Tuesday, December 15, 2015

What Difference Does it Make Why it Works?

This is the question someone asked me the other day in regards to the good results I've had on low-carb. Beyond just satisfying your curiosity, having a lattice work of mental models, as Charlie Munger puts it, can save you a lot of trouble. Without mental models of (in this case) human digestion, evolution, nutrition research, journalism, medical education, and even politics, all I'd have is just something that works for acid reflux.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Something that works might only work in certain situations, could be unpredictable, could have unintended consequences, or could just be a placebo effect. Knowing how something works reduces the danger.  As Munger's partner Warren Buffett put it, "Risk comes from not knowing what you're doing."

Yet how often are people overconfident when they only know a thing or two? The web is full of bros who cut down on the beer and pizza, got some exercise and lost 40 pounds--and you can, too! Their moms recommend more fiber, less fat and fewer calories, which everybody knows works: it's in all their women's magazines.

Doing what everybody else isn't can be intimidating. Knowing what you're doing, having arrived at the same conclusion from different disciplines, can inform you if you're on the right track and help you stay the course. Here's where the lattice of mental models comes in: facts are connected to other facts. Those facts form the lattices of disciplines and some of the lattices are connected. To pick an example, veganism weaves an interesting lattice with claims of good health, environmental consciousness, and humane treatment of animals. And a juice fast is something that works for certain health problems. But approach the lattice from the disciplines of evolution, or ancestral diets, or digestion, or nutritional requirements, and the lattice of veganism falls apart.

Without a lattice of knowledge--knowing how a system works--all you have is a collection of facts that may be a collection of fairy tales. Like most collections, it can't do anything but be displayed. It's hard to verify unrelated facts, assuming you can remember them. You can't build on them--anything new has to be through trial and error and luck. It's a way of going through life otherwise known as stupidity. I've done it--I have a mouthful of fillings to prove it.

ETA: This could be one reason engineers are so subject to wackiness (e.g., being overrepresented in terrorist groups and fringe religions): they learn pretty much only mental models of engineering subjects, which aren't exactly metaphors for life. Requiring courses in comparative religion, epistemology, and human evolution for an engineering degree could well rid the world of a lot of terrorists.


tess said...

interesting thoughts! :-D

Lori Miller said...

I'm reading Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor. Munger reads widely and he's dedicated to rationality. I'm also thinking of the essay "Dursley Duplicity" by Diana Hsieh: "No fact of reality can be isolated from all others, so any conflict between knowledge and pretense pressures the self-deceiver to either admit the self-deception or deceive himself further to preserve it."

Galina L. said...

My husband almost decided to check what a wheat-free diet may do for him (his problems are susceptibility to allergies and sensitive intestines). I think a grain free or a gluten free diet would be better, but everyone makes own diet decisions in my family.He said so far he yet to a see a definitely conclusive evidence that a wheat is that harmful. He is a scientist in a real life, and just a study report is not enough from his perspective,he says very often a study doesn't get reproduced. I guess he would try it anyway, but in his case he feels the need to know why something works. For my son a gluten-free diet made huge difference in which foods could be allergens.

Lori Miller said...

He could do his own N=1 study. Such a study shouldn't be harmful to him as long as he doesn't replace wheat foods with gluten-free junk food. There's no need in the human diet for wheat, and you can get any nutrients in wheat from other foods. At worst, it could be unpleasant if wheat has a drug-like effect on him.

As to why wheat could cause allergies or intestinal distress, my understanding is that wheat permeates the intestinal barrier, allowing things into the blood stream that shouldn't be there. FWIW, my allergies decreased by 99% when I quit eating wheat, and that experience has been reported by many other people. I know that's probably not the mechanism your husband is looking for, but it is some evidence.

Galina L. said...

He didn't find all that scientifically very solid, but almost ready to try it anyway. Many of my allergies are much milder now, and I don't need an asthma inhaler. It is enough for me, but I am not a scientist.