I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all. By this, I do not mean the death of actual expertise, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas. There will always be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other specialists in various fields. Rather, what I fear has died is any acknowledgement of expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live.This is a very bad thing. Yes, it’s true that experts can make mistakes, as disasters from thalidomide to the Challenger explosion tragically remind us. But mostly, experts have a pretty good batting average compared to laymen: doctors, whatever their errors, seem to do better with most illnesses than faith healers or your Aunt Ginny and her special chicken gut poultice. 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.
Worse, it’s dangerous.
Poor nature. It gets so abused. And I’m not even talking about the stuff we humans inflict on it with our cars, industries and nasty habits like smoking. I’m talking about all the bullshit claims people make in its name.
“Nature” is, of course, one of the big motivators for following the LCHF/Paleo diet, despite a fair bit of evidence suggesting that that is more of a paleo-fantasy (including recent findings of “stone age” tooth decay suggesting that hunter-gatherers weren’t very good at following the Paleo diet). But never mind that. Here’s a recent comment from Tim Noakes:
All creatures on this earth (including most humans) eat in response to biological signals that keep them healthy when eating the foods with which they co-evolved over millions of years. Provided humans are eating the foods with which they co-evolved, their brains should be able to tell them how much of the different foods they should eat. We do not need to tell a single animal in the Kruger National Part how much of which different foods each needs to eat. But put them in a zoo and feed them foods which differ by the tiniest amount from that with which they co-evolved, and they rapidly become ill as are most elephants in North American zoos suffering as they do now from obesity, heart disease and infertility. But this does not happen to anywhere near the same extent in the wild.
My opinion is that the same applies to humans – direct them to eat only healthy foods and let them decide how much of which different foods they need to eat.
I’ll be brief. There is a now-familiar narrative which blames the current obesity crisis on the introduction of dietary guidelines in the 1980s, and specifically with the “liphobia” (fear of fat) introduced by Ancel Keys in the 1970s. The story goes thus: government is led to believe that fat is the root of all
fire and brimstone disease, so they issue guidelines telling everyone to eat low- or no-fat foods. Everyone complies, and unknowingly stuffs themselves with sugar, with which all foods are secretly laced, because the government also subsidises the sugar industry.
Three or so decades later, an epidemic of obesity and diabetic children, all because of the sugar! (Or, as the Daily Mail calls it ‘The new tobacco. A ticking time-bomb. The hidden menace‘).
Perhaps it was a little unkind, given that this writer was sharing rather intimate details about her struggles with self-control around sugar and carbs, like the fact that at the height of her “using” (let’s use the right language now), she was scoffing not just any old ice cream, but some of the ‘Bon-Appetit top-10-rated best-in-the-nation ice cream‘, and that in the second round of “lapsing”, it was those ‘‘50s-style red and white mini-popcorn bags’ being fed from the ‘Satanic butter machine’, aka a popcorn maker at her place of work that got her. After days of resisting, she finally ‘broke down’ and
I grabbed one of those red and white paper bags and the commercial-grade scooper and joined the crowd. I ate one bag and stopped.
Of course the “story” here is that stopping (for her) is so unusual, because her “addicted” brain wanted to keep eating bag after bag after bag.
There’s been a good round of attention lately to various manifestations of bad science and hyperbolic (mis)representations of health claims (also don’t miss this excellent rant by a dietitian). Often the problem isn’t with the specific detail (however it may look to some people, the Philosophe actually isn’t out to “get” Professor Tim Noakes, nor does he have any reason to wish for the LCHF hypothesis to fail), but with the method of inquiry, and how people in positions of authority set poor examples of logical reasoning, and of how science works.
So we’ve just attended an event called “EthicsXchange“, billed as ‘a platform for some of South Africa’s leading opinion makers to challenge our thinking and behaviour when it comes to ethical decision making.’ It was an interesting morning, and some very good speakers (and of course some not so good). Some I’ve also heard before, notably Leonie Joubert, and Tim Noakes.
But I was disappointed by Joubert’s talk for two reasons: first, it was basically the same as her TedX talk, which while a nicely packaged talk (as TED’y type talks are meant to be), seriously oversimplifies the issues around the interactions between our bodies and the environments we live in. It’s simply not true, as she argues, that cities make us fat and sick. It is true that urban environments conduce to making us make poor choices when it comes to what to eat and how much to move (or not). But that’s of course a key problem with TED-y type talks, because delivering big ideas in under 20 minutes leaves no space for nuance or complexity.
She also told the audience that sugar is toxic and addictive, just like cocaine. Well, we’ve been down this road before. And that is also simply not true. The same bits in the brain light up when you eat as when you take cocaine? Yes, that’s because the same bits in the brain light up when we do something pleasurable, and guess what – eating is nice. Most people enjoy it. Nobody seeks out horrible food.
Imagine my surprise when, idly flipping through a local foodie mag, I got to this page:
Is that really an ad for KFC? Yes, indeed. Let’s take a closer look:
In August, Steven Pinker wrote an excellent piece on the place of science in the humanities. Leon Weseltier responded. Here is Dennet’s response (brilliant as usual):
Postmodernism, the school of “thought” that proclaimed “There are no truths, only interpretations” has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for “conversations” in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster. Wieseltier concedes the damage done to the humanities by postmodernism “and other unfortunate hermeneutical fashions of recent decades” but tries to pin this debacle on the “progressivism” the humanities was tempted to borrow from science. “The humanities do not progress linearly, additively, sequentially, like the sciences,” he avers, in the face of centuries of scholarship and criticism in the humanities that have corrected, enlarged, illuminated, and advanced the understanding of all its topics and texts. All that accumulated knowledge used to be regarded as the intellectual treasure we humanities professors were dedicated to transmitting to the next generation, and Pinker is encouraging us to return to that project, armed with some new intellectual tools—both thinking tools (theories and methods and models and the like) and data-manipulating tools (computers, optical character recognition, statistics, data banks). Wieseltier wants no part of this, but his alternative is surprisingly reminiscent of the just discredited fads; perhaps he has not completely purged his mind of the germs of postmodernism.
Pomposity can be amusing, but pomposity sitting like an oversized hat on top of fear is hilarious. Wieseltier is afraid that the humanities are being overrun by thinkers from outside, who dare to tackle their precious problems—or “problematics” to use the, um, technical term favored by many in the humanities. He is right to be afraid.
There’s a lot of noise, these days, about how food is killing us. Evil sugar is the overlord, but it has many minions in the form of pizza, and pasta, and bread (whither French culture!), and if we are to believe the noise, indulging in any of these is going to lead us to much nastier place than the world of Despicable Me.
The latest, a Guardian piece called “Fat Profits: how the food industry cashed in on obesity”, is a good reminder that articles that are very earnest, and very long (is it me or are things actually getting longer, as if we somehow have more time to read?) can also be nonsense.