It’s the nature, stupid!

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.

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Surprise: people don’t eat what they’re told!

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‘).

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Cigarettes and chocolate

Yesterday, I tweeted the following:food addict cnn

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.

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When an n=1 can actually teach us something

downloadThere’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.

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This is what a cherry looks like

You’d be forgiven for thinking that I have some kind of chip on my shoulder about Professor Tim Noakes. Well I don’t. But I do have a problem with his method of cherry-picking data to suit his purposes. Let me clarify: yesterday one of his Twitter followers linked to a public lecture given by Noakes, with the comment that ‘watching this lecture … could be the single best thing you do this year for your health.’

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Don’t look now: ugly food!

OK, that was a ruse. I will not show you pictures of ugly food, but if you’d like to see some, you can head on over to the Daily Mail, who today are featuring this ridiculous piece:

Just take a moment to read paragraphs two and three of this “story” again, and behold a wonderful example of non-evidence-based argumentation. I’ll summarise:

Fact 1: Nigella tweets some pictures of ugly food/ugly pictures of food

Fact 2: More than 250,000 followers regularly “gobble” up her recipe posts, including these pictures of ugly food/ugly pictures of food.

Conclusion: She could be in danger of losing followers.

What’s missing here? What sort of thing might indicate that there is an actual danger of her losing followers, and that this might be in any way related to ugly pictures of food/pictures of ugly food?

…???

Yes, maybe some facts and figures about how she actually is losing followers would do it.

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Health: it’s not a popularity game

Yesterday morning I attended a great panel discussion at Cape Town’s Open Book Festival. The topic was “Science: Separating Fact From Fiction,” and it was billed as a conversation between James Gleick (who kindly signed a copy of his book for me and thinks I have a cool name), Kathryn Schulz, Leonie Joubert and Guy Midgley about ‘whether science is failing us or we are failing science’. It was indeed a conversation between those four people, but they spoke more about belief: how and why we believe the things we do (do you “believe” in the Higgs boson particle?), and what scientists and journalists play – or should play – in “democratizing” science (there was some discomfort with the word democratizing: I think “popularize”, or “make understandable to non-scientists” was the gist).

There was some good banter and a general acknowledgement of the importance of promoting scientific literacy in the public at large, which each of these speaker-writers do in their own way (and of course Ben Goldacre got many a shout-out for being one of the main shouters – LITERALLY – in this game. If you are one of the remaining 5 people who have not read and tweeted about the extract from his new book, Bad Pharma, out TODAY, go do so immediately. And the foreword is here).

Leonie Joubert brought up Tim Noakes and his recent conversion (yes, I think the religious allusion is appropriate) as an example of a problem when it comes to the public understanding of science, because it is largely based on a sample of one, and most people do not understand that the plural of anecdote is not data (yes, even science has tired cliches). Of course Noakes would beg to differ, as he did on Twitter in response to someone live tweeting Joubert’s remarks:

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On food porn and pseudoscience

Here’s Steven Poole’s response to the inevitable “food porn” talk that Nigella’s caramel-covered face generated in December last year:

‘The fact that food-talk slips so easily these days into sex-talk might be interpreted as part of the more generalised pornification of everything; but I think it represents a different trend: the foodification of everything. Food is the vehicle through which we are now invited to take not only our erotic thrills but also our spiritual nourishment (count the number of cookbook “bibles” and purple paeans to the personal-growth aspects of stuffing yourself in memoirs such as Eat, Pray, Love), and even our education in history (the fad for food “archaeology”, cooking peculiar dishes from centuries-old recipes) or science (which Jamie Oliver says pupils can learn about through enforced cooking lessons). Food is now the grease-smeared lens through which we want to view the world. It’s an infantile ambition. A baby learns about the environment by putting things in its mouth. Are we all babies now?’

He concludes by asking ‘What if we began to care a little more about what we put into our minds than what we put into our mouths?’

Good question. And speaking of which, here is Poole more recently in the New Statesman withYour brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks’:

‘An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

… Happily, a new branch of the neuroscienceexplains everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. Thus, “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a long line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”. There is “neurotheology”, “neuromagic” (according to Sleights of Mind, an amusing book about how conjurors exploit perceptual bias) and even “neuromarketing”. Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.’

It’s a good rant. I’ll look forward to reading his forthcoming You Aren’t What You Eat.

 

The Olympic Year of Bad Science and Worst Practice

I was recently led to this piece in the Columbia Journalism Review via Twitter, where it was retweeted by @ProfTimNoakes. Tim Noakes, for those of you who may not have heard of him, is a South African sport scientist who used to be the guru of “carbo-loading” for major sports events like marathon-running, as chronicled in his once-iconic book, The Lore of Running. This year he caused a bit of a stir when he turned that lore on its head and declared that everything he had said about carbo-loading was false. Instead, he became the latest advocate for a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet, which also means he became the latest poster-child for the deceased Robert Atkins and the very-alive-and-kicking Gary Taubes. (Read the Philosophe’s take on Noakes here)

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