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.





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38 thoughts on “The Anointed, The Experts, And Knowledge … Part Three

  1. Desmond

    If you have never heard of “biomimicry” before, you may want to look it up. In short, it is the practice of looking to nature’s solutions to solve human design problems. A wealth of examples of what actually works… and no patents! Millions of years of practical experience.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      As Taleb points out, Nature has run billions of experiments and is ruthless in selecting what works.

      1. Tom Welsh

        One of my all-time favourite quotations is something said by an engineer in Frank Herbert’s wonderful hard SF novel, “Destination: Void”.

        “Negative feedback is the most terrifying perfectionist in the universe”.

        Having thought that over quite a lot, I think it helps to explain why biological systems work so incredibly well, and how they manage to be so immensely complex without (usually) going wrong. To my mind, it’s actually a powerful argument in favour of Darwinian evolution as opposed to any kind of design.

        I think there are several dozen interlocking chemical systems that control blood clotting, and make sure it happens properly when appropriate and – just as important – not when inappropriate. The internal biochemistry of a single cell, or even a cell nucleus or mitochondrion, is awe-inspiring. So is the way the hundreds of specialized regions of the brain interoperate and cooperate – not just through neurons and synapses, but in response to continually changing flows of chemical neurotransmitters and hormones.

        Yet it’s even more astounding to notice how many of those chemicals and mechanisms play lots of different roles in different situations. Everything seems to be reused to the maximum possible extent, like an immense N-dimensional jigsaw. Software developers should ever be able to have such total mastery of all their components!

        That’s why I can’t imagine such a system having been designed by any agency whatsoever. It seems intuitively obvious that only negative feedback operating over millions of generations could accomplish such stunning complexity that works almost perfectly almost all the time.

        And, of course, as you say – it’s a good thing we and our ancestors were able to live before anyone had any inkling of how our bodies work.

        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          Nature runs endless experiments, and what doesn’t work quickly disappears. That’s why Taleb writes that what Nature does is rigorous until proven otherwise, while what humans do is flawed until proven otherwise.

          1. Walter

            Actually nature frequently reaches sub optimal solutions. She specializes in “good enough” solutions, which may persist for evolutionary long term, because the niche the organism is in cannot be approached well enough to overcome the home teams advantage or just the right genes just don’t happen.

            Accidents and drifts play a major part. Humans were down at one point to 1000 breading pairs and our ancestors might have just died out.

            OTOH, people were speaking English for centuries before grammarians determined that English must follow Latin sintax rules.

      2. JillOz

        I defy you to explain to me why an inflamed sinus and chest that generates mucus that chokes a person is a good idea.

        That aside, don’t forget Tom that those who spout theories and such usually earn their living by being talkers and theorists. They don’t have to prove results, they have careers as academics,dinner speakers and opinionators.

        Other types of course may base their professional conduct on experience but if it goes against the conventions of similar practitioners may pay a heavy price for their non-conformity eg Dr Semmelweiss.

  2. Selma

    Slightly off topic, but similar:
    …and therefore, I have a hard time believing that using freeze dried pig’s thyroid pressed to tablets will harm me more than using a synthetic copy of the same hormone (just “slightly” altered so that Big Pharma can get a patent) … even if the hormone ratio from a pig is slightly different from human’s.

    I believe billions of years adapting to this hormone’s exact chemical structure trumps the ratio problem – I believe the body have a handling system in place for that to. Now – compare that to the physical burden of handling an unknown chemical structure … delivered at a totally different ratio from any normal production in a healthy body?
    Add to that personal experience from both …

    But the wisdom of the Anointed is not budged neither by pesky reasoning or experience.

  3. Firebird7478

    This reminds me of the recent article about “Fake Diets” that took a severe poke at Mikhaila Peterson and the success she has had with an all beef diet. I commented on why anyone should care what she is eating as long as it is working for her. I received a reply that suggested she was lecturing people on how to eat and this was dangerous because she was no expert and that the diet itself is dangerous. The thing is…she’s not lecturing anyone, anymore than you do here in your blogs. All she does, as do you, is share your experience and how it worked for you. You don’t tell anyone to “do this” or “do that”. You put the information out there, as she does, and lets the reader do the further research. If that includes trying the diet, then that is their right.

    I finished off my little diatribe by reminding this person that the “authorities” that are criticizing Peterson are the same ones that have been dictating to society for the past 40 years how we should eat and have done more harm than anything Mikhaila Peterson has ever said.

        1. chris c

          And currently Malcolm Kendrick has been deleted from Wikipedia

          I expect meat to be taxed, and later banned altogether. The results on human health and the environment will NOT be what you read in the Guardian, which will be denied until it is too late to go back. Well God told Ellen G White, and there’s an end to it. We don’ need no steenking experience.

          My experience is much the same, I ate an Ornish-style high carb low fat grain based vegan diet back in the early seventies, passed my first gallstone and had my first attack of gout BUT THAT CAN’T BE TRUE!!! I only didn’t get fat because I don’t produce enough insulin, it took a dietician to make me gain weight. Now I eat the exact opposite of what I was told and even my doctor has come around to noticing I’ve never been healthier. N=millions by now.

          There’s never been a wider gulf between the outpourings of The Anointed and reality. They are currently doubling down on stupid.

            1. Walter

              Anyone who has played Backgammon knows what doubling down consistently does. Eventually you can accept the double, because you can’t cover.

              One can hope.

            2. chris c

              And as if by magic I read someone on Twitter claiming that “now we are no longer malnourished” we are achieving the size we were meant to have.

              I though at first I was having a nightmare but I think it actually happened. Utter bollocks, we are overfed but still malnourished. When we eat to become properly nourished we no longer overfeed. Just like we used to do until the DGA was invented and spread around the world. When I was young the few obese kids had it blamed on “glands”, now we are told that hormones aren’t actually involved at all, just “calories”.

        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          Heh-heh … well, he quoted a bunch of studies, so that clearly matters more than experience.

  4. Annlee

    From a discussion of military strategy/tactics around Pearl Harbor (appropriate today, 7 Dec):

    The Pearl Harbor raid, then, is a parable about the hazards of reading bits and pieces from works of military history or theory, or cherry-picking the bits that seem to ratify preconceived ideas or preferences.

    One could say the same about nutrition and biology as a whole.

  5. Bonnie

    You had a smarter wrestling coach than than we had at our local high school. Back around 2005 or so I asked a wrestler to stop spitting in the drinking fountain. He told me the wrestling coach had told them to spit to lose weight.

  6. Marcus L.

    As a high school social studies who has been in the classroom for 22 years I’ve been assailed with hundreds of articles professing to know exactly how to get students to learn in better and more efficient ways. Roughly 95% of them (in my opinion) have been nothing more than ways for “experts” to publish a book and gets hundreds of school administrators to buy them for their professional workshop days. The theories espoused in these books and articles are simply out of touch with what really happens in the classroom.
    What I do is nothing more than rely on my many years of experience to teach based on what I think are best practices. The best part? I get results. My students have the lowest failure rates in the school while parents rave how excited their kids are to be in my class (all ego aside, it wasn’t like this those first few years).
    I followed the USDA food pyramid for years like so many others and watched my weight balloon (albeit slowly) upwards of 100 pounds from when I started teaching through last year. Your documentary and blog flipped the switch for me, and this blog post has really hit the nail on the head with not just the health problems plaguing our country, but other big picture issues as well.
    Keep on keepin’ on Tom, your work is greatly appreciated.

  7. Geoff

    Reminds me of a physical I went too. All my biometrics came back perfect. As the doctor looked through the results he asked if I was vegetarian. I laughed and said I was quite the opposite. He looked at me with a puzzled look, shrugged, and said well if that is what works for you. Can’t really argue when the numbers are where they think they should be.

  8. Mike

    “I also eat green vegetables and drink red wine to keep my colors balanced.”

    Okay, I actually LOL’ed at that one. Apparently we are on the same nutrition program. Works for me!

  9. The Older Brother

    One of my favorite Taleb characters – can’t remember which book, I think maybe he appeared in a couple – is one of his buddies from his trading days. The guy specialized in trading the Green Lumber market. He’d be long Green Lumber, short Green Lumber, write naked calls on Green Lumber, buy puts on Green Lumber, etc, etc. based on what he thought the Green Lumber market was going to do.

    Mega-successful. Crushed the market for years as a Green Lumber expert.

    Turned out, when someone asked him what Green Lumber was, the guy thought it was wood that for some reason was painted green. They had to tell him that “green” meant it was freshly milled.

    Point was, as much as people would assume that being a monster trader in Green Lumber would require you to know what the hell Green Lumber was, it wasn’t actually relevant information.

    Likewise with a lot of the info/data that “experts” are always throwing around. It may be correct & precise, but has no actual value.


  10. Andy Barge

    Regarding your issues with the Vegan Disciples, I had the same issue. I was Vegan for a year and my health plummeted an when I returned to meat and eggs etc- my health came back with aplomb so my “experience” showed me that it worked for me. However, when I explained this to Vegans I get told I wasn’t “Vegan/strict/dedicated enough”

  11. Paul Abrinko

    This is an article that I received just today from Physician’s First Watch. Laugh out loud funny, but also sad at the same time.
    Higher Risk Thresholds May Be Needed for Starting Statins for Primary CVD Prevention, Study Suggests
    By Kelly Young
    The guideline-recommended risk thresholds for initiating statins for primary prevention of cardiovascular disease may be too low, a modeling study in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggests.
    Researchers performed a network meta-analysis of studies comparing four low- or moderate-dose statins with no statins in patients aged 40 to 75 with no CVD history. They balanced statins’ potential benefit of CVD event prevention with potential harms, like myopathy, hepatic or renal dysfunction, cataracts, hemorrhagic stroke, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
    Most current guidelines recommend statin initiation when a person’s 10-year CVD risk is 7.5%–10%. In this study, the benefits only began to outweigh the risks when CVD risk was 14% for men aged 40 to 49. For men 70 to 75 years, the threshold was 21%. For women, thresholds ranged from 17% to 22%.
    The authors conclude: “Our results suggest that guidelines should use higher 10-year risk thresholds when recommending statins for primary prevention of CVD and should consider different recommendations based on sex, age group, and statin type.”
    Of note, guidelines released last month by the American College of Cardiology and American Heart Association consider a 10-year risk score of 7.5%–19.9% to denote “intermediate risk.”
    Why We Chose This as Our Top Story:
    William E. Chavey, MD, MS: Guidance on appropriate use of statins for primary prevention of cardiovascular disease has become increasingly confusing. This study suggests that we are overtreating. While provocative, it is important to realize that this is a modeling study and not a clinical trial. This is an area that merits thoughtful discussion with our patients.
    André Sofair, MD, MPH: In my conversations with patients, I see many who are reluctant to take statins for primary prevention. I think that these data, if validated and incorporated into guidelines, will make these types of discussions between clinicians and patients much easier.

  12. Bengt S

    Re. eating more: I know that whenever I eat more than usual, my body temp goes up. In extreme cases almost like a fever. I believe that’s at least part of my body’s weight control.

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