I’m sure you’ve seen the headlines. Here’s just one example: Low-carb diets could shorten life, study suggests. And here’s a quote from the article:
Low-carb diets, such as Atkins, have become increasingly popular for weight loss and have shown promise for lowering the risk of some illnesses. But a US study over 25 years indicates that moderate carb consumption – or switching meat for plant-based protein and fats – is healthier.
Yank, yank, yank. As soon as you see that it’s 1) an observational study, and 2) based on food questionnaires, you know it’s garbage dressed up as science. Here’s how crazily inaccurate food questionnaires are: add up the total calories many people typically report consuming, and you’re at semi-starvation levels.
If you’d like to read a detailed take-down of this latest offense against science … er, study … you can read Zoe Harcombe’s analysis.
I’m more interested in what motivates the jackasses who put these studies together. Dig deep enough, and I’m pretty sure you’ll find The Save The Grains Campaign is involved somewhere. If people were told to eat “moderate” amounts of carbohydrate (which the authors define as 50% of calories) and responded by eating yams, I don’t think the authors would be happy.
Grains, damnit! You’re supposed to eat your grains!
In the fantasy-land of spy novels, movies and TV series, we often learn that the world is secretly run by the oil industry and its paid stooges in governments. Wrong!! If there’s an industry secretly running the world, it’s the grain industry. (Okay, I don’t actually believe in world-wide conspiracies, but bear with me.)
The Anointed keep telling us to eat our grains – or else. I thought this was a relatively new phenomenon, starting in the 1970s or thereabouts. Nope. According to a book I recently finished, it turns out The Anointed have been insisting people eat their grains for a long, long time. Grains are, in fact, the food of submission.
The book is titled Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, written by James C. Scott. It was published by Yale University, where Scott spent much of his life as a professor of political science, and it’s definitely academic in tone. I enjoyed it nonetheless.
Here’s the story in a nutshell: grains are the food that enabled governments, a ruling class, and empires to rise … and without governments, The Anointed would just be the wacky people most of us cheerfully ignore. After all, it’s not as if they have useful skills. More on that later, when I’ll relate Against the Grain to other books I like.
In the introduction, Scott explains that the purpose of the book is to dispel the myth that humans voluntarily switched to agriculture, which in turn led to All The Good Things we associate with progress: civilization, public order, health and leisure. Nice story, but it was a wee bit messier and more violent than that:
There is massive evidence of determined resistance by mobile peoples everywhere to permanent settlement … pastoralists and hunting-and-gathering populations have fought against permanent settlement, associating it, often correctly, with disease and state control.
As Scott explains, plenty of free, semi-nomadic people chose to be part-time farmers. But they didn’t stay put and raise grains. They planted all kinds of edible foods in areas that reliably flooded every year, went off to hunt and wander, and returned when the plant foods were ready to harvest. I remember reading how the Navajo “farmed” in a similar fashion, while still relying heavily on hunting. The combination of hunting and part-time farming led to an abundant, nutritious diet.
So why would anyone want to force semi-nomadic hunter/farmers who are happy with their lives to become full-time grain farmers? Because it’s damned difficult to tax squashes and sweet potatoes, that’s why. Without taxes, the ruling classes would have to … I don’t know … support themselves or something horrible like that:
History records no cassava states, no sago, yam, taro, plantain, breadfruit or sweet potato states… the tuber cassava grows below ground, requires little care, is easy to conceal, ripens in a year, and, most importantly, can safely be left in the ground and remain edible for two more years. If the state wants your cassava, it will have to come and dig up the tubers one by one, and then it has a cartload of little value and great weight if transported.
If we were evaluating crops from the perspective of the tax man, the major grains would be among the most preferred.
In later chapters, Scott explains why states love grains above all other foods: grains have to be harvested at a specific time of year, so rulers know exactly when to send the tax man around. Grains are easy to weigh and easy to transport back to the capital. Most importantly, they’re calorically dense, which means grain farmers can produce enough food to support an army, a government, and a leisure class:
Whether the grain in question is wheat, barley, rice or maize, the patterns displays a family resemblance. The early state strives to create a legible, measured, and fairly uniform landscape of taxable grain crops and to hold on this land a large population available for corvée labor, conscription, and, of course, grain production.
In other words, grains are the food that enable conquest and submission.
Plenty of people resisted, of course. Scott points out that what history sometimes records as the “collapse” of a civilization was more of a mass escape. Governments lost control of populations who retreated to the off-the-map areas to live as free hunters. The “collapses” then led to what are often called “dark ages.” It’s an ominous-sounding term, suggesting something bad was happening. But in fact, people were freer and healthier after escaping civilizations they never voluntarily joined. Those periods are called “dark” for the simple reason that hunter-gathers didn’t keep records for historians to dig up later. They lived their lives, but didn’t write about them.
Writing, Scott explains, likely began as a tool of the tax man:
Peasantries with long experience of on-the-ground statecraft have always understood that the state is a recording, registering, and measuring machine. So when a government surveyor arrives with a plane table, or census takers come with their clipboards and questionnaires to register households, the subjects understand that trouble in the form of conscription, forced labor, land seizures, head taxes, or new taxes on croplands cannot be far behind. They understand implicitly that behind the coercive machinery lies piles of paperwork.
So it’s no surprise that learning to read and write were often forbidden among commoners. Only rulers and their functionaries could be trusted with an education. It’s also no surprise that as civilizations developed around the world, the intellectual class was nearly indistinguishable from the governing class.
That got me thinking about other books I’ve enjoyed, chiefly The Ordeal of Change by Eric Hoffer, Intellectuals and Society and The Vision of the Anointed by Thomas Sowell, and Skin in the Game by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. All four books deal to some degree with what Sowell calls The Anointed: intellectuals who feel entitled to tell the rest of us how to live.
A left-leaning friend of mine once asked me to explain why if leftism doesn’t make sense, the smartest people lean left. I asked him what he meant by “the smartest people.” He replied that most college professors lean left.
After I finished laughing my ass off at the notion that college professors are the smartest among us (do you really think the average professor of gender studies has a higher IQ than the average engineer?), I replied with something like, “Wow. So people mostly employed by governments support the big-government party that promises them bigger paychecks. What a shock.”
When I told a comedian friend of mine about the exchange, he said his theory is that professors are just pissed off that they make less money than entrepreneurs they consider their intellectual inferiors. I believe his theory is closer to the truth.
As we saw in Scott’s book, intellectuals have been aligned with governments since the days when the only literate people were government functionaries. In his book The Ordeal of Change, Eric Hoffer explains why intellectuals in modern times also love government:
In almost every civilization we know of, the intellectuals have been either allied with those in power or members of a governing elite.
[The intellectual] has managed to thrive in social orders dominated by kings, nobles, priests and merchants, but not in societies suffused with the tastes and values of the masses.
There’s a good reason for that, Hoffer explains: the masses don’t generally place much value on what intellectuals produce. So in a free-market society, intellectuals as a class don’t fare very well:
America has been running its complex economy and government machinery and has been satisfying most of its cultural needs without the aid of the typical intellectual. Nowhere has the intellectual had so little say in the management of affairs. [Keep in minder, Hoffer wrote those words in the 1950s, before the explosive growth of government.]
But wait … haven’t intellectuals often led the charge to free the masses from oppression? Yes, that’s true. But as Hoffer explains, intellectuals have historically stirred up the masses as a vehicle to put themselves in power:
The intellectual goes to the masses in search of a weightiness and a role of leadership.
Once his private ail is righted, the intellectual’s ardor for the underprivileged cools considerably… when the militant intellectual succeeds in establishing a social order in which his craving for a superior status and social usefulness is satisfied, his view of the masses darkens, and from being their champion, he becomes their detractor… The masses must obey.
I read a good book last year about the Russian Revolution. Let’s just say the masses who didn’t obey fared far worse under Lenin than they ever did under the Czar.
I used to wonder why so many people who came of age in the Sixties and considered themselves anti-authority types later became such fans of government authority. And why the heck do so many of them support Marxism, which relies entirely on armed authorities telling people how to live?
Once again, Hoffer had it figured out decades ago:
When the intellectual comes into his own, he becomes a pillar of stability and finds all kinds of lofty reasons for siding with the strong against the weak.
In no other social order, past or present, has the intellectual so completely come into his own as in the communist regimes. Never before has his superior status been so self-evident and his social usefulness so unquestioned. The bureaucracy which manages and controls every field of activity is staffed by people who consider themselves intellectuals.
I wrote a post in 2011 describing how Thomas Sowell’s book Intellectuals and Society and his description of what he calls The Anointed explains what went wrong with our nutrition policies:
Sowell has nothing against smart people, you understand. He’s one heck of a smart guy himself. As he points out in the book, intellectuals are fond of accusing people who oppose their pie-in-the-sky ideas of being “anti-intellectual,” when in fact the naysayers are often common-sense types who oppose basing policies on the latest intellectual fashions and prefer something resembling proof.
In intellectual circles, where the talent that Sowell refers to as “verbal virtuosity” is highly prized, new theories are often applauded merely for being bold, exciting, challenging, or exquisitely expressed. (And if the theory suggests intellectuals should be in charge of the rest of us, it will likely be hailed as all of the above.)
As Sowell explains, when intellectuals are limited to dazzling each other and perhaps a fraction of the public with their theories, there’s a limit to how much damage a bad idea can cause. But when they get their hands on the levers of government, it’s a different story. It’s not that people in government are inherently stupid or evil (although sometimes they seem determine to prove otherwise). The problem lies with government’s unique ability to impose well-intentioned bad ideas and stifle dissent.
Intellectuals love government because government gives them the power to impose their Grand Plans on the rest of us … but when the Grand Plan fails, we pay the price, not the intellectuals.
That’s because the intellectuals, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains in his book, don’t have what he calls Skin in the Game. In fact, they tend to seek positions where they are insulated from the downside of their own lousy decisions. Let’s see, you want to be paid handsomely for your theories but don’t want any risk to yourself if your theories turn out to be wrong … surprise, surprise, these people are often found in government or academia — or in industries propped up by government. Think too big to fail.
I listened to the book, so I can’t quote from it without listening again for hours looking for the relevant passages. However, Taleb’s essay The Intellectual Yet Idiot appears in Skin in the Game pretty much intact, so I’ll quote from that:
What we have been seeing worldwide, from India to the UK to the US, is the rebellion against the inner circle of no-skin-in-the-game policymaking “clerks” and journalists-insiders, that class of paternalistic semi-intellectual experts with some Ivy league, Oxford-Cambridge, or similar label-driven education who are telling the rest of us 1) what to do, 2) what to eat, 3) how to speak, 4) how to think… and 5) who to vote for.
But the problem is the one-eyed following the blind: these self-described members of the “intelligentsia” can’t find a coconut in Coconut Island, meaning they aren’t intelligent enough to define intelligence hence fall into circularities — but their main skill is capacity to pass exams written by people like them. With psychology papers replicating less than 40%, dietary advice reversing after 30 years of fatphobia, macroeconomic analysis working worse than astrology, the appointment of Bernanke who was less than clueless of the risks, and pharmaceutical trials replicating at best only 1/3 of the time, people are perfectly entitled to rely on their own ancestral instinct and listen to their grandmothers (or Montaigne and such filtered classical knowledge) with a better track record than these policymaking goons.
Indeed one can see that these academico-bureaucrats who feel entitled to run our lives aren’t even rigorous, whether in medical statistics or policymaking. They can’t tell science from scientism — in fact in their eyes scientism looks more scientific than real science.
The Anointed love their theories, but aren’t rigorous thinkers. They don’t care much about real evidence. They often live on other people’s taxes, since what they produce isn’t valued much by free people making free decisions about how to spend their money. They rarely pay the price for their mistakes, which are many. (As Sowell puts it, they are often wrong but never in doubt.) But despite their lousy track record, they feel entitled to tell us what to think and what to eat. And what they’ve wanted us to eat — since the days when they were the tax collectors and functionaries for kings and emperors – is grains. And by gosh, they’ll just keep producing one crappy study after another to convince us we’ll die without those grains.
Ditch the grains, eat your meat, and flip these intellectual bozos the bird.