.

    Reply
  13. Rick Bauer

    BTW. I live 20 minutes south of Roebling, N.J. Like Milton Hershey, Roebling built a town for his factory workers to live. The factory is long gone but it was where parts to the Brooklyn Bridge (and other Roebling designed structures) were manufactured.

    It is still a nice little town along the Delaware River.

    Reply
  14. Rick Bauer

    BTW. I live 20 minutes south of Roebling, N.J. Like Milton Hershey, Roebling built a town for his factory workers to live. The factory is long gone but it was where parts to the Brooklyn Bridge (and other Roebling designed structures) were manufactured.

    It is still a nice little town along the Delaware River.

    Reply
  15. Linda

    Another good post! I’ll miss you this week (Thanksgiving week,) but you deserve the time off. Happy Thanksgiving to your family and Jimmy and Christine!

    Reply
  16. Linda

    Another good post! I’ll miss you this week (Thanksgiving week,) but you deserve the time off. Happy Thanksgiving to your family and Jimmy and Christine!

    Reply
  17. Brandon

    I’ve read cialdini’s work thanks to Scott Adams of dilbert. It’s scary stuff considering how easily it can influence people.

    I’ve read the book influence and I’m in the process of pre-suasion.

    Reply
  18. Brandon

    I’ve read cialdini’s work thanks to Scott Adams of dilbert. It’s scary stuff considering how easily it can influence people.

    I’ve read the book influence and I’m in the process of pre-suasion.

    Reply
  19. Gilana

    Jonathan Kellerman’s novels have a few patterns of face-palm for me, but over the many books it’s become clear that he favors a more libertarian-conservative POV. Which is rare for his market, I think. A curious thing is that I read the (a?) novel (don’t know if there’s more than one) that he tag-teamed with his wife Faye Kellerman; the two writing styles were so disparate that I cringed through the Faye parts just to get to the Jonathan parts. I have it in my head to tackle what I’m sure are at least a few Alex Delaware series additions that I’ve missed since my last binge.

    Reply
  20. Gilana

    Jonathan Kellerman’s novels have a few patterns of face-palm for me, but over the many books it’s become clear that he favors a more libertarian-conservative POV. Which is rare for his market, I think. A curious thing is that I read the (a?) novel (don’t know if there’s more than one) that he tag-teamed with his wife Faye Kellerman; the two writing styles were so disparate that I cringed through the Faye parts just to get to the Jonathan parts. I have it in my head to tackle what I’m sure are at least a few Alex Delaware series additions that I’ve missed since my last binge.

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Excellent points. I believe that’s part of the attraction to low-cal, low-fat diets: by gosh, if you’re going to lose weight, you should suffer to prove you deserve the leaner physique. Losing weight while eating bacon and eggs just doesn’t require the kind of sacrifice the puritans prefer.

      Reply

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