In our previous episode, we looked at why The Anointed aren’t big fans of freedom of speech or of concepts like The Marketplace of Ideas or The Wisdom of Crowds. Two of their most dearly-held beliefs are:
1. They are very, very smart.
2. The rest of us aren’t very, very smart and are often quite stupid.
Consequently, The Anointed don’t view wide-open debate and discussion as opportunities for the best ideas to be discovered and bubble up to the top. They view them as opportunities for the great unwashed masses with their inferior intellects to be fooled and led astray.
Let’s look at a perfect example of what I’m talking about: a recent Huffington Post essay by Dr. David Katz, the guy who developed the NuVal system for ranking the healthiness of foods – a system recently dropped by some big grocery-store chains. Here are some quotes from Katz:
Misinformation is very much in season. Disclosures since the presidential election about massively disseminated misinformation, some of it inadvertent, some of it willfully manipulative, have come fast and furious. In fact, in the aftermath of the recent revelations about fake news, we are being invited to add “post-truth” to our lexicon.
So Dr. Katz is very upset about fake news. That’s pretty danged funny, considering he was caught writing reviews of his own novel under a fake name and comparing himself to John Milton and Charles Dickens. Apparently his definition of fake news is limited to “post-truth” he doesn’t like.
For the record, I think we can all agree we’d prefer not to be exposed to fake news. But of course, fake news isn’t new. In the years that I’ve been paying attention, “news” stories that turned out to be largely or completely fabricated have been printed or aired by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, CBS and NBC. The Washington Post even ran a piece recently titled Fake News? That’s A Very Old Story, which recounts how fake news has been around since the founding of the country.
But since the Katz essay is about health advice, I wondered why he opened with a complaint about fake news in the recent election cycle. Then it hit me: he’s trying to draw a parallel between health advice he doesn’t like and wacko stories claiming the Clintons were involved in child-sex rings. If one is bad, the other must be equally bad, ya see. Nice try, Doc.
I’ve written several posts and given a speech about how the internet enabled the Wisdom of Crowds to turn the tide against the arterycloggingsaturatedfat! and healthywholegrains! nonsense coming from the Axis of Incompetence: the USDA, the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association, etc. It’s a topic near and dear to my heart, partly because I remember the bad old days.
In the 1980s, I was a staff writer and editor for a small magazine called Family Safety & Health. Researching a health article was a process I called “round up the usual suspects.” Something about heart health? Get in touch with the American Heart Association. Diabetes? The American Diabetes Association is your go-to source. Cancer? Call the American Cancer Society. Anything else, start with government health agencies and go from there.
Information flowed from The Anointed at the top, through a handful of gatekeepers, then down to the rest of us. So I, like every other health writer in those days, wrote articles about the wonders of whole grains and the dangers of saturated fats and cholesterol. I didn’t know any better because I didn’t have access to contrary evidence and opinions. For The Anointed, those were the good old days.
Now the gatekeepers have been swept aside. I consider that a net positive. Dr. Katz, as a member of The Anointed, of course disagrees:
The social media that served as the currents in which false and misleading election-related news were swept far and wide pose three particular threats to health related information.
The first is that very problem, the unfettered promulgation of information that is just plain wrong. The second is that misinformation is far more pernicious than ignorance. Ignorance is that proverbial empty vessel; a knowledgeable health professional can fill it. But it’s hard to fill a cup that already runneth over- and that’s the scenario that misinformation creates.
And lastly, the third is the very problem we’ve had since the radio was first invented: static. At some level of background noise, the worthiest signal is indiscernible as such. Our ability to deliver a message, any message, depends now, as ever, on the signal to noise ratio.
Let me interpret that: @#$%!! All those @#$%ing bloggers and podcasters are somehow drawing big audiences and convincing millions of people that saturated fat isn’t bad and grains aren’t good! People no longer just accept what The Anointed tell them! This is very, very bad!
Cyberspace is the ultimate, ecumenical echo chamber. Everyone can shout into it, and every shout has the same chance to echo from the megaphones of the sympathetic.
Well, that’s true to an extent. Social media has created a vastly wider and more diverse Marketplace of Ideas. Are some of those ideas garbage? You bet. For all I know, there may be more lousy dietary advice pinging around cyberspace than good advice.
That’s not the point. The point is that good advice – advice that actually works — is now accessible to people who never would have seen it in the pre-internet days. That’s where The Anointed and fans of the Marketplace of Ideas disagree. The Anointed believe if everyone can shout into an echo chamber, everyone will have equal influence. That’s nonsense. It’s like believing everyone who produces a product will have an equal share of the market. Despite what The Anointed think, people aren’t stupid. They gravitate to the products and the advice that prove beneficial.
You may recall the story of my co-worker whose wife suffered from migraines for years. Doctor after doctor failed to prescribe the magic-pill cure. But then a friend-of-a-friend suggested she try giving up grains – because he’d read on the internet that grains can trigger migraines. So she tried giving up grains and voila! – no more migraines. She found relief because of knowledge shared on the internet.
Now, given what the internet is, I suppose someone else might have suggested she rub her eyeballs with orange caterpillars. That would have been junk advice. But here’s the thing: she would have recognized it as junk advice based on the results. That is, after all, largely what the Wisdom of Crowds is about: knowledge gained from experience and then shared with that big ol’ crowd.
The Anointed, by contrast, put far more faith in little groups of experts – with expertise defined by them, of course, and largely consisting of earning degrees by attending classes taught by other members of The Anointed. This is nothing new, by the way. Eric Hoffer, author of the terrific book The True Believer, wrote this in the 1950s:
The explosive component in the contemporary scene is not the clamor of the masses but the self-righteous claims of a multitude of graduates from schools and universities. This army of scribes is clamoring for a society in which planning, regulation, and supervision are paramount and the prerogative of the educated.
Back to Katz on people shouting into that darned echo chamber:
This is an enemy not only to medicine, but to everything in any way related to science, for science demands the filter of genuine understanding, actual expertise, and evidence.
Once again, that’s pretty danged funny, considering it’s coming from a guy whose NuVal system ranks sugar-laden chocolate soy milk as a far healthier option than a turkey breast. I’d like to see the evidence supporting that ranking. Unfortunately, NuVal refuses to explain its scoring system because the information is “proprietary.” In other words, we just made this @#$% up because it’s what we believe.
Having defined the problem – too darned many voices yelling health advice into that social-media echo chamber – Katz then lays out his solution:
In my particular purview- lifestyle medicine- I have felt compelled to develop a new method to confront this New Age challenge. If the noise is irrevocably greater than ever before, so, too, must be the signal. The True Health Initiative pools the voices, currently, of well over 300 leading experts from over 30 countries to make the case that we are not clueless about the basic care and feeding of Homo sapiens; that the fundamentals of a health-promoting diet and lifestyle are the stuff of decisive evidence, and global consensus.
Sorry, Doc, but I’m going to have to disagree. When you tell people eggs will kill them and sugar-laden soy milk is a healthier option than a turkey breast, I’m pretty sure you are clueless about the basic care and feeding of Homo sapiens – none of whom enjoyed a nice, sweet glass of chocolate-flavored Silk Soy Milk until modern industry made such garbage possible.
I looked up the members of those (ahem) “experts” Katz is putting together to combat the social-media echo chamber. I didn’t recognize most of them, but here are some we all know:
Keith Thomas Ayoob … whom I’ve referred to as “Ayoob the Boob” because he thinks the saturated fat in coconut oil will kill people.
Dr. Neil Barnard … yup, the vegan nut-job whose group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine puts up billboards warning people that consuming animal products will kill them.
T. Colin Campbell … author of The China Study, which attempted to prove (through cherry-picked associations) that eating meat is the main driver of disease.
You get the idea. Katz is assembling a team of the same old anti-fat, anti-cholesterol, anti-meat goofs who have been part of the problem for decades. Talk about an echo chamber.
To his credit, Katz is at least trying to combat what he considers bad information with what he considers good information. The members of The True Health Initiative will be shouting into the very echo chamber Katz dislikes. Since I believe the Marketplace of Ideas works, I predict the market won’t be kind to them. No amount of shouting from the usual suspects will convince people who’ve seen their health improve after going low-carb, gluten-free or paleo to take a giant step backwards.
Other members of The Anointed aren’t satisfied with shouting into the echo chamber. They’d rather prevent people who disagree with them from shouting in the first place … or writing, or tweeting, or whatever. We’ll pick up that subject in the next post.
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