Thursday, 4 September 2008

Dietary Phlogiston

Today I spent a lunch hour watching various clips of Richard Dawkins on You Tube and busied the evening watching a program on BBC4 about the Big Bang and the search for dark matter.

I read quite a lot about the history of mathematics and science in general. I am as much an armchair scientist as much as I am an armchair athlete. Any book or TV program featuring the likes of Dawkins, Richard Feynman, Isaac Newton, Descartes or Einstein and I pull up a chair. I am not particularly smart, but am curious. For all the criticism it receives, popular science allows me a small insight in to a deeper and mysterious world.

What I like about science is the way it has set out to solve a rather basic question or set of questions and progress has been made through iteration. Measurements have been taken and data gathered and from that, new questions have arisen. Thus, measurement techniques have been refined, more data has been gathered - into which the introduction of computer power has spawned ever more complex analysis, raising ever more detailed and nuanced questions and allowed ever more sophisticated data collection and so forth. Science has branched as it has evolved and become more sophisticated. The models and theories can be used to make predictions - and these predictions tested. Critically, no matter where scientists come from, they can repeat experiments and get the same result - particularly in the fields of mathematics and physics.

What struck me was how absurdly different this was from the world of nutritional science. I guess just as Einstein struggled to accept Quantum Theory ("God does not play dice"), and Hoyle rejected the Big Bang for his 'Steady State' model, some theories persist - despite the overwhelming evidence - even when they should be allowed to go the same way as phlogiston.

There are some fantastic thinkers out there - Paleo guys who have lead from the front for years - and the movement is growing - but what I find odd is that nutrition affects us much more 'immediately' than particle accelerators or the Riemann Hypothesis and so you'd think that we would get the science right sooner rather than later. Maybe the grip of Adam Smith's invisible hand is firmer than we thought - but there must also be personal drivers at work.

The notion of predictions in science is pretty powerful. To have come up with a theory, devise measurement and so gather data from which you can make conclusions about your theory, seems to be a rather straight forward series of steps. With nutrition many of us actually skip step one - so your eating habits may well be informed by advertising and cultural trends rather than a personal motivation. But as most dieters can tell you - measurement is a BIG feature of their life - particularly if intertwined with exercise to lose weight. Oddly, despite the data - many of these same people fail on the final step as well. I regularly meet fat people who are on a diet and exercise program - and have been for years. Guess what they look like.........

I am sure that for many Paleo dudes out there your steps are similar to mine - step one is the theory to simply 'Go Paleo' - step two is to measure by 'how you feel' - and if you got your theory right in step one, the implicit 'great nutrition' and short but intense physical events (encompassing running, jumping, climbing, wrestling, fighting, throwing etc...) will provide your body with the novel stimulus it needs to give you results that after a while mean you rarely have to bother with a final step of analysis.

Non Predictions (a minor rant that you can skip if you want)
My current favourite 'science' is that of Theology. I have to slot this one in given the state of current world politics - and let's get one thing straight - it is NOT a science as it does not have one iota of scientific method. Religions do not make predictions (apart from some kind of 'second coming') - and certainly give no measurements. It is my current favourite science as it is a shockingly funny and scary example of power from fear that affects almost every body in every part of the world. Dawkins adds much needed intellectual rigour in to this subject by soundly damning it on a scientific basis for the sham it is.

Think about it, several (way more than two) religious people of the same faith may give entirely unique interpretations of the same text - some claiming an allegorical interpretation and others literal. Several (way more than two) religious people can look at the same event and interpret things differently. Only last year some religious dimwit was declaring wide spread flooding in Britian was due to homosexuality. Note in this case that he did not forecast the floods as a consequence of homosexuality - he merely claimed them retrospectively as such.

Religion is parasitic. It used to live on peoples' fear and ignorance - and amongst the uneducated and the dim, it still has that power. Strangely it also seems to have a hold on otherwise intelligent people - but for it to 'live' in such a rarified atmosphere, it has to try to eek out a parasitic existence in the gaps of science. Again it makes no measurement, but subjective theory is 'evidenced' by subjective conclusion.

It has actually dawned upon me that religious thinking and the 'conventional wisdom on nutrition have something in common;

1. If good things happen to faithful people, the religious point out that this is God's reward.
2. If bad things happen to faithless people, the religious point out that this is God's justice.
3. If bad things happen to faithful people, the religious point out that this is God's way of testing their faith.
4. If good things happen to faithless people, the religious point out that God moves in mysterious ways.

God's immunity from blame here is scarily redolent of the defence of the 'low-fat/complex carb' and exercise mantra for losing weight;

1. If a fat person eats LFCC diet and exercises to lose weight, and s/he does so, then it must work.
2. If a fat person eats LFCC diet and exercises to lose weight, and s/he does NOT do so, then she either cheated on the diet or didn't exercise hard enough.

Once you start down this path the similarities are everywhere. I have seen discussions with as many LFCC carbophiles telling me that 'those on a diet high in animal fat will get fat/die of heart disease' as I have religious groups demanding 'death to the unbelievers'. Fuck me, I think I am on to something here!

The benefits of Low-Fat Nutrition and the existence of a Christian/Muslim/Jewish God - two issues so bound up in the (atheroscleortic) human heart and from which we, so much talk of 'death' seems to emanate.

Jesus, Guns and Babies
Having seen McCain's running mate for VP I guess I should draw in any Creationist Paleo eaters out there. I mean do they exist and how do the square premise of a Paleo approach to nutrition with a world - and indeed a universe that is 6000 years old? In time, maybe evolution will take care of that one for us and they'll go the same route as phlogiston, if they don't send us down that route first!

I am on vacation for a week or so, and so this will be my last post for about 10 which time I hope to explain why these last two posts were the first for so long!

1 comment:

Methuselah said...

"the man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest"

The Boxer, Simon and Garfunkel