The Anointed, The Experts, And Knowledge … Part Four

For real people, if something works in theory, but not in practice, it doesn’t work. For academics, if something works in practice, but not in theory, it doesn’t exist. – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I thought I was finished with this mini-series of follow-up posts on my recent speech, but I want to address one more comment I’ve heard here and there … the one that goes something like Why would you criticize observational studies, then turn around and praise people for making decisions on a bunch of anecdotes?

Okay, I understand the objection. But anecdotes and observational studies are not exactly the same thing. In an observational study, researchers try to figure out what people have been eating for the previous several years (usually with notoriously inaccurate food-recall surveys), then look for statistical correlations to health outcomes.

Aha! People who eat bacon have a marginally greater risk of developing colon cancer! Bacon must cause cancer!

That sort of thing. Those studies certainly keep academics busy, but as Dr. John Ioannidis and others have pointed out, researchers often find what they expect to find. As Ioannidis pointed out in one tongue-in-cheek article, most ingredients in a common cookbook have been linked to a higher rate of cancer … and also to a lower rate of cancer.

People in observational studies aren’t intentionally changing their diets in hopes of achieving a result. They’re just fodder for number-crunching researchers.

In a clinical study, there’s an intentional intervention: researchers have one group of people take a drug, or switch from animal fats to corn oil, or take fish oil, or whatever. Then they compare those people to a control group of people who didn’t change anything and look for differences in health outcomes. Clinical studies are the gold standard in research — and they should be.

But suppose you suffer from migraines and several doctors have failed to find the magic pill that provides relief. Now suppose someone at a dinner party says he’s heard from several people that their migraines went away when they stopped eating grains. (This happened with the wife of a co-worker of mine, as you may recall.)

Are you SERIOUSLY supposed to wait until someone designs a clinical study on grain-removal and migraines, receives funding, gets approval, conducts the study and reports the results before trying it out for yourself? Are you going to say to yourself, Well, those are just anecdotes, so I’ll continue going from doctor to doctor and suffering from the migraines until I find that magic pill. Not a chance. You’ll give up the grains and see what happens. If the migraines go away, you’ll no doubt tell some people.

Ka-boom … we have knowledge based on experience. (But gosh darn it, it’s only anecdotal evidence!)

I understand the problem with anecdotes, of course. What appears to be cause and effect could simply be coincidence. I have a nagging digestive problem, I happen to start drinking green tea, and the digestive problem – which was going to subside anyway for other reasons – goes away. But I’m all excited about the result and run off to share my belief that green tea fixed my digestive problems on the internet.

Sure, that happens. But that’s where the Marketplace of Ideas concept comes into it. People promote all kinds of ideas. Some are good, some are bad, some are just useless. But the good ideas are the ones that stick around. They’re the ideas that gain traction … because they’re the ideas that actually work.

When people try a new diet, they’re engaging in an experiment. There’s an intentional intervention – the new diet. There are results to compare – themselves on the old diet vs. themselves on the new diet. Yes, it’s just an n=1 experiment. We can’t necessarily extrapolate the results to everyone else. But it’s still an experiment.

In the Fat Head Kids book and movie, we recounted the n=1 experiment Sam Feltham conducted. For 21 days, he consumed more than 5,000 calories per day of low-carb/high-fat real foods. He gained less than three pounds and actually lost an inch around his waist. After a washout period, he again consumed more than 5,000 calories per day for 21 days – this time getting most of the calories from sugars and refined grains. He gained almost 16 pounds and got fatter around the waist. Same number of calories, very different results in terms of both weight and body composition.

When Feltham reported his results, the response from the “it’s all about the calories” crowd was predictable: This is just anecdotal evidence! Not a randomized controlled trial, so we can just ignore it! And my favorite: this is a jokexperiment!

Oh really? And why was it a joke? I only see three possibilities here:

  1. Feltham is a liar and didn’t actually eat what he recorded or get the results he reported.
  2. Feltham isn’t intelligent enough to accurately record what he consumed or measure his results.
  3. Feltham ate what says he ate and got the results he reported.

Feltham is clearly an intelligent guy, so we can dismiss #2. If people would rather assume he’s a liar than risk changing their minds … well, okay.

But I think the only likely possibility is that he ate what he says he ate and got the results he reported. So even though it’s just an n=1 experiment, it still tells us something important. If Sam Feltham can experience wildly different results from changing what he ate (as opposed to how much he ate), then so can other people. I’m pretty sure he’s not unique among humans. I’m also pretty sure we can’t write off the changes in weight as a coincidence.

Same goes for what I mentioned in my previous post about stuffing myself with meats, eggs and greens on the low-carb cruises but not gaining any weight. I’ve done it several years in a row now. I’ve heard from many other people who had the same experience. I corresponded with a doctor who saw that among his patients – not all of them, but many of them. Add up all those n=1 experiments, and you can’t help but notice a pattern emerge.

There will never be enough clinical trials conducted to tell us everything we’d like to know about diet and health – especially since so many trials are funded and conducted by people who want to sell us something. That’s why we have to largely rely on the Wisdom of Crowds. That wisdom is based on experience, and that’s what anecdotes are: people’s experiences. What’s changed in the internet era is that we can share experiences with countless people all over the world.

I wouldn’t look at anecdotes about the effects of a diet and declare This Is The Way It Is, Period. But I’ll certainly look at them as evidence that a particular change in diet might work. And if it works, it works. I don’t especially care if The Anointed in academia agree.

Besides, wait another 20 years or so, and they’ll be saying they knew it all along.





The Anointed, The Experts, And Knowledge … Part Three

In the speech I recently gave at the Weston A. Price Foundation’s annual conference, I mentioned some ideas from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s excellent book Antifragile. The type of person Thomas Sowell calls The Anointed in his book The Vision of The Anointed, Taleb refers to as The Intellectual Yet Idiot. In Antifragile, Taleb explains why the IYI types create fragile systems — that is, systems that tend to break or completely blow up under pressure.

To quote from my speech:

Another reason the intellectual yet idiot types tend to create fragile systems, they place too much value on academic theories and not enough value on practical experience. And that’s because they think knowledge works like this: Ivy League researchers discover scientific principles, and then those principles are put into practical use. In other words, Harvard professors discover and publish the laws of aerodynamics, and then birds begin to fly.

But of course, that’s not what happens in the real world. In the real world, human beings learn WHAT works through experience. And eventually the university researchers come along and explain WHY it works. But we don’t have to know why something works to know that it works. Or as Taleb writes, theories come and go; experience stays.

In Antifragile, Taleb explains that the inventor of the jet engine, to name just one example, did not understand why it worked. But he knew that it worked. Many of the technologies we now take for granted were invented by people who could not explain (because they didn’t know) the physics or chemistry of why their inventions worked. But they worked. The inventors kept tinkering until they discovered what worked. In other words, they knew what worked through experience.

Earlier in the speech, I mentioned my high-school health teacher, who was also the wrestling coach. He told us if we wanted to lose weight, we should base our diets on meats, eggs and vegetables, stop drinking sodas, and stop eating foods like bread, cereal, pasta and french fries. How did he know this diet worked? Back to the speech:

He knew what worked from experience. Because part of his job was to help high school athletes get down to their competition weight, which he did.

I’m pretty sure the health teacher/wrestling coach didn’t spend a lot of time reading studies put out by the Harvard Nutrition Department. I never heard him explain that giving up sodas, bread, cereal, pasta, etc., induced weight loss by lowering insulin or altering the composition of the gut bacteria or whatever. I suspect he didn’t care all that much WHY the diet worked. He knew that it did. I also suspect if a PhD had waved a study in his face and told him academic research has concluded that the diet doesn’t actually work, the PhD would have learned about the effectiveness of a few wrestling moves the hard way.

It’s great to understand WHY something works. But as Taleb explains in Antifragile, it’s more important to know WHAT works – and we learn what works through experience. That’s what the Wisdom of Crowds is based on: experience.

As if he wanted to provide material for this post, a disciple of the Church of the Holy Plant-Based Diet tried to convince me today (on Twitter, naturally) that eating meat will ruin my health and shorten my lifespan. And of course, he kept linking to cherry-picked studies. Yeah, good luck with that. For one thing, the studies were the same old observational nonsense. But even if the studies were well designed, I frankly wouldn’t care.

Why not? Because I was a vegetarian for several years, and yet I somehow didn’t experience the magic benefits promised by the disciples of the Church of the Holy Plant-Based Diet. I gained weight and my health declined. When I switched to a low-carb diet heavy on meats and eggs, I lost weight and my health improved. That’s my experience.

Strangely, it doesn’t seem to matter to the disciples of the Church of the Holy Plant-Based Diet when I recount that experience. They just keep sending links to more cherry-picked studies. Apparently, they’re convinced I’ll finally read one of those studies and say to myself, Well shoot, I guess I was healthier when I was a vegetarian!

Newsflash: telling someone No, you didn’t experience what you think you experienced isn’t exactly a convincing argument.

Vegetarian zealots aren’t the only ones, of course. I’ve had similar go-rounds with the “it’s all about the calories” crowd. I’ve mentioned on the blog a few times that when I eat like a king but ditch the carbs, I don’t gain weight. Each year that I go on the low-carb cruise, I weigh myself before I leave. During the cruise, I eat big meals of eggs, bacon, sausage, chicken, steak, prime rib, lobster, shrimp, a cheese plate for dessert, etc. (I also eat green vegetables and drink red wine to keep my colors balanced.)

Each year, I weigh myself again when I get home. I’ve never gained a pound on the cruise.

To the “it’s all about the calories” crowd, this simply cannot have happened. They’ll send me links to studies. Look at this metabolic ward study! It clearly shows that people lose the same amount of weight when they restrict calories whether the diet is high carb or low carb! So it’s all about the calories!

Sure, I’ll read that study. I read a lot of studies. I have a database full of them. But for one thing, there’s a difference between not gaining weight and losing weight. For another, I’m not going to dismiss my own experience because someone sends me a study.

And yet, the “it’s all about the calories” crowd will insist I didn’t experience what I experienced. No, no, no, what happened, ya see, is that you were eating more protein and protein is satiating, so you felt like you were eating more, but you actually weren’t.

The only problem with that explanation is that I have a brain and it works pretty well. I’m quite capable of determining when I’m eating more than I do at home. When I have eggs and bacon and sausage for breakfast, a big plate of meats and greens for lunch, and a dinner that includes a shrimp cocktail, two lobster tails dipped in butter, a 12-ounce prime rib, and a cheese plate for dessert (washed down with two glasses of red wine), I am definitely consuming more calories than usual. And yet I don’t gain weight.

So why not? Truth is, I don’t know. In fact, I’ve asked both a doctor who recommends low-carb diets to patients and a PhD who’s published studies on low-carb diets. I got the same answer from both of them: We don’t know why some people can stuff themselves with meats and eggs without gaining weight, but we know it happens.

We can speculate, of course: not enough insulin to store the fat, extra protein raising thermogenesis, food passing through and not being absorbed, something to do with gut bacteria, or whatever. Again, it would be nice to know. But we’re back to what Taleb wrote. Humans learn what works through experience. Later, the university researchers come along and explain why it works. But we don’t have to know why something works to know that it works. Theories come and go, but experience stays.

That’s why I’m more likely to listen to doctors like Mike and Mary Dan Eades than to an academic researcher at Harvard. Sure, Drs. Eades and Eades read a lot of studies. They’re fluent in the science. But more importantly, they’ve treated thousands of patients and seen the results. If they tell me their patients lost weight more easily on a low-carb diet, that’s experience talking. I don’t particularly care if they can explain exactly why it happens.

Thomas Sowell made points similar to Taleb’s in his book Intellectuals and Society. The Anointed are mostly intellectuals who fall in love with exciting new theories. The difference between them and equally intelligent people who aren’t intellectuals is that the non-intellectuals are judged by results, not by the eloquence of their theories. If an engineer designs a bridge based on his own bold new theory and the bridge falls down, his career is over. If an intellectual proposes a bold new idea that dazzles other intellectuals but turns out to be completely wrong, he’ll probably just end up with a column in the New York Times.

Taleb echoes that idea in his most recent book Skin in the Game.  The Romans were such believers in having skin in the game, an engineer who designed a bridge was required to live beneath it for a time.  Having skin in the game — meaning failure affects you personally — will quickly convince you to care more about results than theories.

I’ve met people who tried and failed for years to lose weight on low-fat, low-calorie diets, then lost 100 pounds on a ketogenic diet without going hungry. I’ve met people who finally got over nagging health problems after switching to an all-meat diet. And yes, I’ve met people who didn’t do well on a ketogenic diet, but lost weight after going high-protein with a few starchy carbs added in.

None of these people discovered the correct diet by reading studies put out by Harvard or the American Heart Association.  They had skin in the game.  The results mattered to them personally.  So they tinkered. They tried different approaches. They learned what works through experience.  And having learned what works, they don’t care if some idiot on Twitter or some Intellectual Yet Idiot at Harvard tries to convince them it actually doesn’t work.

As I said in the speech, The Anointed seem to believe they’re going to regain control of the conversation about diet and health by producing more studies. The American Heart Association and other organizations populated by Intellectual Yet Idiot types will no doubt keep publishing studies telling us that saturated fat is bad, grains are good, etc., etc.

Their strategy is going to fail. Millions of us have learned what works and what doesn’t through experience. We’ve done nearly the opposite of what they recommend and lost weight, gained energy, waved goodbye to chronic ailments, and improved our health markers. That’s the experience.  And ultimately, that’s all that really matters.

Theories come and go, but experience stays.






Fat Head Kids … It’s Launch Day

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Boy, time flies.  When Gravitas told us back in June that Fat Head Kids would be released on December 4th, it sounded way off in the future.  Blink twice, and it’s launch day.

I’m hoping for a million units sold/downloaded in the first week, but perhaps that’s a bit optimistic.

The DVD/Blu-Ray listing on Amazon is here.

The film is available as a video-on-demand selection through these cable systems:

And through these services:

And through these online sites for stores:

The links in those graphics don’t go anywhere, of course, so here are some direct links:

Fat Head Kids on iTunes.

Fat Head Kids at Barnes & Noble.

Fat Head Kids at Walmart.

Fat Head Kids at Target.



The Anointed, The Experts, And Knowledge … Part Two

I’d planned to write a post on expertise and experience, but we’ll wait on that one. Someone left a comment on the previous post that deserves a post of its own: The death of expertise was brought to us by experts.

The author of The Death of Expertise wasn’t writing about nutrition policy, and like I said, the essay makes some good points. I get as frustrated as anyone when people who obviously don’t know diddly about a topic nonetheless have loud opinions.

But when it comes to diet and health, the death of expertise was brought to us by experts is spot-on. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote in his essay The Intellectual Yet Idiot, the “experts” have been so spectacularly wrong, people are entitled to rely on their own ancestral instincts or listen to their grandmothers, who have a better track record than “these policy-making goons.”

Let’s start with our pals at the USDA. As Denise Minger wrote in her excellent book Death By Food Pyramid, the people who eventually created the Dietary Guidelines not only ignored science, they ignored guidelines drafted by their own science advisor, a woman named Luise Light.  Her original guidelines actually made sense:

The guide kept sugar well below 10 percent of total calories and strictly limited refined carbohydrates, with white-flour products like crackers, bagels, and bread rolls shoved into the guide’s no-bueno zone alongside candy and junk food. And the kicker: grains were pruned down to a maximum of two to three servings per day, always in whole form.

As Minger recounts, when Light received the (ahem) edited version of her guidelines back from the USDA, they were a grain-promoting perversion of what she’d originally submitted. Horrified, Light explained that “no one needs that much bread and cereal in a day unless they are longshoremen or football players” and warned that the six-to-eleven servings of grain per day recommended by the USDA could spark epidemics of obesity and diabetes.

Epidemics of obesity and diabetes … hmmm.  Like she had a crystal ball.

Many of us have experienced not just weight loss, but big improvements in health after ditching the grains the USDA told us should be the base of our diets. Why on earth would we ever bow before their “expertise” after that?

Moving on to our pals at the American Heart Association … these people still tell us not to eat foods like cheese and butter, despite all the evidence that they’re flat-out wrong. Here’s just one example of that evidence: a study published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in which researchers directly measured biomarkers of dairy fat consumption – no guessing by using food-recall surveys.  The researchers knew who was consuming dairy fat and how much. Then they compared dairy-fat consumption to cardiovascular disease.

The result? We’ll quote from an article put out by the University of Texas:

The study … found no significant link between dairy fats and cause of death or, more specifically, heart disease and stroke – two of the country’s biggest killers often associated with a diet high in saturated fat. In fact, certain types of dairy fat may help guard against having a severe stroke, the researchers reported.

That study was reported in quite a few media outlets. There have been other studies like it, with similar results. It doesn’t take a degree in biochemistry to understand them. So how did the American Heart Association respond? Did they tell us they got it wrong and we can go back to eating butter now? Of course not. Their web site still instructs us to switch to “healthy” fats like … wait for it … CORN OIL!

Corn oil has been tested in clinical studies, for @#$% sake! Here’s a quote from a study conducted in the 1960s titled Corn Oil in Treatment of Ischaemic Heart Disease:

The patients receiving the key treatment (corn oil) fared worse than those in the other two groups: two years from the start of treatment infarction or death had occurred in one- quarter more of the corn-oil than of the control group… It is concluded that under the circumstances of this trial corn oil cannot be recommended as a treatment of ischaemic heart disease. It is most unlikely to be beneficial, and it is possibly harmful.

When actual clinical research tells me that corn oil isn’t beneficial and possibly harmful, I have every right to conclude that the “experts” telling me to switch from butter to corn oil are morons. I don’t care how many letters the experts can put after their names.

The American Heart Association tells us to switch to vegetable oils because they lower LDL. Back in 2010, I wrote a post showing that according to data I found on the AHA’s own web site, people with “high” LDL don’t have more heart attacks than people with “low” LDL.

The American Heart Association tells us to avoid animal fats because they raise cholesterol, and by gosh, everyone knows you have to lower your cholesterol to avoid a heart attack. Here’s the conclusion from a study titled Serum Cholesterol and Atherosclerosis in Man, in which researchers compared known cholesterol levels with plaque buildup in 200 bodies that were autopsied:

No correlation could be observed between the serum cholesterol level and the amount and severity of atherosclerosis in the arteries.

The kicker? That study was published in Circulation, which is published by … wait for it … The American Heart Association.

Last year, the American Heart Association came out with their Presidential Advisory Study, in which they bravely declared they’ve been right all along: yup, saturated fat will kill you. So why haven’t studies shown that people have fewer heart attacks when they cut back on saturated fats? Well, lead author Frank Sacks explained, that’s because when people cut back on saturated fats, they consumed more sugar.

Gee, I don’t how that could have happened.

Sacks was on the AHA’s dietary advisory committee when Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms were labeled as heart-healthy foods. I looked it up.

When “experts” put their seal of approval on boxes of sugar-covered grains, then later tell us giving up bacon and eggs didn’t reduce heart disease because people ate more sugar, we have every right to conclude that they’re morons.  Or as Curly Howard would put it, intelligent imbeciles.

We can say the same about the people who told us sugar doesn’t cause heart disease … especially when it turns out they were paid by the sugar industry. Yes, I’m talking about the geniuses at the Harvard Nutrition Department. As a reminder, here are some quotes from an article in The New York Times:

The internal sugar industry documents, recently discovered by a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, and published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, suggest that five decades of research into the role of nutrition and heart disease, including many of today’s dietary recommendations, may have been largely shaped by the sugar industry.

The documents show that a trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation, known today as the Sugar Association, paid three Harvard scientists the equivalent of about $50,000 in today’s dollars to publish a 1967 review of research on sugar, fat and heart disease. The studies used in the review were handpicked by the sugar group, and the article, which was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, minimized the link between sugar and heart health and cast aspersions on the role of saturated fat.

Moving on to the experts at the American Diabetes Association, here are some exact quotes I clipped from their dietary recommendations online back in 2011:

  • Your digestive system turns carbohydrates into sugar quickly and easily.
  • Carbohydrate is the food that most influences blood glucose levels.
  • The more carbs you eat, the higher your blood glucose goes.
  • The higher your blood glucose, the more insulin you need to move the sugar into your cells.
  • The Food Pyramid is an easy way to remember the healthiest way to eat.
  • At the bottom of the pyramid are bread, cereal, rice and pasta. These foods contain mostly carbohydrates.
  • You need six to eight servings of these foods per day.

Starchy foods raise your blood sugar, and the higher your blood sugar goes, the more insulin you need … so make sure you eat six to eight servings per day of bread, cereal, rice and pasta.  Do I even have to comment on the stupidity?

And of course, it’s recommendations from the AHA and ADA that prompted the expert dietitians who designed menus for hospitals to come up with “heart healthy” choices like these:

And finally, let’s move on to my buddy The Guy From CSPI.  He pushed anti-saturated-fat hysteria for years.  He demanded calorie counts on restaurant menus — a Grand Plan that required spending more of other people’s money.  There was no evidence that confronting restaurant patrons with calorie counts would change what they ordered.  In fact, studies have shown exactly what I predicted years ago: people order what they order, period, and calorie counts don’t make a difference.

Naturally, The Guy From CSPI had an explanation for why the Grand Plan failed:

Nutrition is not the top concern of low-income people, who are probably the least amenable to calorie labeling,” said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

In other words, the plan was good, but people didn’t follow it correctly because they’re stupid.  And of course, CSPI is still pushing for more calorie labels … on foods sold in grocery stores, movie theaters, convenience stores, vending machines, etc.

In other words, we need to do the same thing again, ONLY BIGGER.

But for a true sense of how wrong The Guy From CSPI has been, you can watch this:

I could go on and on with examples of how The Anointed have taken us down the wrong path on nutrition. Hell, I could write a decent-sized book and still not run out of examples.

As I mentioned in the previous post, members of The Anointed like Dr. David Katz have linked to The Death of Expertise as a reminder that we need to shut up and respect the experts. Sure, I respect genuine experts. I respect people who give advice based on logic and facts.  I respect people who give advice that works.

But the “experts” in nutrition have been so wrong, so often, they’ve lost any right to demand our respect. Instead, they have our contempt. And they’ve earned it.







The Anointed, The Experts, And Knowledge … Part One

Here’s a bit from the speech I recently gave on Diet, Health and the Wisdom of Crowds (2018 version):

Yes, The Anointed are hearing back from the rest of of us. Turns out they don’t like it very much. Because we’re not respecting the experts anymore.

As often happens when I write something longer than a post, I had additional thoughts that didn’t fit into the speech itself. Well, that’s why the blog exists. I can expand on topics I only touched upon briefly, such as how The Anointed are dealing with all this backtalk from those of us they consider unqualified to question their advice.

I’ve seen a couple of The Anointed insist the unwashed masses need to read an essay titled The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols.

You dare to disagree with me?! Are you an M.D.? Do you have a PhD? No? Then go read ‘The Death of Expertise’ to learn why you have no business questioning me. Then shut the hell up, plebeian!

Dr. David Katz (who has become my poster-boy for The Anointed) linked to The Death of Expertise in the essay he wrote complaining about all those darned bloggers and podcasters who are shouting into the “echo-chamber” of cyberspace and drowning out the voices of experts like himself.  (I wrote about Katz and his essay in this post.)

So I read The Death of Expertise. It’s well written and makes some excellent points. But it doesn’t make the point Katz believes it does. Katz read the essay and (surprise!) interpreted the takeaway message as Laymen need to shut up and listen to those of us with credentials. All hail The Anointed.

I read the essay and interpreted the takeaway message as People who don’t know what they’re talking about should listen to people who do. Uh, yeah, good idea.  Let’s look at quotes from the essay itself:

Today, any assertion of expertise produces an explosion of anger from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are nothing more than fallacious “appeals to authority,” sure signs of dreadful “elitism,” and an obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a “real” democracy.

Having equal rights does not mean having equal talents, equal abilities, or equal knowledge. It assuredly does not mean that “everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s.” And yet, this is now enshrined as the credo of a fair number of people despite being obvious nonsense.

Making the argument I’m right because I have a degree and you don’t is indeed a weak appeal to authority. A degree means you studied a subject in college, which of course counts for something. But so does knowledge gained outside college.  I’ve been hired to fix crappy software systems designed by people with degrees in computer science – and my degree is in journalism. I’ve never taken a formal class in programming.

But I agree with Nichols that everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s is obvious nonsense. I was hired to fix those systems because I had the knowledge. I didn’t acquire that knowledge in a classroom, but I certainly spent a lot of time and effort acquiring it. I’d feel just a wee bit insulted if my current boss decided anyone with an opinion about programming is qualified to replace me.

Back to the essay:

To reject the notion of expertise, and to replace it with a sanctimonious insistence that every person has a right to his or her own opinion, is silly.

I agree 100 percent. In fact, here’s one of my favorite quotes, which comes from economist Murray Rothbard:

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.

I developed an interest in economics after getting my butt kicked in a debate about economic issues with The Older Brother.  About three-quarters through the debate, a realization sunk in: Hmm, I seem to be arguing about a subject he’s studied and I haven’t.  Apparently I have a lot to learn. After picking myself up off the debate floor, I asked him for some book recommendations. I read all the ones he suggested and dozens more (including quite a few by Thomas Sowell, author of The Vision of the Anointed).

Since then, I’ve come across countless people who have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic matters while remaining in a state of ignorance. When I lived in L.A., I could throw a rock at random and hit someone with a loud and completely uninformed opinion on economic matters.

Here’s a more recent example: some months ago, I replied to a tweet expressing the opinion that healthcare would be inexpensive if only we’d get those damned insurance companies and their billions in profits out of the way. I stated the fact that the average profit on health insurance policies is about $12 per subscriber per month – which is a fact, as you’ll see.

My reply drew a loud and vociferous response from someone we’ll call Elle. According to her Twitter handle, Elle is a member of something called The Resistance … so of course I assumed when she wasn’t tweeting, she was risking her life strapping bombs to Nazi supply trains. Nope, turns out Elle is just resistant to facts, even when she supplies them.

Elle replied that my “fact” about those profits is BULL@#$%! because her insurance company made $15 billion in profits the previous quarter. She linked to an article to prove her point.

So I read the article … which stated, in clear and unambiguous English, that her insurance company had revenues of $15 billion the previous quarter. The article also stated, in clear and unambiguous English, that her insurance company made a profit of $1.6 billion the previous quarter and insured 46 million people.  It was all right there in black and white.

So I did the math for her: $1.6 billion / 46 million = $34.78 for the quarter. A quarter is three months, so that’s $11.59 per subscriber per month. A little under my figure of $12 per month.

Elle replied that 1) she’s right and I’m wrong, 2) I’m unbelievably @#$%ing stupid, 3) she’s right and I’m wrong, 4) I’m clearly a low-information voter, and 5) she’s right and I’m wrong.

Since Elle didn’t know the difference between revenues and profits and refused to believe simple math using figures from an article she herself provided, I assume low-information voter is a code term for the enemy taught in resistance school. She has since deleted her replies, probably because of operational security issues.

Anyway, encounters like that one underscore Nichols’ point: there are people who believe their opinions are just as relevant as everyone else’s, no matter what the facts say. I’m pretty sure we can thank modern college education for that.  You wouldn’t want to create an environment where students don’t feel safe by pointing out when they’re talking nonsense, doncha know.

Back to the essay:

The death of expertise is a rejection not only of knowledge, but of the ways in which we gain knowledge and learn about things. Fundamentally, it’s a rejection of science and rationality, which are the foundations of Western civilization itself.

Tackle a complex policy issue with a layman today, and you will get snippy and sophistic demands to show ever increasing amounts of “proof” or “evidence” for your case, even though the ordinary interlocutor in such debates isn’t really equipped to decide what constitutes “evidence” or to know it when it’s presented. The use of evidence is a specialized form of knowledge that takes a long time to learn.

I agree. Lots of goofballs online toss out “evidence” they clearly don’t understand. Elle certainly did exactly that.

I’ve lost count of how many vegetrollians have shown up at my door (so to speak) and yammered on and on about this-or-that observational study, cherry-picked by some High Priest of the Church of the Holy Plant-Based Diet.

Back when I bothered to debate them (before writing this post to avoid wasting my time), it became clear they didn’t know diddly about science. They didn’t understand the inherent problems with food-recall surveys, or the weaknesses of observational studies in general, or the problems with studies of self-selected groups. If I linked to a different study showing exactly the opposite result, the concept of refutation bounced off their heads like little rubber bullets.

In other words, they weren’t equipped to decide what constitutes evidence, exactly as Nichols wrote in the essay.

When I first began researching Fat Head, I was rusty on the subject myself. Not a good position to be in, considering all the contradictory studies out there. That’s why I read books on statistics and science and the scientific method. It’s why I made sure I understood the difference between observational vs. clinical studies, correlation vs. causation, absolute vs. relative risk, etc. (Later I took that knowledge and turned it into my Science For Smart People speech.)

So I agree with Nichols. It’s great to debate ideas. But you should make sure you know what you’re talking about first.

Back to the essay:

I like the democratization of knowledge and the wider circle of public participation. That greater participation, however, is endangered by the utterly illogical insistence that every opinion should have equal weight, because people like me, sooner or later, are forced to tune out people who insist that we’re all starting from intellectual scratch. (Spoiler: We’re not.)

Again, I agree. Not every opinion should have equal weight. Opinions backed up by logic,  evidence and experience should have more weight.

Personally, I don’t think technocrats and intellectuals should rule the world: we had quite enough of that in the late 20th century, thank you, and it should be clear now that intellectualism makes for lousy policy without some sort of political common sense. Indeed, in an ideal world, experts are the servants, not the masters, of a democracy.

Bingo. That’s my biggest beef with The Anointed: their belief that they have such superior ideas (often NOT backed up with evidence), they should be telling the rest of us what to do and how to live.

Towards the end of the essay, Nichols makes the case that the expert is more likely to be right than you are. But he adds this:

Experts come in many flavors. Education enables it, but practitioners in a field acquire expertise through experience; usually the combination of the two is the mark of a true expert in a field. But if you have neither education nor experience, you might want to consider exactly what it is you’re bringing to the argument.

Bingo again. I’m not opposed to experts. The people whose books and articles I read are experts. But experts come in many flavors. Experience matters, and it matters more than The Anointed think it does. (More on that in the next post). Education matters too … but education doesn’t have to come wrapped in sheepskin. You can become educated sitting in a classroom, but you can also become educated by reading books and articles, by listening to podcasts featuring experts in their fields, etc.

I can see why Katz was anxious to link to the essay. But he likes it because of how he’s interpreting it. He reads The Death of Expertise and believes it’s telling us there are only two options when it comes to seeking advice:

  • Experts with official credentials (like Katz himself, of course)
  • Lay people who don’t know what they’re talking about but are loud and opinionated

Well then, we must cease listening to anyone other than The Anointed, lest we be led astray by loud idiots. But that’s a false dichotomy. There are at least three options when seeking advice:

  • Experts with official credentials
  • Lay people who don’t know what they’re talking about but are loud and opinionated
  • Millions of people in the crowd who have acquired useful knowledge through independent study and/or experience.

As far as I’m concerned, The Death of Expertise doesn’t conflict at all with the Wisdom of Crowds concept. Here’s how I introduced the Wisdom of Crowds in my speech:

I’ve had people who never read the book say things like, “The wisdom of crowds, are you insane? Every moron in the world has an opinion and they’re all on Twitter.” But the Wisdom of Crowds does not mean taking advice from people who don’t know what they’re talking about. The Wisdom of Crowds simply means that knowledge is diffuse.

It means you can name almost any subject, and thousands if not millions of people out there in the crowd know something about it. And if they have a way of sharing and comparing what they know, they often come up with better answers than the supposed experts. Because little groups of experts, no matter how educated they are, almost never have as much combined knowledge as we find out there in the crowd.

We’re talking about actual knowledge here, not the loud opinions of uninformed people. The difference between The Anointed and the rest of us isn’t their superior expertise; it’s their belief that expertise comes wrapped in sheepskin.

Yes, it’s good to listen to experts. I do it all the time. But I define experts as people who can make convincing arguments based on facts and logic, and, more importantly, can demonstrate that their ideas actually work. More on that next time.




Diet, Health And The Wisdom of Crowds – 2018 Version

I’m back from Baltimore, where I delivered the keynote address at the Weston A. Price Foundation’s Wise Traditions 2018 Conference.  What a pleasure to give this speech to such a passionate and well-informed group of people. It was such fun, I considered giving the speech a belated birthday present to myself.

I’ve mentioned before that Murphy’s Law always seems to strike when I try to record myself speaking. If the speech goes well, the equipment malfunctions.  If the speech doesn’t go well, the recording is perfect.

The camera I positioned in the room shut itself off a few times.  Fortunately, the video crew streaming the event to WAP members noticed and turned it back on.  (Nice of them, since my camera wasn’t their responsibility.)  So you’ll see me fade in and out a few times.  No big deal, since the point of the presentation is the slides, not my face.  Luckily, the microphone connected to my iPhone didn’t malfunction, so the voice recording was good all the way through.

Anyway, here’s the speech.  I’ll write more about the conference later.

To our American friends, have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday.  To everyone else, enjoy your Thursday.