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You Can't Debunk Everything: How To Avoid Being Baffled By Baloney
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June 29, 2011
5:11 am
First-Eater
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Caution: contains SCIENCE!

Anyone who makes a serious effort to understand the science behind nutrition will understand immediately that news items—most of which simply reprint the press release—are usually pure baloney. In order to learn anything interesting, we require access to the papers themselves.

Unfortunately, that's not the end of the shenanigans. Abstracts and conclusions often misrepresent the data. Data is selectively reported to omit negatives (for example, statin trials trumpet a decrease in heart disease while intentionally failing to report all-cause mortality). And experiments are often designed in such a way as to guarantee the desired result.

Is there any way to deal…

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June 29, 2011
5:39 am
eddie
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i agree with the naughton stuff, although being from england many i have introduced to his work found the accent and use of the word baloney hard to overcome.
(no baloney in uk....so not a reference that means anything here)
but i've seen you recommend his stuff before yourself so i'm sure you've seen it all before.

that said lent the fathead to my sister and her partner who found it hard going to watch the film, on my version i have big fat fiasco too which they're going to watch next. i actually think that there may be a difference between americans and english(or maybe just my view or family/friendship circle?) in that english prefer facts and that made the film less useful but the presentation in fiasco more useful.
of course i know no americans personally so maybe i'm entirely off there :)

great post, i always look forward to your updates

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June 29, 2011
6:16 am
Wanderer
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June 16, 2011
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Tom's from the midwest - I sometimes have a hard time with his accent and I adore his work (I'm from Texas).

JS, your novel is not available on the Kindle, which is the only thing that has kept me from ordering it. However, in the absence of one of your excellent articles next week, I will purchase the actual, physical book. :)

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June 29, 2011
6:40 am
Bodhi
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I think "they" count on that most of us are too busy, attention deficit, and stupid. To actually read, study, and understand "their" studies. Thank you and other bloggers for taking the time to do the research and then shine the light on the fallacies.

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June 29, 2011
7:56 am
Sandy Soto
Guest

Great stuff. These studies will say whatever those funding it want it to say. Don't know if any of you remember the recent article by Fox News' John Stossel, in which an "expert," Jude Capper, claimed that grass-fed beef being more healthy & sustainable was a myth, and that CAFO grain-fed beef was superior. I wanted to know who this Jude Capper person was so I googled the name and came upon a study conducted by her. Not surprisingly, guess whose name was listed right at the top as having funded it? None other than Monsanto.

Where there's smoke...

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June 29, 2011
1:42 pm
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eddie:

I prefer "Big Fat Fiasco" too: Fat Head moves a bit slowly for me.  But Fat Head is a movie, i.e. entertainment...you can't get away with showing people Powerpoint slides. 

Do you have any suggestions for alternate terms?  Bull**** is universal, but I'd rather not use it.  "Rubbish" is great, but it's strongly British, just as "baloney" is American -- and the term "junk science" has been partially hijacked by Steven Milloy to advance his transparently pro-corporate agenda (he's taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from Philip Morris, and even the Cato Institute won't sponsor him anymore).

Jan:

Much appreciated!  I can't guarantee you won't be shocked...but it won't leave you unscathed, that's for sure.  And printed copies have a way of disappearing.  I've had several people tell me they've purchased multiple copies to give to friends.

Bodhi:

"They" count on us trusting authority figures.  Seriously: livestrong.com?  Really?  

I'm trying to move us beyond the mindset of debunking individual studies (fun as that is, it's a Sisyphean task) and towards a greater understanding of human biology and metabolism that allows us to dismiss them a priori.  For instance, once you understand how fats and cholesterol are packaged and transported throughout the body, it's easy to ignore statements like "saturated fat clogs your arteries".

Sandy:

Absolutely!  I wrote an article debunking the Stossel/Capper rubbish months ago: you can find it here.

The polite term is "industry consultant": the impolite term is "shill".

JS

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June 29, 2011
2:31 pm
Halifax, UK
Gnoll
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We all have an inbuilt "bullshit detector", but it is as neutered as our taste buds after years of conventional wisdom, often compounded by parents trying to do the right thing for us while we grow up.

Honing our "bullshit detector" is yet another thing for us paleos to really get to grips with and this article gives us the goods in the way that JS does - no lengthy crib sheet, just a small number of principles we can remember and apply with ease. One really simple principle is, "follow the money" (which has been a central tenet of a recent entry). Who are the people presenting the "facts" working for?

Not as hard-hitting as some of your recent articles, but a more thought provoking one perhaps; one which we can savour and keep coming back to.

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Living in the Ice Age http://livingintheiceage.pjgh.co.uk
June 29, 2011
5:36 pm
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Asclepius:

"...a broad appreciation of paleo-anthropology and an understanding of what it means to ‘live close to the ground’" is absolutely relevant to what I'm advocating: "understanding how human bodies work".  That is how we can avoid getting dragged into the details of each individual study.

Elenor:

Scientists have bills to pay and children to feed.  When (as Naughton pointed out in Fat Head and Big Fat Fiasco) your career can be destroyed by opposing the prevailing orthodoxy, you'll find a way to support it.

I've watched all his other stuff -- but I haven't seen "Science for Smart People" yet, so I'll definitely make time for that one.

Paul:

In a way, I'm trying to give people back their bullshit detector by providing a fact-based basis for it: human biochemistry, informed by evolutionary context.  

The debunkings in the middle aren't really the point of the article: they're examples of how to create counterfactual conclusions that we should be able to simply dismiss out of hand.  But without a fact-based "bullshit detector", we're vulnerable to the continued onslaught of bad advice, and stuck in the muddle of details.  

None of us, including me, have time for that.

It's like someone in the modern age bringing up phrenology: we don't have to find a controlled study to know that it's baloney.  Human biology does that for us.  And it's the same for the "clogged drain" model of heart disease: once we understand how fat transport and metabolism actually works, we can dismiss it as silly without having to refer to the medical literature.

It may seem like a subtle point, but it's not.

JS

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June 30, 2011
2:46 am
Honora Renwick
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My experience of the wonderful satiety of meat was when I ate leftover stir-fried steak/vegies on a mountaineering course for breakfast. We were very busy on our course and didn't get a chance to stop and eat until 2pm. Fortunately, the stir-fry kept me going until then. I was very impressed.

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June 30, 2011
3:09 pm
Halifax, UK
Gnoll
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JS: Indeed, it is not. Often, the simplest of points have the deepest of ramifications when duly considered.

I must say, I've had to look up "N=1" since it's not native to our language here in the UK, but as you've said in another article … as you've said, it's not about N=1; it's not "whatever works for you" … we have biochemistry to SHOW us what works and what does not.

The difficulty is, we have "biochemists" telling us one thing over here … and another set of "biochemists" telling us something else over there. Having a small bunch of principles to hold up against anything we read will hone our BS detector. Your "predator principle" is simple – it explains paleo without a 12 point manifesto!

Your examples can be converted into simple principles to hone our BS detectors.

They key thing is to be able to think for ourselves. Prior to paleo, I guess I was a "JERF" (I've just learned that phrase). Paleo helped me to refine my diet to a state of purity and the transition was simple. I could understand the concepts and could follow the science … when it was layed out before me. I could also google for oppositional articles and evidence, but they did not quite smell right. Others might not smell it until they've stepped in it!

Principles enable us to keep out feet (and stomachs) clean of BS! This article could have your usual punch with a couple of bold bullet points at the end distilling the examples into principles.

I get it, but then I can think for myself. You get it … well, you wrote it. A "baloney principle", like you have the "predator principle" would pack the knockout punch for this article Wink

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Living in the Ice Age http://livingintheiceage.pjgh.co.uk
July 1, 2011
2:10 am
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Honora:

It's much better than instant oatmeal, isn't it?

Paul:

Sometimes those punchy little summaries come directly to mind, sometimes they don't.  The creative process hasn't yet been domesticated.  But if I figure out a way to distill it down to a couple punchy bullet points, I'll certainly update!

JS

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July 5, 2011
9:38 pm
Txomin
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Thank you for this post, Stanton.

There is an unjustified notion, a myth really, that peer-reviewed literature is credible by default. It is crucial that those of us that work with academic material (and are, therefore, professionally experienced in these matters) continue to let it be known that no matter the manner in which a piece of information lands in one's hands, it MUST be read critically.

Please, please, folks, learn to distinguish between what you believe and what you understand.

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July 5, 2011
9:44 pm
Wanderer
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July 5, 2011
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And, yes, that includes Wikipedia.

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July 6, 2011
11:31 pm
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Txomin:

I agree!  It would be nice to say "Just use common sense", but that doesn't work either, because "common sense" is mostly cultural bias.

I'm trying to think of a snappier way to conclude this essay, but "understanding how human bodies and metabolism work" is the best I can do for now.

Thanks for joining the gnolls!  Do stick around.

JS

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July 7, 2011
1:50 am
Halifax, UK
Gnoll
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June 5, 2011
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Hi Txomin! Good to see you here.

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Living in the Ice Age http://livingintheiceage.pjgh.co.uk
July 7, 2011
5:34 pm
Wanderer
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July 5, 2011
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@Stanton
The reply and welcome is appreciated.

There is a folk saying that I will now... muddle. "It is surprisingly easy to make people believe a lie, no matter how fantastic it might be. Yet it is excruciatingly difficult to make people understand a notion, no matter how simple it might be".

It think it is also very important to dispel the myth that this implies any form of intellectual elitism. Getting to understand anything is exclusively a matter of work and, oftentimes, very hard work.

@Paul
Good to see you here too. I wouldn't be surprised if we both frequent many of the same top quality blogs on the net.

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July 8, 2011
12:11 am
First-Eater
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Txomin:

Intellectualism is powerful enough that it can be easily used to create plausible-sounding justifications for utter baloney.  In fact, that's pretty much what elitism is...an attempt to obscure the path to understanding so that others can't follow it.

JS

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July 13, 2011
6:04 am
Weeding the Yard | C
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[...] Here, Jay Stanton from gnolls.org addresses a few and how he approaches “weeding.” [...]

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August 14, 2011
4:29 pm
Another Halocene Hum
Guest

Thank you for this post. Nutrition research seems to be especially rife with this sort of nonsense, and the shame of it is, nothing's stopping these clowns from running their experimental plan past an expert with slightly different credentials, such as a biochemistry PhD or an MD clinician, for a basic sanity check.

Study - prior plausibility = waste of time and money

Next!

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August 14, 2011
6:39 pm
First-Eater
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AHH:

Research is driven by funding for research.  Once you've got someone willing to fund an experiment, the last thing you want is someone to tell you why it's a silly idea.  And you're likely to design the experiment in order to get the results that your funders wanted.

JS

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