Monday, April 13, 2015

Defer to Experts? Experts can be Conned

"Rational ignorance," says Wikipedia, "occurs when the cost of educating oneself on an issue exceeds the potential benefit that the knowledge would provide." Rational ignorance is not letting experts do your thinking for you because they're smart and you'd rather fiddle around on Facebook than educate yourself. That's intellectual laziness. Laziness isn't always a bad thing, but let's see where it can lead.

For one Ph.D. in physics at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, it lead to an embarrassing moment. He saw someone do a telekinesis trick, and, convinced it was real, called James Randi, a professional magician and skeptic. For several years, Randi has offered a $1 million reward for anyone who can perform paranormal phenomena under controlled conditions. Watch him do (and explain) the telekinesis trick that fooled a Ph.D. in physics:

It's not just one physics Ph.D. who could be fooled. As a former engineer, I met colleagues who believed in all sorts of wacky shit. (I was one of them.) It wasn't just the engineers I knew--engineers are overrepresented in Islamic terrorist groups, even when cultural demographics are accounted for. And remember when columnist Marilyn vos Savant solved an odds problem, a bunch of math professors wrote to her to tell her she was all wet--and then retracted their criticism?

Likewise, the world of nutrition "research" is full of conjuring tricks: rodent research applied to humans (rodents' metabolisms are different from that of humans), trials that are too short to allow for adaptation to a low-carb diet, low-carb diets of over 100g per day of carbohydrate, low-carb diets that don't include extra electrolytes, diets full of crap food (like rat chow or industrial seed oils), and statistical shenanigans like relative risk v. absolute risk and mining data for correlations whether they make sense or not. From what I've read while studying nutrition for the past five years, few doctors in clinical practice seem aware of any of this. They get their information on nutrition from the media, or perhaps reading headlines in medical journals without looking at the details. Even looking at the details doesn't necessarily help: one has to know the laws of physics (or in this case, endocrinology and evolution) and think about whether the research results make any sense. 

Fraud is often found in science, especially in what is termed, ‘fringe science’. There are several reasons why scientists should be aware of the fact that they, too, can be deceived, both by subjects in experiments and by themselves. The will to believe is strong even among ‘hard-headed’ academics, and is often the factor that causes them to publish results that do not stand up to subsequent examination and/or attempts to replicate. In some cases, scientists would be well advised to consult with such experts as conjurors, when skilled frauds are in a position to mislead them. -James Randi

As Joel Greenblatt advises readers about looking for an investment advisor, rule 1 is don't trust anybody over 30. Rule 2 is don't trust anybody 30 or under. Meaning, you have to do your own research and your own thinking. Some sources of information from people who have no dog in the nutritional fight: books on evolution by Richard Leakey, Brian Fagan, Alan Walker and Pat Shipman; books on endocrinology. If you want to experiment with a low-carb diet, advice from people with clinical experience helps. So much current dietary advice that doesn't work has become common sense, and it especially doesn't work in connection with low-carb diets. Read The Art & Science of Low Carbohydrate Living, The New Atkins for a New You, Dr. Bernstein's Diabetes Solution, It Starts with Food, the Protein Power blog, and/or the Wheat Belly blog. They can help you with implementing and troubleshooting your diet.


tess said...


Lori Miller said...

Well, I'm glad someone likes this post.

tess said...

:-) some of my posts i'm most proud of got little feedback -- it teaches me to be philosophical....

Lowcarb team member said...

Bernsteins book a must have for diabetics.

All the best Jan

Lori Miller said...

Definitely! He's a type 1 diabetic, so he has skin in the game.