I have to thank the Philosophe for the title of this post, although given that it was inspired by the following tweet, I’d like to think that I, too, would have been clever enough to come up with it (I just needed time!):
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‘).
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.
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:
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)