An article by John Kay in The Financial Times (and thank you, TheBrowser.com, for highlighting it) recalls economics icon Milton Friedman’s and a colleague’s observation that we can often get very good at something (Friedman used billiards as an example) without knowing much about the complex principles behind it. I myself always appreciated the fact that physicists used to argue that a true curveball in baseball was an impossibility and that catching a fly ball required solving trigonometric equations, while baseball players (and in the latter case even dogs) effortlessly accomplish these feats without much regard for their impossibility or mathematical demands. And it will be a long time before our best scientists and engineers can design a fighter plane whose multi-computerized flight systems can begin to approach what a fly can do evasive-flight-wise with a teeny speck of a brain–a mere 100,000 neurons, or one-millionth as many as an aeronautical engineer. The prodigious pattern-recognition capabilities and other elegant programming of our brains endow us (and other creatures) with the ability to intuit or otherwise toss off solutions that elude formal analysis.
This notion that analytically daunting phenomena are often simply accomplished by other means brings to my mind some of the interchanges I’ve had in recent months with metabolic experts in both the ultra-low-carb and ultra-low-fat weight-loss camps. They’ve got the science theory, they’ve got the rodent studies, they’ve got the diet studies, and voilà: the only way to lose weight is cut out carbs or cut out fat, depending on which camp you’re listening to. The two camps come to nearly opposite conclusions, and both are absolutely unwavering and uncompromising in their belief that the science completely and clearly proves they’re right. And of course there are many other scientifically sure-of-themselves diet-gimmick camps.
Back in college my math and physics professors occasionally inflicted on me and my classmates a certain type of killer problem–well, they were killers to me, anyway–in which we were presented with a step-by-step proof that started with perfectly valid assumptions, and ended up with an indisputably mistaken conclusion. We had to figure out where the proof had gone wrong. I usually had a great deal of trouble doing so–the errors were very subtle, and sometimes were semi-errors spread out among several steps. These problems left me with a deep and permanent appreciation of how right something could look in every aspect of every step, and yet end up flat-out wrong.
Though scientists and other highly trained experts should know better–for one thing, I would think most of them got that same kind of what’s-wrong-with-this-picture? problem in college–these folks often seem oblivious to the way that very right-sounding arguments can leave them impaled on silly conclusions. Of course, one of the main points of science is supposed to be to test theories to avoid this problem, but, as I’ve discussed endlessly elsewhere to the point where I’m tired of hearing myself repeat it (though fortunately others have been smartly chiming in on this subject lately) these tests tend to be terrible, and typically end up merely reflecting researchers’ biases rather than getting at any real truths. In the end, the scientists who do the best work tend to be not the ones who avoid bias–that’s just about impossible–but rather the ones who for whatever reasons end up with the right biases. When an expert’s instincts run off the rails, you get, well, for example, claims that fat or that carbs are entirely responsible for obesity. And these experts become so convinced that the science and data back them up that their beliefs become unreasonably unshakable
This willingness of intelligent, knowledgeable people to let solid-seeming scientific reasoning make them absolutely certain about what is obviously not so is remarkable. There’s so much easily observable evidence in the world all around us that people are able to lose weight and be healthy while still eating carbs, or still eating fat, that it just feels silly to have to make a point of arguing it–if someone doesn’t see it at this point, they’ve just decided not to see it. Tens of millions of people have tried the Atkins-style ultra-low-carb diet–it was initially a fad diet in the 1970s, and was reignited as a much bigger fad in 2002 after a New York Times Magazine cover story outlined the science that seems to back it up, an article written by the brilliant science journalist (and my friend) Gary Taubes. Meanwhile, tens of millions more have tried very-low-fat diets. How has that worked out for America? We all know the sad answer to that question. Out of the dozen or so people I know personally who went on the Atkins diet, not a single, solitary one kept the weight off for more than two years, and most lasted on the order of a few months. (Some years back, after getting a very convincing science lecture one-on-one from Taubes, I tried it, and lasted three weeks–I felt like crap the whole time, though I don’t seem to be typical.) I know a few people who lost weight on very-low-fat diets and actually kept it off, but they didn’t really stick with the diet–they added back modest amounts of fats back in, and they also happen to be very physically active people.
Needless to say, what happens to my personal acquaintances hardly constitutes convincing evidence. But if you look at the range of diet studies out there and talk to a lot of experts in the field and others about what has and hasn’t worked–something I’ve been doing quite a bit of for the past year–it becomes utterly clear that neither of these extreme diets achieves particularly good long-term adherence levels, and without long-term adherence a diet is at best a waste of time. To be sure, some people do permanently lose weight on one or the other approach, and in the Internet era a small minority of fad-diet beneficiaries can band together on websites and blogs and sound like a movement. More power to you if you’re one of these beneficiaries. But clearly for the vast majority of people cutting out carbs or cutting out fat is simply not going be a lifelong habit. It doesn’t matter whether cutting carbs or cutting fat will actually help you lose weight and be healthy–and it certainly doesn’t matter if the science appears to back the approach up–if you can’t stick with it. What we need, of course, is eating and exercise habits that we can stick with, and ways of being helped to adopt and stick with healthy eating and exercise habits. Cutting back at least a bit on carbs and/or fat is usually part of it, but it’s not typically the main part, and it’s rarely the entire shooting match. Having to drastically cut back on a major food group usually makes an eating plan nearly impossible to stick with long-term for most people. (But for those of you who insist on doing so, you might want to cover your bases with the Dukan Diet, a big fad diet in France that is now making its way to the US, and which advocates cutting out both fat and carbs, leaving you eating mostly protein. Good luck! In its defense, I’ll point out that it does also advocate behavior-oriented measures. On the other hand, many medical experts caution that eating very-high-protein can be dangerous over the long term.)
I’ve tried talking to various advocates of extreme diets about these seemingly obvious problems with their claims and it’s like talking to someone about deeply held religious beliefs. (Actually, some deeply religious people I’ve spoken with are much more open-minded about their beliefs than are some people who cling to dubious scientific beliefs.) Taubes is one of the smartest people I know, and he has surely become one of the most knowledgeable people on the planet with regard to how the human metabolism deals with sugar, but I just have to scratch my head over his (and his hard-core supporters’) response to the observation that working on behavior change seems to be a critical factor when it comes to permanent weight loss, the response essentially being, “All eating-related behavior is driven by carbs and their effect on metabolism, exercise doesn’t matter, the science proves all this, and that’s that.” Low-fat proponents, at least the ones I’ve interviewed, tend for whatever reasons to be much more aware of the role of behavior change than the somewhat fanatical very-low-carb crowd, but can be as tenacious in their patently implausible claim that a single type of food is largely responsible for obesity. Both low-fat and low-carb fanatics are of course very good at pointing out the holes in the scientific reasoning and evidence of the other camp, but blind to the holes in their own claims.
One of the things I really like about experts who focus on behavior change, and especially applied behavior analysis researchers–the folks who study ways of applying what is essentially B.F. Skinner’s science of behaviorism–is that most of them rarely seem to get hung up on theories. They just try to figure out through observation of people what best works in real life–either for an individual, or for the greatest percentage of people in a group–and then that’s what they push, while they continue to look for something that works even better, or on a broader range of people. It’s very hard to picture a behaviorist insisting that a pitcher can’t possibly make a baseball curve, or that eliminating carbs is a necessary and sufficient condition for shedding weight.