Blinded by Science: Mat Lalonde Urges Paleo Bloggers to Look Through the Wrong End of the Microscope

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My attendance at the Ancestral Health Symposium was positive in a zillion ways. I spent most of the two days soaking up as much information as possible and agree with most of the sunny commentary that’s been coming out of the other attendees. I’ll probably write more about my experience (let me know if you have specific questions), but I couldn’t help but start with this post. It probably won’t come across this way, but Mat Lalonde’s talk was one of the best I saw. However, unlike the others, it also incited a visceral negative reaction that I couldn’t ignore.

Mat Lalonde is to message dissemination as the average paleo blogger is to chemistry.

At the beginning of his talk at the Ancestral Health Symposium, Dr. Lalonde showed a picture of the CCB building that houses the Pfizer Lecture Hall at Harvard. He then contextualized the talk as: what he’d say if he were presenting to his peers in this building. While such an exercise has merit, the larger context of the talk seemed odd.

Most Readers of Paleo Blogs Are Chemists?

The implication in Mat’s talk is that those disseminating information based on evolutionary frameworks can’t really say many of the things they say and have them pass muster with chemists. I’m not sure how many chemists frequent various paleo blogs, but I’d guesstimate it’s roughly in the range of “not even close enough to think for a fraction of a second to attempt writing at a PhD. in chemistry level.” This might not be an issue if writing to a general audience and writing to trained scientists wasn’t, in many ways, mutually exclusive.

“so as a chemist i read [a] blog and the immediate thing that comes to mind is that this person is an idiot and i will never come to this blog again. you’ve lost all credibility. this is why chemistry is important folks” -Mat Lalonde

I find this insinuation – that chemists (or any other scientists) are unable to distinguish between a blogger who’s writing for an unscientific public and one who’s writing with the intent of scientific accuracy – to be rather thin. A chemist incapable of recognizing the difference, or unwilling to understand the value of targeting messages accordingly, has just lost all credibility in message dissemination. This is why marketing is important folks.

*I grant that I have taken the above quote somewhat out of context. However, its original use was intended to illustrate the point that being scientifically inaccurate makes one an idiot in the eyes of a scientist, not strictly a commentary on the blog in question.

The stated theme of the talk was “teaching” members of the paleo community how to build and maintaining credibility. Again, such an exercise is commendable, but I find significant oddity in choosing to direct paleo civilians’ (bloggers, et cetera) credibility efforts at the world’s foremost “core” scientists. Credibility efforts will have more effect if focused on credibility relative to the public at large. To my mind, a talk about building credibility in the context of moving paleo forward would have been more effectively delivered by someone who’s spent significantly more time on the other side of the Charles River, at Harvard Business School. A “How to forward the message of paleo” talk would have more impact presented by Don Draper than Mr. Spock.

“[in a talk to core scientists] there are no shenanigans to be made. you can’t make any exaggerations… People who overstate their claims… are treated to a question and answer period that makes a CIA interrogation look like a teenybopper interview.” -Mat Lalonde, PhD.

Statements of this nature are perfectly logical, philosophically correct, scientifically accurate, and maybe even economically optimal – when interacting with Homo economicus. Unfortunately, Homo economicus is a myth. Actual humans in the wild seldom respond optimally to messages crafted for stringent accuracy and epistemological certitude. Individuals among Homo sapiens love shenanigans and exaggerations and overstated claims. Had Mat’s talk been delivered to my peers (from the marketing world), he would have been exposed to a Q&A trainwreck akin to Dr. Sheldon Cooper giving unsolicited improv tips to the cast of SNL. Dr. Lalonde is as far out of his depth when it comes to spreading messages to the public as the paleosphere’s practitioners and propagandists are when it comes to organic chemistry. And that’s all fine, but I think Mat’s message needs to be tempered, and his talk recontextualized.

Optimizing Focus

Developing a level of education necessary for optimal credibility is a worthwhile endeavor. Unfortunately, investment in education significantly suffers from the law of diminishing marginal utility. For advocates of any position, the optimal point on the education curve will be somewhere above the bulk of those they wish to spread their message to, and below that of the foremost experts in the field. Indeed, those with a general audience will attain an optimal level of education/understanding somewhere just above that of their desired demographic, and likely well below that of doctoral level experts. Writing and conversation should be directed to this audience for optimal effect. Education and writing above this level is non-optimal, and potentially detrimental to your message.

For the vast majority of paleo bloggers, practitioners, and adherents, discussions of paleo are intended to help regular people. Regular people aren’t scientists. Talking science to non-scientists may increase perceived authority, but it will also tend to alienate and confuse people.

I highly recommend watching Mat’s talk. It’s valuable from multiple angles of consideration, but there are two I’d like you to keep in mind as you watch: 1) Where does the bar of scientific rigor need to be to engage in credible conversations with people you’d like to converse with or persuade? 2) How much does the scientific minutiae detract from the message for you, and potentially those you’d like to engage with in turn?

Having said all of the above, I conceptually agree with Mat in (at least) one regard. It is important for some members of the paleo community to raise the bar. In terms of demographics, there is room for a subset of thinkers to advance scientific hypotheses and engage with the scientific community.

Specific Comments on the Evolutionary Framework

Dr. Lalonde accurately provides examples of invalid applications of an evolutionary biology framework in the talk. With so many voices, we have no practical way to empirically evaluate how often these statements are presented in an invalid way. Let’s just assume that it’s frequent enough to warrant some attention. Consider the following example Mat provides:

“we evolved over millions of years without consuming the foods that became readily available only after the advent of agriculture, hence we are not adapted to them.”

Indeed, this syllogism is incomplete to the point of being invalid. However, I can also imagine many conversations in which its brevity would deliver more impact than an a sentence sanctioned by Science™. Here’s the above statement unpacked into a little more scientifically correct construction:

Dietary constituents may exert selection pressure which, when significant, will subject advantageous traits to positive selection, and negative traits to negative selection, and may result in adaptation. Foods that did not become readily available for human consumption until the advent of cooking and/or agriculture have had relatively little evolutionary time to exert selective pressure on humans, and may not have exerted strong enough selection pressure to drive adaptation, and/or the requisite adaptations may not have arisen to be selected for, or may not have been selected for because of chance. Further, more recently introduced foods may have provided the paradoxical benefit of providing an important boost in calories that  increased the length of survival and overall reproduction rates in-turn, while simultaneously decreasing the objective health of individuals. Hence we are less likely to be adapted to such foods than foods consumed in greater quantities for longer periods of time across the span of hominin evolution.

The example Mat provides is invalid, but it’s a lot easier to fit on a T-shirt than my, somewhat more scientifically accurate, reconstruction.

I also find Dr. Lalonde’s dismissal of the evolutionary biology framework to be rather misleading. Consider the following:

“just because your hypothesis relies on “evolution” doesn’t make you any more right than anyone else”

This is statement is literally correct, but obfuscates the usefulness of the evolutionary framework in a way that inaccurately discounts its importance. In biological organisms which are subject to Darwinian evolution (all of them on planet earth), the probability of an evolutionary hypothesis being correct will increase relative to the known ecological constituents relevant to the species in question. The probability of a hypothesis being correct increases relative to the increase in knowledge from phylogeny, phylogenetics, biology, archaeology, ethology, biochemistry, ecology, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. While all strictly untested hypotheses may be philosophically equal, they are not necessarily equal in their probability of being “right.”

Mat makes another statement that is true while counterproductively discounting the evolutionary framework. In reference to applying the term anti-nutrient to all species equally with respect to individual substances:

“whether or not a substance is an anti-nutrient depends on the species ingesting the substance, because it depends on their digestion process.”

Absolutely true. However, in analyzing an organisms evolutionary pressures, we can begin to make probabilistic predictions as to their strategy as defense mechanisms. Organisms with predators of a certain type are more likely to have engaged in an evolutionary arms race to develop defense mechanisms targeted at said predators. Knowing something about the predators allows us to formulate hypotheses via probabilistic reasoning that are significantly more likely to be correct than chance. Phylogenic relatedness has direct bearing on our ability to predict the accuracy of such hypotheses. Indeed, this is implied in the above quote, but becomes lost when attempts are made to discount the value of evolutionary logic.

Rather than prove his point, Dr. Lalonde here demonstrates exactly what you lose when you discount the value of the evolutionary framework:

“if you look at things that athletes would be eating on a quote unquote paleo diet, you’ve got things like yams and cassava. and if you look at the antinutrient content, it’s the same order of magnitude… so if you’re going to tell someone, ‘hey, you should not eat grains and legumes because they contain anti-nutrients’ a biologist – a plant biologist – is just going to look at you and say, ‘wow, this guy’s a moron.’ this stuff is really important, and you’re going to loose credibility immediately if you make statements like that. so it’s not the way to sell it. you have to evaluate these things on a one on one basis.”

Yes, ignoring the evolutionary framework and focusing on the proximal anti-nutrient content will tend to lead you astray. However, applying the evolutionary framework to things like yams versus things like grains allows you to quickly make decisions that are more likely to be good decisions.

Takeaways

  1. Take Mat Lalonde’s advice if you’re trying to “sell” an idea to a scientist in a relevant field.
  2. If you’re trying to “sell” an idea to the vast majority of people, simple heuristics are what humans are adapted to. Strict logical validity bordering on scientism is an anti-nutrient that will prevent your message from being digested.
  3. Mat Lalonde is a tremendously valuable asset to the scientific understanding of nutrition and to the paleo community (even if he doesn’t consider himself part of it), and I love learning from him in his areas of expertise.
  4. The science needed to positively adjudicate every question on nutrition is simply not available. When confronted with the absence of data, the evolutionary framework of paleo has an above average probability of quickly approximating optimality.
  5. Scientists who discount that hypotheses are bolstered by evolutionary logic do so to their own disadvantage.

Addendum: A Less Right Hypothesis

“if your movement is going to move forward it will have to be taken seriously by core scientists, and if it is to be taken seriously by core scientists, then you should present it in these terms. the reason why this is also useful is that scientist love to be handed projects on a silver platter.”

The first premise is simply false. The “movement” can go a long way without being taken seriously by core scientists. It would probably be helpful if more core scientists were on-board. Adoption might happen faster if core scientists were on-board. Counterpoint: The issue of climate change is a great example of how leading with mountains of science and scientists doesn’t necessarily translate to moving forward.