Top and Bottom Versus Middle: China, Schools, Health?

My explanation of the Ten Commandments is that someone at the top (Moses) was trying to convince people at the bottom to join him. People at the bottom were being preyed upon. “Thou shalt not steal” meant, to Moses’s audience, “no one will steal from you — or at least we, your leaders, will discourage it.” At the very beginning of the Code of Hammarabi, another ancient set of rules, it says one purpose of the rules is “so that the strong will not harm the weak”.

I keep seeing this pattern — people at or near the top of the hierarchy making common cause with people on the bottom against people in the middle. I was reminded of it by this story:

One anecdote described a Hu Yaobang [top Chinese leader] visit that Mr. Wen arranged with Guizhou Province villagers — secretly, he wrote, because Hu Yaobang did not trust local leaders to let them speak freely.

In the 1960s, the U.S. civil rights movement gained considerable force and accomplishment when the very top of the government (first, President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, later President Johnson) weighed in on the side of the protesters (bottom) against the various state governments (middle).

The practical value of this alignment of forces is illustrated by here). Two mothers of young children, Jacqueline Edelberg and another woman, wanted to improve their neighborhood schools before it was too late for their own children to benefit. On the face of it, this was impossible. But they found common cause with the principal of a local school (Susan Kurland). It goes unmentioned in the book but my impression, reading between the lines, is that the main thing that happened is that the worst teachers were shamed into leaving, above all by parents sitting in their classrooms. The principal alone could do nothing about terrible teachers; the parents alone could do nothing; together they did a lot. I spoke to Edelberg about this and she agreed with me.

I point out this pattern because it works. Judaism (Moses) still exists; people still read the Old Testament. Even more powerfully, all governments have lists of laws (Hammurabi). Jacqueline Edelberg’s neighborhood school is much better. The next big revolution in human affairs, I believe, will be health care. The current system, in which people pay vast amounts for drugs that barely work, have awful side effects, and leave intact the root cause (e.g., too little dietary omega-3), will be replaced by a much better system. The much better system will be some version of paleo. As Woody Allen predicted, people will come to believe that butter is health food.

How will it happen? I suspect this pattern will be the driving force. People at the top and people at the bottom will put pressure on people in the middle. Self-experimentation, self-quantification, and personal science (which overlap greatly) are tools of people at the bottom. They cost nothing, they are available to all. When you track (quantify and record) your health problem, and show your doctor, via numbers and graphs, that the drug he prescribed didn’t work, that puts pressure on him. When you bring your doctor numbers and graphs that show a paleo solution did work, that puts even more pressure on him. The point, if it isn’t obvious, is that numbers and graphs, based on carefully collected day-after-day data, amplify what one person can do. Not just what they can learn, not just how healthy they can be, but how much they can influence others. And this amplification of influence, which I never discuss, may ultimately be the most important.

Andreas Eenfeldt on the Ancestral Health Symposium

I’m beginning to think Andreas Eenfeldt, a Swedish doctor, gave the very best talk at the just-finished Ancestral Health Symposium. (Which was full of excellent talks.) And I missed it. Well, that’s what the Internet is for. His talk was about the spread of paleo ideas in Sweden. Apparently not all establishments are hostile to all new ideas. Someone told me that sales of butter in Sweden have recently increased 40%.

Eenfeldt has written a great series of posts about the Symposium.


The Curious Popularity of “How To Win an Argument With a Meat-Eater”

Denise Minger started her presentation at the Ancestral Health Symposium (titled “How to win an argument with a vegetarian”) with a comparison of number of Google hits:

“how to win an argument with a meat-eater”: 53,700 hits

“how to win an argument with a vegetarian”: 7 hits

Why all this concern with winning arguments? Sure, vegetarians are outnumbered, but shouldn’t the results speak for themselves?

Denise went on to make the excellent point that some of the most popular proponents of less meat and low-fat diets, such as Dean Ornish, base their claims on experiments with complex treatments. Group A (no meat, low fat) turns out to be more healthy than Group B (baseline) but the two groups differ in twenty other ways. Group A eats less sugar, gets more exercise, eats less processed food, and so on. But, as Denise said, it must be the vegetarianism.


At the Ancestral Health Symposium

I am in Los Angeles for the Ancestral Health Symposium. I am giving a talk called “What Foods Make My Brain Work Best?” Readers of this blog won’t be surprised: I will talk about flaxseed oil, pork fat, and butter. On Thursday, there was a party at Aaron Blaisdell’s house for presenters and volunteers. It was kind of magical to see at the same party Mark Cohen, Gary Taubes, Denise Minger, Mark Sisson, Jimmy Moore, Boyd Eaton, Loren Cordain, Chris Masterjohn, and Tucker Max. Plus others, such as Staffan Lindeberg, whom I didn’t manage to meet. More like an historical tableau in a mural or tapestry than an actual event.

There was more meat than any other party I’ve ever been to. Grilled outside. Mostly steak but also boar and salmon. It was delicious. I wish I knew the name of the grillmaster so I could thank him.

Great Delusions: James Watson

In an interview, James D. Watson, co-discovery of the structure of DNA, said

Some day a child is going to sue its parents for being born. They will say, My life is so awful with these terrible genetic defects.

(Quoted by Richard Bentall in Doctoring the Mind.) Watson is implying that genetic defects matter in the big picture of human impairment. They don’t. Changes over time in disease incidence, migration studies (in all instances I know of, the disease profile of the migrating group changes to match the place where they live), powerful nutritional effects (e.g., Weston Price) and other evidence of environmental potency show that all major diseases (heart disease, cancer, depression, obesity, plague, tuberculosis, smallpox, etc.) are mostly caused by the environment, in the sense that environmental changes could greatly reduce their incidence. Genes are a distraction. (To say that major diseases are also “caused” by genes in the sense that genes affect environmental potency is to miss the point that we want to reduce the diseases — want to reduce obesity for example — so it is the environmental lever that matters. If a child could eliminate its obesity by changing its environment, it would not sue its parents.) If Watson was unaware of that, okay. But for him to claim the opposite is a great — and I am afraid profoundly self-serving — delusion. Continue reading “Great Delusions: James Watson”

Tucker Max on Paleo: “I Started Feeling So Much Better”

In this interview, Tucker Max talks about eating paleo.

Once I started doing this, I started feeling so much better. My brain felt like it worked better. Everything about me improved. So I kinda went down the rabbit hole, and I started reading up on diet and nutrition from alternate sources. Art De Vany, Robb Wolf, and Loren Cordain, they didn’t invent it but they kinda popularized the concept of paleo eating. I realized that if you’re just a normal person, and you have the normal ideas about diet and nutrition, everything you know is wrong.

If you ask me, Tucker’s enthusiasm/support for paleo is huge. Max Planck said progress happens funeral by funeral.  I say it happens keg party by keg party — college students, more than anyone else, have open minds. A friend told me that when she was a freshman in college, her sociology professor criticized the textbook. Whoa! she thought. Textbooks can be criticized!? She had thought they were beyond criticism. As far as I can tell, American college students respect Tucker more than they respect anyone else. (My Tsinghua students may favor Nassim Taleb.) For example, this recent tweet: “TuckerMax is my idol. and he’s on this paleodiet…so i think im going to do it too.”  I found no tweets about the dietary influence of Michelle Obama (“coolest First Lady ever“).

In spite of what the interview was shortened to say, Tucker got the idea of eating flaxseed oil from this blog, especially Tyler Cowen’s experience. He wrote to me about it at the time. I posted his comments about dental health (here and here) and sports injuries (here, here and here) under the name Anonymous.

I am pleased to announce that Tucker will be talking at the upcoming Ancestral Health Symposium at UCLA. The title of his talk is::

From Cave to Cage: Mixed Martial Arts in Ancestral Health

Sorry Tucker Max fans, symposium tickets are sold out. But after the conference you will be able to see the talk on the website.

Tucker’s latest book is Assholes Finish First.

Evolutionary Health Journal to Start

Building on the success of the Ancestral Health Symposium — it will be in August, but it’s already a success — Aaron Blaisdell is planning to start a scientific journal on the subject.

It will be an historic thing. The notion that ancient lifestyles are especially healthy has been around, and taken seriously, for at least a few hundred years. Serious data began to be gathered in the early 1900s. Weston Price is an example. For a very long time this idea seemed to go nowhere, or at least the mainstream ignored it. In the 1970s there began a small irregular stream of publications (e.g., a book called Western Diseases edited by my friend Norman Temple) but again the mainstream ignored it.

But mainstream medicine doesn’t work very well.  The notion that when you get sick you should take a dangerous expensive drug doesn’t make a lot of sense. You didn’t get sick because you lacked the drug. More plausible is that when you get sick you should reverse the environmental conditions that caused the sickness and find out if your body can heal itself. Even more, you should prevent disease from starting. Along with mainstream medicine’s implausible intellectual foundation has come pathetic results. Robin Hanson has emphasized the RAND experiment that found that a large fraction of medical spending produced little benefit. Tyler Cowen has pointed out that Americans spend far more than other countries on health care with no better results. A doctor at a county hospital once told me, “The truth is that we can’t help most people that come in.” They come in with diabetes, obesity, and so on. Why don’t you do something that does help? I asked. Because when you do prevention research, she said, you don’t get people thanking you. She was describing a protection racket: make people sick — if only by failing to tell them how to be healthy — so that they will come to you for help.

An academic journal with a steady stream of articles and supporting evidence is a big step toward getting the paleo alternative taken seriously. It will help researchers who take paleo ideas seriously publish their work, of course, but it will also help them get feedback. Because it will help them publish, it will help them get research support. Because the journal (like any new journal) will be open access, it will help those who want to learn about those ideas. When ideas about health are forced to compete on their merits (such as cost, safety, effectiveness, and quality of the supporting evidence) and becoming an M.D. confers less of a monopoly (on information and treatment), a great change will come. Richard Nikoley recently posted an example of what a difference this can make.