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.
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?
[vimeo http://vimeo.com/27570335 w=640&h=360]
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.
- Take Mat Lalonde’s advice if you’re trying to “sell” an idea to a scientist in a relevant field.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Environmentalism HAS been a successful movement. It is one of the core ideologies of the Left. It has literally cost our economy trillions and impeded technology in ways that we can't even measure. The fact that there has been resistance to the Environmentalist movement does not mean that it has not been enormously influential. It is MOTHER"S MILK in modern society. It is this generation's Communism (ie the "watermelon movement").
Lastly, your statement seems to imply that there is legitimate science behind AGW. That claim is *extremely* dubious. I liken AGW with the Lipid Hypothesis. Select facts taken out of context to create a bogus paradigm. One demonizes saturated fat, the other demonizes carbon emissions. Both are bullshit.
Within the context of Mat’s talk (and as quoted), being “taken seriously by core scientists” is all that’s necessary. Climate change is taken seriously by core scientists, and therefore meets the qualifications. Note: this doesn’t imply that “all scientists agree”, simply that it’s taken seriously by a significant number.
I’m not sure a discussion of climate science will be super-productive here, as the facts are irrelevant one way or the other with respect to the original post.
If environmentalism has cost our economy trillions, unconstrained industrialism would have cost immeasurably more had the few constraints imposed by environmentalism been removed. The only difference would be who would pay–it would be our children, their grandchildren, and so on. If leaving them some pristine wilderness is costly, I'm willing to pay. If leaving them with fresh water and clean air is expensive, so be it.
In fact we MUST pay. I won't debate you on carbon emissions translating to warming, because I'm not sure I believe it myself. But there's no question carbon emissions, e.g. from coal, are harmful–we know coal emissions lead to acid rain, to increased mercury in watersheds, and there's no question that these pollutants are extremely harmful.
Coming from a post-communist country, I agree. During the communists rule, there was no environmentalism to speak of, and after 20 years, we are still recovering from the industrialism.
Trying to change the minds of university health scientists is a lost cause.
My experience reading research papers over the past decade has convinced me of this. Most university health scientists learn the science they believe in graduate school. Then they spend the rest of their career defending what they learned many years ago. They ignore any contradictory evidence.
For any health movement to go forward, it has to go around the roadblocks put up by university professors.
Scientific knowledge progresses, one funeral at a time.
While we all like to think that scientist's opinions are governed by logic and reason, often they have strong emotional attachments to the paradigm they've been brought up in.
That's why it typically takes a generation or more for a new paradigm to take hold, because it takes a while for the older scientists to die off and the younger ones to take up the positions of power.
Excellent epistemology on the pragmatics of science translation. Chris Masterjohn made the same point in a post-AHS11 write up last week that in the face of uncertainty or lack of evidence, the evolutionary framework is a better (likely more accurate) premise from which to act than other theoretical (or atheoretical) frameworks.
My take on Mat – those of us engaged in trying to interpret 'science' (often non-evolutionary) through an evolutionary lens and translate into smething meaningful to the general public, need to be mindful of our own biases, not be over-zealous in our interpretations of areas where scant hard data exist, and question ourselves more than we perhaps currently do… least we become vegetarian evangelists with bones through our mouths. But yeah, what you said when it comes to likely erring on the side of Darwinism in the absence of organic chemistry.
I saw "The Kraken"'s talk video when it became available and had many of the same thoughts. In the end my take was that it's still a message that needs to be told, and heard. We do fall for our own biases, when we spread the word, we tend to pontificate, and over-simplify, no doubt. Occasionally someone calls our BS and largely unproductive debates ensue, not unlike politics.
But I won't deny I almost laughed when seeing Mr. Lalonde's put on his maximum gravitas to assertions such that "core scientists" will laugh us out of the room if we say the things we say to them. As if they couldn't also be the rightful target of scorn themselves. As if there were no examples of them suffering from the Streetlight Effect http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streetlight_effect and over and over re-interpreting their observations and lab results to better fit their pre-conceived mental models.
The scientific method is the best thing we have to get to "the truth" (if there is one), and it's still too far from perfect. While not a scientist myself, I did study "food science" back in the 80's, and am married to a PhD, and know many others, enough to be sure of myself when I say they're as full of sh*t as any other moderately educated person. "Core scientist" deserve respect, but they're far from deserving blind faith.
People pick up dots at different times and in different ways. You never know what the catalyst will be for the dots getting connected. In that sense, I agree being pedantic doesn't always get very far.
Nutritional science certainly has a long ways to go. However, where ever the scientific discoveries lead, it will still be constrained by the tools of science, a significant one being mathematics. One doesn't have to know all the gory scientific details, but if one has some good mathematics training, it becomes easier to filter out the noise.
I'm in the process of getting a PhD. I'm doing Scientific Computing with a focus is in statistics. I see people using statistics poorly on a daily basis. There are multiple reasons for this. Sometimes it's ignorance. Other times it is that that's the best method known. Still other times the best way to do an analysis is too hard. I don't take it personally.
Mat has a chemists view of science. I used to be married to one and have other's in my family. They have a jaded view of science. While a chemist may not be happy with an R^2 of .75. A statistician would be perfectly happy as long as the p-value indicated that this was significantly not 0. After all an agent responsible for 75% of the variance in obesity(for example), would be nice to know. One could argue that Matt needs to know evolutionary Biology much better.
Everyone has their specialty and not everyone needs to know chemistry. I would rather my personal trainer was Martin Berkham than Matt LaLonde. Pushing ones view of science in every other direction is similar to what Matt Lalonde accuses others of doing.
Nice job Perseus.
Excellent post. Mat makes some good points about not hanging our hats on evolutionary context (and whitewashing some of the relevant biochemical details), but at the end of the day, most of us are simply trying to share what we have learned with people whose lives we'd like to improve, and that is very difficult to achieve if our recommendations include more asterisks than general assertions. We perpetually walk that fine line of consciously generalizing concepts for public consumption without overreaching with statements that are actually technically untrue (even if they might facilitate compliance and practical application for Real People). That being said, we'd rather err on the side of overstated-but-useful recommendations than technically correct, confusing "scientific" recommendations. Like you say, having a "scientific" discourse about many of these minutiae is silly – because the data does not (yet) exist. Until it does, we'll go on helping people in the best ways we can – even if that means generalizing statements until the data proves us unequivocally wrong. Thanks for a great post (and for squashing the partisan comments about global warming).
Excellent write up on LaLonde’s talk. I agree with you.
Now, on to something related to AHS but off topic. I’m not sure if anyone else caught this at AHS, but I know what you were trying to do there. You were trying to push the concept of Ancestral Clothing. Diet, fitness and no shoes are not enough. And we certainly don’t really know what Paleo people wore, so we should look to our more recent ancestors for dress. Well done Andrew. Since my heritage is Scottish as well as Irish, I’m now wearing kilts with my Vibrams. I expect huge improvements in my health.
Kilt + Vibrams is a pretty good strategy for trails with moderate amounts of water. I haven't played around with water above knee level. I'm curious to test out the kilt in crossing/submersion scenarios, but am a bit skeptical about the ability for that much wool to dry in less than a week.
Fantastic thoughts. The core Paleo scientists most certainly have a responsibility to practice good science, especially when presenting to a scientific community (in particular, Pedro Bastos seems to be a very responsible researcher in this regard).
In terms of your average Paleo blog, while the percentage of scientists reading it for advice is probably close to 0, there are several nurses, doctors, dietitians, and other healthcare professionals reading. They may not be as intimately involved in the specifics of nutrition science, but they know enough to recognize brash overstatements. The real challenge is reaching a happy medium that neither alienates the science-based/medical community nor the lay person just looking for a lifestyle that will heal them of their diabetes and bad knees.
Interesting interpretation of Matt's talk. Here's my thoughts on some of the main points:
1) Stop making scientifically unsubstantiated claims regarding causation. If you're going to sell your methods based on a mechanistic process, make sure your science is solid. Otherwise, base your recommendations on the fact that it has worked for others. Basically, don't overstate what you 'know'.
2) Having evolution as a premise does not substantiate anything. Conclusions must be demonstrated to be accurate. (Yes, nothing makes sense outside the lens of evolution, but couching it as a premise is not sufficient to validate a given conclusion.)
3) In regards to the anti-nutrient statements: Yes, based on relevant animal studies we can claim that a specific anti-nutrient may be problematic. However, until the studies are done on humans with dietarily relevant concentrations and preparations, we cannot claim that a specific anti-nutrient is problematic.
4) Earning the professional respect of the scientific community is integral to the continued success of the movement. I would think this point was abundantly clear, but there seems to be a 'we can do it on our own' feeling. I think this is foolhardy if we are trying to help as many people as possible. An illustration: A blogger or fitness professional gives a new reader/client the 'paleo prescription' with a false rationale. Said reader/client confers with their health care provider, who tears apart the rationale which you have provided. Regardless of whether or not what you advised would have helped the reader/client, you have lost credibility.
Basically, scientific rigor is necessary if scientific justifications are going to be given and we, as a community, want to be taken seriously. Thank you for your thoughts on the presentation though, its good to hear more than one interpretation.
"Otherwise, base your recommendations on the fact that it has worked for others."
Robb Wolf is good about that.
In response to your 4th point…When I tried to explain my new plan to my health care provider, she stated that this is not a healthy diet (although my bloodwork was fantastic). She sent me to a nutritionist who carefully outlined the things I need to reintroduce into my diet. Basically, it was an intervention.
Although I thought I understood why I changed to paleo before I walked into the doctor's office, I was unable to defend myself. I left with a list of items to buy at the grocery store and a food log to fill out and bring back in 6 weeks.
The people who need this diet the most are the ones who are seeing health care professionals who only follow published medical literature and best practices.
You really need to put this into perspective: The presentation at the Symposium was- like what ALWAYS happens at a symposium- a cut-away portion of Matt's larger, longer, more in-depth 8 hour presentation on Paleolithic Nutrition and science. Attempting to cut up the only actual scientific anchor the paleo movement has without having actually seen the other 7+ hours of the presentation is unfortunate at best, and asinine at worst.
His point- at least what I gathered from watching it- from this snippet was to point out that the Paleo diet will ALWAYS be just another "fad diet" unless it gains mainstream acceptance from the scientific community, which no "diet" or lifestyle has yet to do. You can write all the books you want, but until you get the folks writing the food guide to change what's in it (by means of scientific acceptance) you're still just a fad.
If you want to make great heaping globs of cash on the back of unsuspecting fools buying snake-oil, then marketing is your way to go. But I'm fairly certain Matt really doesn't care about that; It's his JOB to find the truth, and his passion happens to be the Paleo diet. And, as you'll realize if you watch his full presentation, he's more than willing to part with traditional Paleo dogma if he has scientific proof that its not solid for human consumption. In fact, if you look REALLY carefully, you'll find most of what he says- then proves- drives the evolution of the diet itself. He makes a suggestion, shows the studies proving it, and folks give it a shot.
Having met the dude, and heard him speak at length, understand: Lalonde is a scientist first. He believes the evidence shows that some form of Paleo is the best approach for the majority of humans. However, if he were to suddenly find irrefutable scientific proof that weighing and measuring Twinkies is better for you than eating a quality "Paleo" diet, he'd be the first to let us know.
Oh, I have perspective. I was there. I've "met the dude." I've also heard him talk about paleo – in-person and off-record – and that significantly influences my perspective. It doesn't matter if Mat has a 100 hour presentation, he's not going to be any more right about how to forward the message via the hand of hundreds of bloggers if he continues to insist they primarily seek credibility among academia. It's bass-ackwards.
"His point.. was… that Paleo diet will ALWAYS be just another "fad diet" unless it gains mainstream acceptance from the scientific community, which no "diet" or lifestyle has yet to do.
Yeah. My point is that that's factually incorrect. The moniker "fad diet" is a marketing message. Good fucking luck fighting it with chemistry. This sort of thinking is precisely why Democrats suck at politics.
"until you get the folks writing the food guide to change what's in it (by means of scientific acceptance)"
Mat's opening remark about using his knowledge to help people rather than join the establishment is a great example of why this statement (your interpretation, which I doubt Mat shares) is naive.
"If you want to make great heaping globs of cash on the back of unsuspecting fools buying snake-oil, then marketing is your way to go."
If you think that the only use for applying marketing insight is making money, then you really don't get it.
I'm not sure you read my post. I love Mat's contributions to the scientific aspects, but I don't think he's the right guy to be telling anyone (everyone, in this case) how to forward a message.
"You can write all the books you want, but until you get the folks writing the food guide to change what's in it (by means of scientific acceptance) you're still just a fad."
The current guidelines were not made exactly by scientific acceptance and hard science. Why would it be different?
LaLonde is correct for reasons he probably does not know, but with which the famous public relations guru, Edward Bernays, would be well versed. PR campaigns are often built and won on obtaining testimonials, approvals or studies from authoritative figures such as scientists. This is one of the reasons food and drug companies sponsor or pay for so many studies. The PR folks then use the study to get traction for the idea, which leads to the purchase of the product. It works both for good ideas and bad ones.
For example, Bernays once worked for a hair net manufacturer who was suffering a loss of business when women cut their hair short in the 1920s. He obtained a series of studies about cleanliness and hygiene in food manufacturing plants and hospitals and used that to publicize hygiene, which led to the widespread purchase and use of the hair nets.
More infamously, he also used the nascent women's movement of that time to encourage public smoking by women as an expression of new found freedom and had stylish women engage in marches in NYC openly smoking. That campaign worked too.
He also helped United Fruit Company overthrow the govt of Guatemala in the 1950s, but that's another story.
So this isn't just about talking to scientists, but to engaging authority figures who might sway public opinion.
The current state of distributed media is decidedly post-Bernays. Ignoring this fails to recognize the insight of McLuhan to one's own detriment. Even if you disagree, Bernays-style PR campaigns are perfectly compatible with what I said above: "It is important for some members of the paleo community to raise the bar."
Among social primates, the actions of others in one's group tend to be more powerful than authority figures.
Except when it relates to women and their perceived self image and level of fatness. ;D
Personally I write my blog to be accessible to the layman, but my core intended audience is other physicians and PhDs. For the most part I try not to make myself look like a fool during grand rounds…
I have to agree with the review of Mat's talk, I had the same feelings and impressions. However, I am also a university professor and I agree to some extent that it would be advantageous to have the medical and scientific establishment on board to help propel the movement. I see no reason why the candle can't be burnt from both ends with scientists using our forums to convince other scientists who rely solely on scientific merit (and to educate and influence our students – the next generation) to approach the paleo/ancestral health movement with an open mind. And like Robb said during Denise's talk (pertaining to vegetarians) – to those who are rapid and dogmatic in their position, there is little we can do to change their minds. Which is why I really love David Csonka's quote – which gets back to Max Planck's take on progress in science.
Which David Csonka quote are you referring to?
"Otherwise, base your recommendations on the fact that it has worked for others."
Probably the one about science progressing one funeral at a time.
Planck was a wealth of insightful commentary about the problems inherent to science.
"Truth never triumphs — its opponents just die out."
this is why the wide variation in blog style is so valuable, though! as a layperson, i deeply appreciate writers like Dr. Emily who make a point of being "readable without jargon" and yet scientifically concise. i've learned immense amounts that are directly applicable to the improvement of my middle-aged body without having to keep referring to Wikipedia for simplifications of technical points.
i'm far from resenting the blogger who primarily addresses his/her scientific peers — heaven knows the internet is big enough for everyone! i just don't think that the way to encourage this "movement" (hate that word) to spread to those who need it most, is to make it so scientifically esoteric that MY peers can't take anything useful from it.
You've made some excellent points here. I have a soft spot in my heart for Mat. A couple years ago I saw him give a full-day CrossFit nutrition seminar that focused on Paleo eating. Mat got the whole room excited about Paleo. But my understanding of Paleo is different than his. I'm not a scientist. I teach people how to get started, how to make some recipes, how to understand the basics. Sometimes I rely on common sense and intuition. I agree that some people need to take a scientific approach to Paleo, but some of us need to teach others how to make this work day-to-day. There's room for all of us and each point of view is valuable, especially if it helps someone improve even in a small way. The really ironic thing is that Mat was the person who convinced me to get a slow-cooker!
Keep up the good work. You've got us thinking and talking!
Great post Andrew.
Here's what I don't get. I understand that your heuristic statements are scientifically incorrect, but it's not like it takes that many logical steps to get from the heuristic to the scientifically valid statement. When I hear your first statement about the recent introduction of foods as a result of agriculture, I understand that there is a logical leap, but can't any intelligent person make that logical leap in their head? To me it seems unbelievably obvious, and it also seems like jackassery at its finest to play dumb and pretend that one doesn't understand the intent of the statement.
I'm not exactly sure what you're referring to by "your" statements. Just to be clear, the quotes above are from Mat's talk, and as far as I know, were either invented for the sake of examples or unattributed quotes from other blogs. I don't think they were intended to characterize anything I've written.
But yes, I totally agree that the logical invalidity is easy to auto-correct.
… and then the scientist narrowed his research more and more, getting into finer and finer details. At certain time, the narrowing reduced the whole to a single point. Then the scientist exclaimed… This is my point of view! We soon are getting to know everything about nothing!
As much as I appreciate research (me including one) I strongly disagree with the "scientific dogma" pushed here by Matt. Observational doesn't count? To whom? Pwlease… give me a break…
Why should we relate and demonstrate the obvious?
Great post Andrew! I wish I had the chance to talk with you at AHS. This gets to the bottom of a fundamental difficulty all scientists face- how do you teach or explain a concept in an accessible way without dumbing it down and saying things which are wrong and/or make you look stupid to your peers. Because of this, many undergraduate college courses (especially math) are taught in a way virtually impossible for the students to understand, in attempt to not sacrifice scientific rigor or correctness.
I suggest that there is one possible solution- becoming a really good teacher. Richard Feynman (see Feynman lectures on YouTube) is great at keeping ideas both accessible and rigorous. He does this usually by using the rigorous description, and then using an analogy that relates to everyday life. Emily Deans is very skilled at this also on her blog.
@Mike PaleoVillage: Your criticism is one of reductionism, not science in general. Evolutionary medicine is essentially a subset of systems biology, which takes the opposite approach- trying to see the bigger picture of how different systems interact.
Matt never said "observation doesn't count." Science is based on observations, but done in a rigorous way in attempt to avoid bias. Things which appear to be obvious are often superficial and wrong- the results of a bias, rather than a correct observation. Check out the blog "youarenotsosmart.com" for some really good explanations of how various biases cause people to reach wrong conclusions that appear to be obviously correct. Of course, this blog contains a lot of great discussion on this problem as well.
So glad someone said it. On on hand, he has a point – but only if you're presenting to scientists. When presenting to the general population, very different tactics must be used. It would be wonderful to see more taking advantage of the newish cognitive science on the topic.
Here are some resources I've found helpful in regards to making science more understandable and approachable to the non-scientist:
Don't Be Such a Scientist http://goo.gl/Dq5l1
Am I Making Myself Clear? http://goo.gl/JlncA
Explaining Research: How To Reach Key Audiences http://goo.gl/sOfQ2
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Stick and Others Don't http://goo.gl/t286s
Garr Reynolds (http://www.presentationzen.com/)has some great info on presenting as well – not science related but rather how to structure your message and visuals in a way that captures the attention of the audience. What makes a memorable presentation? A memorable message? Very design focused but very good.
I thought LaLonde was really hard on the paleoblogosphere. No one knows all of the information. Even him. It's the discussion that keeps the discovery of information moving forward.
With the vast majority of paleo bloggers writing to a non-scientific audience it seems reasonable to organize information and make arguments that will best speak to that audience, while maintaining factual correctness – realizing that what we believe to be correct is subject to change at any time.
my concern which i don’t think anyone has brought up, is not that paleo bloggers are sometimes making mistakes and exaggerations that reflect badly on paleo in general to core scientists. my concern is that bloggers without a strong science background do not understand the studies that use to support advice they give on their blogs. they can give incorrect advice which can be harmful.
"bloggers without a strong science background do not understand the studies that use to support advice they give on their blogs. they can give incorrect advice which can be harmful."
Absolutely. The same can be said for some non-paleo bloggers with strong science backgrounds.
It happens all the time, everywhere in science. All. The. Time. Bias is everywhere. Misunderstandings abound. It doesn't mean we shouldn't be aware and try to avoid this because we should but realize that it is everywhere. It's the nature of science. The nature of cognitive function. The nature of being human.
I spend more time than I care to reading original journal articles. The number of abstracts alone that do not accurately represent the article is mindboggling. Then onto the study design, control v. treatment group, conclusions and it's nearly unbearable how much poorly done science is out there. As one friend says "it's hard not to loose what little faith in humanity (or in this case science) that I have left".
I agree that it can be dangerous, but so can the nutritional science (and dogma) of the last 50 years. The paleosphere, mistakes, warts and all, is doing better than most.
Sorry Andrew, just stumbled on this…
In answer to your second question up there, it's clear the scientific minutiae is really exciting for a minority, which we can see unfolding in the Guyenet vs. Taubes debate. There are sites by folks such as Kurt Harris and Don Matesz that I just don't find myself checking in with very often. I'm a smart cookie, but I just can't wrangle with the particulars and the nitty-gritty of the science. I think it's great that the eggheads have a place to discuss these things, and I think it furthers the field.
But I'm far more interested in what this means in daily life. Because at the end of the day, you can debate macronutrients and anti-nutrients yadda yadda yadda, but what's on your plate? What are you sending to school with your kids? What makes you feel vital? I think it's important to have a foundation in the basics, but it's definitely not necessary to understand the larger message.
I worry that hardcore science can scare folks off. And my personal feeling is that this message is too important to let it go unheard. Yet Taubes takes flak for dumbing it down for the layperson.
As an example, I came across an interesting thread on Mark Sisson's forum asking whether anyone there was a race other than white. It was asked with sensitivity, but it highlighted the divide here. So if science wants to keep the Paleo party for themselves, there will be a tiny population of white scientists dorking out together. But we aren't going to be selling the real food message to the rest of the world that way.
Sure, some people come to this for the science, and that's great. Some people come for weight loss or performance or health issues or leaning out. Great. It's ALL valid.
I'd be curious about your take on how to market this successfully to a wider audience. I have several thoughts on the matter (I used to work in marketing myself) and am working myself up to a huge blog post about it. I realize I'm not on the larger Paleo radar, but I'd love to hear your thoughts on it. I also hope the issue is addressed at AHS next year.
Another late comer, but I only watched the AHS lecture yesterday, I agree in main with most of what has been written in these comments. I found in general the talk to be rather a long winded way of getting to his final comments about “bell curves” and not making absolute statements. I found the science far less informative, or indeed relevant, than that presented in Dr. Lustig’s lecture.
As for the need for Core scientists to be swayed or’ brought over’ as far as I know the US (and UK) dietary guidlelines have not been based on a sound scientific base, so the need for core scientists being on board to establish credibility eludes me as they clearly can’t have been in order for the grain heavy, fat phobic paradigm to be dominant. Indeed think about the poor scientific case for vegetarianism let alone veganism and how these dietary adventures are given not only credence but supported in mainstream health.
Having given up bread a weird persistent heartburn has disappeared but I have to admit the anti-nutrient arguments were to me never the main argument for adopting a Paleo-diet. The destruction of the lipid hypotheis has been far more instrumental in me going ‘all the way’ and I would argue more important in legitamising the paleo-paradigm. Moreover surely it is the lipid-hypothesis that is the cause for concern for modern health companies and doctors.
I can’t finish as I would like as my daughter is having a cry but I think I have roughly made my point.
I guess the main question is this: do you want paleo blogs to sway people or do you want them to be right? His assumption is that everyone would want all their blogs to be factually accurate (which I’d agree with) whereas some just want their stuff that is mostly true, but perhaps misleading at times.
So would you rather be a scientific journal or a documentary, basically. I applaud anyone for promoting science. If you want to believe in something you should probably have evidence for it and not “well our ancestors…” or “well my cousin…”
What are Mat’s views on the China Study?
The beginning of the talk isn't on that video. What was the point he was making at the beginning about Robert Lustig?
Also, I want to complain for a minute. My complaint does not invalidate the data that scientists such as Mat are sharing. However, I just wonder why so many scientists seem to have such enormous egos? When I see someone like Mat who is so intelligent, and has such a great potential to further good nutrition make his flippant, arrogant remarks, it does such a disservice to him. Lots of arrogant scientists regularly post comments with condescending flavor on Stephan Guyenet's blog, too. You didn't mention this in your piece about marketing, but it's true. It's very off-putting.
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