Cognitive dissonance, the “thrifty gene,” etc

I’m more than half-way through Taubes’ book that I mentioned about a month back and the one thing that struck me (in a good way) was that it’s more of a political work than one on nutrition. To take one simple example, the third and fourth chapters carry the titles “Creation of Consensus” and “The Greater Good,” respectively, and they delve into the politicization of the science of nutrition, and a particular kind of mentality wherein it is considered acceptable to “save” one life by “treating” a thousand people, even if 99.9% of them are not, and will never be, “sick.”

It is perplexing to see people who call themselves scientists ignoring, for some reason, all evidence that causes their hypothesis to fail, and Taubes writes the following in the tenth chapter-

Even the diabetes community found it easier to accept Reaven’s science than its dietary implications. Reaven’s observations and data “speak for themselves,” as Robert Silverman of the NIH suggested at a 1986 consensus conference on diabetes prevention and treatment. But they placed nutritionists in an awkward position. “High protein levels can be bad for the kidneys,” said Silverman. “High fat is bad for your heart. Now Reaven is saying not to eat high carbohydrates. We have to eat something.” “Sometimes we wish it would go away,” Silverman added, “because nobody knows how to deal with it.”

This is what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, or the tension that results from trying to hold two incompatible beliefs simultaneously. When the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn discussed cognitive dissonance in scientific research—”the awareness of an anomaly in the fit between theory and nature”—he suggested that scientists will typically do what they have invariably done in the past in such cases: “They will devise numerous articulations and ad hoc modifications of their theory in order to eliminate any apparent conflict.” And that’s exactly what happened with metabolic syndrome and its dietary implications. The syndrome itself was accepted as real and important; the idea that it was caused or exacerbated by the excessive consumption of carbohydrates simply vanished.

And this is from the fourteenth chapter on “The Mythology of Obesity,” where he discusses the “thrifty gene” hypothesis and its history-

It wasn’t until the late 1970s, just a few years before Neel himself publicly rejected his hypothesis, that obesity researchers began invoking thrifty genes as the reason why putting on weight seems so much easier than losing it. Jules Hirsch of Rockefeller University was among the first to do so, and his logic is noteworthy, because his primary goal was to establish that humans, like every other species of animal, had apparently evolved a homeostatic system to regulate weight, and one that would do so successfully against fluctuations in food availability. We eat during the day, and yet have to supply nutrients to our cells all night long, while we sleep, for example, so we must have evolved a fuel storage system that takes this into account. “To me, it would be most unthinkable if we did not have a complex, integrated system to assure that a fraction of what we eat is put aside and stored,” Hirsch wrote in 1977. To explain why these components might cause obesity so often in modern societies, he assumed as fact something that Neel had never considered more than speculation. “The biggest segment of man’s history is covered by times when food was scarce and was acquired in unpredictable amounts and by dint of tremendous caloric expenditure,” Hirsch suggested. “The long history of food scarcity and its persistence in much of the world could not have gone unnoticed by such an adaptive organism as man. Hoarding and caloric miserliness are built into our fabric.”

But that “scarcity” is a myth more than anything else-

The prevailing opinion among anthropologists, not to be confused with that of nutritionists and public-health authorities, is that hunting and gathering allow for such a varied and extensive diet, including not just roots and berries but large and small game, insects, scavenged meat (often eaten at “levels of decay that would horrify a European”), and even occasionally other humans, that the likelihood of the simultaneous failure of all nutritional resources is vanishingly small. When hunting failed, these populations could still rely on foraging of plant food and insects, and when gathering failed “during long-continued drought,” as the missionary explorer David Livingstone noted of a South African tribe in the mid-nineteenth century, they could relocate to the local water holes, where “very great numbers of the large game” also congregated by necessity. This resiliency of hunting and gathering is now thought to explain why it survived for two million years before giving way to agriculture. In those areas where human remains span the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to farmers, anthropologists have reported that both nutrition and health declined, rather than improved, with the adoption of agriculture. (It was this observation that led Jared Diamond to describe agriculture as “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.”)

Although famines were both common and severe in Europe until the nineteenth century, this would suggest that those with European ancestry should be the most likely to have thrifty genes, and the most susceptible to obesity and diabetes in our modern toxic environments. Rather, among Europeans there is “a uniquely low occurrence of Type 2 diabetes,” as Diamond puts it, more evidence that the thrifty-gene hypothesis is incorrect.


It’s the people’s will! I’m their leader! I must follow them!

The Rt. Hon. James Hacker, MP, Yes Minister

Causality, science and behaviorism

Last month, Gary Taubes wrote an article in NYT Magazine in support of a hypothesis (Robert Lustig’s; watch his 2009 UCSF lecture here) that sugar, fructose in particular, was not merely bad, but downright dangerous, and might be the cause of everything from diabetes to obesity. You can read his article for the hows and whys, and Lustig’s lecture is a must-see just for the section in which he compares the metabolization of a simple carbohydrate, ethanol and sugar. When I looked him (Taubes) up, I found that he wrote an article in the same magazine about nine years back claiming that it was the carbohydrate in the meal, and not the calories, that mattered when it came to obesity and diabetes. He went on to write a book, “Good Calories, Bad Calories,” on the subject, and also gave a lecture at UC Berkeley in late 2007 (it is a real media stream. use vlc player).

I’ve not read the book yet (it is in the mail), but both the logic, and the empirical evidence Taubes provides, appeals to me. What’s interesting is that while both articles and both lectures are years apart, both Taubes and Lustig are on the same path. Both manage to turn the arrow of causality 180 degrees by saying that the conventional wisdom of weight gain = energy intake (“gluttony”) – energy outgo (“sloth”) ought to be looked at from the other angle. Something sets off the weight gain. And the result is that person either eats more, or burns less. Taubes, in fact, is perturbed when he sees scientists whose research shows that carbohydrates drive insulin which causes fat accumulation refusing to see what is in front of their eyes. One says people are obese because they are sedentary, while the other says there are so because they eat too much. They continue to blame behavior when the science shows something else is going on.

This is from a review of the book:

“Obesity is not caused by eating too much,” Taubes writes, and “exercise is not a means of prevention.” Instead, “the fewer carbohydrates we consume, the leaner we will be.” The alleged preponderance of research that has supported low-fat diets is, in fact, “inadequate.” The field of public health “purports to be a science,” he says, and yet it “functions like a religion.”

Its prophets surely meant well. Taubes describes the story of how one charismatic researcher, Ancel Keys, so firmly believed that dietary fat was responsible for heart disease that he selectively published research confirming it. Keys won enough converts to his cause that other hypotheses seemed unlikely. Pretty soon, only research that promoted the dietary-fat hypothesis received funding and popular press attention. Once the hypothesis was “confirmed,” it started to sound like common sense.

All future studies were interpreted in light of the Keys theory. For instance, numerous studies showed that “primitive” people in Africa and the Pacific islands had low incidences of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes until they encountered the supposedly high-fat Western diet.

Of course, such research ignores the fact that those “primitive” tribal diets often featured little else but saturated fats. What they really lacked were refined carbohydrates and sugars. But since it seemed implausible to scientists that anything but dietary fats could cause the fat around our middles, and that anything but cholesterol could cause blockages in our arteries, public-health authorities rejected the carbohydrate thesis. Proponents of low-carb diets, such as the late Dr. Robert Atkins, were dismissed as quacks.

The reviewer claims that Taubes fashions himself as a lone dissident when, in fact, many people accept the hypothesis. Unless major associations of medical practitioners come out in the open and say they were wrong and that carbohydrates are a problem, she is highly overestimating the consensus.

PS: I collected a few links from this article, and the comments that follow. There are things here which I haven’t linked to, such as hatchet jobs, articles, book reviews, Taubes’ responses to them, etc.


In his introduction to Brand Blanshard’s On Philosophical Style (book | online), Michael Walsh highlights a passage from the essay that deals with the importance of clarity when it comes to putting philosophical ideas to paper. Blanshard wrote-

To say that Major André was hanged is clear and definite; to say that he was killed is less definite, because you do not know in what way he was killed; to say that he died is still more indefinite because you do not even know whether his death was due to violence or to natural causes. If we were to use this statement as a varying symbol by which to rank writers for clearness, we might, I think, get something like the following: Swift, Macaulay, and Shaw would say that André was hanged. Bradley would say that he was killed. Bosanquet would say that he died. Kant would say that his mortal existence achieved its termination. Hegel would say that a finite determination of infinity had been further determined by its own negation.

Walsh concludes by quoting another passage from the essay-

Berkeley proved against all the Heideggers of the world that philosophy can be written clearly, against all the Hegels that it can be written simply, against all the Kants that it can be written with grace. He was no mere popularizer; he was an acute, original, and technical thinker, urging a theory that is about as shocking to common sense as any theory ever offered. But though even Dr. Johnson could not answer him, the plain man could read him and understand. ‘I shall throughout endeavour,’ he wrote, ‘to express myself in the clearest, plainest, and most familiar manner, abstaining from all hard and unusual terms which are pretended by those that use them to cover a sense abstracted and sub­lime.’ He kept to this engagement. He ‘spoke with the vulgar’ without ceasing to think with the learned. Like G. E. Moore in our own day, he showed in the one wholly convincing way—by example—that philosophy could maintain all the sharp-eyed wariness of the specialist while walking the road of ordinary speech.

This is what Long wrote about Rand-

Rand owed much of her success to the power and directness of her writing style. She was a master at what one of my colleagues calls reductio ad claritatem, “reduction to clarity” — i.e., the method of refuting a position by stating it clearly — as when she wrote that “if some men are entitled by right to the products of the work of others, it means that those others are deprived of rights and condemned to slave labor,” or when she summarized the view that human perception is unreliable because limited by the nature of our sensory organs as “man is blind, because he has eyes — deaf, because he has ears.”

Clarity. One could accuse Rand of many things, but one can never say that she was unclear. Which is why I don’t buy most of the attacks on her ideas, particularly those from people whose political philosophy and ethics are in conflict with hers. Like this exercise in pissing and name-calling (kindergarten is a wonderful place) by someone who likes to write about things which he is clueless about (I covered his previous fit here). He approvingly links to this hatchet job on Rand in a religious journal. When I read pieces like these, I imagine the author perched on his septic tank, dipping his pen in it every few minutes. Would it kill them if they read a couple of her works before writing page after page of unadulterated nonsense? Probably. Neither Chait’s progressive-liberal world view, nor Hart’s which has its roots in Christianity, could survive the Randian sledgehammer. They’d rather pretend that it was an icepick.

Here’s another paragraph from Long’s article-

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Rand’s philosophy — her rejection of altruism and her embrace of ethical egoism — is also one of the most misunderstood. Despite her sometimes-misleading rhetoric about “the virtue of selfishness,” the point of her egoism was not to advocate the pursuit of one’s own interests at the expense of others’, but rather to reject the entire conflictual model of interests according to which “the happiness of one man necessitates the injury of another,” in favor of an older, more Aristotelean conception of self-interest as excellent human functioning.

It was on such Aristotelean grounds that she rejected not only the subordination of one’s own interests to those of others (and it is this, rather than mere benevolence, that she labeled “altruism”) but also the subordination of others’ interests to one’s own (which she labeled “selfishness without a self”). For Rand, the Aristotelean recognition of properly understood human interests as rationally harmonious was the essential foundation for a free society.

Misunderstood? Hardly. “Deliberately” misunderstood. Ah, selfishness! Rand advocated killing one’s neighbor, stealing his horse and taking his wife!

A few words on the film that is struggling in US theaters. If it was not obvious to the people who decided to have a nose vs. face moment w.r.t. it (graveyards are a riot compared to the publicity the “official” Randians have provided this film with), Atlas’s box office results are being viewed as a referendum on the relevance of Rand’s ideas. The only help it has received is from some quarters of the (lunatic!) right, and even that hasn’t helped very much. If this attempt fails, I sincerely doubt that anyone will bother with an encore. Why spend millions filming a polarizing novel which only appeals to twenty picky-as-hell people when one can make two billion dollars on Blue People 2, two more on Blue People 3, and then some more on Blue People Visit Mars!

A contract

Back in September*, I had linked to this post by S. Oliva at the Mises blog and had said I would write about it “one of these days.” Given that there’s a new “discussion” on the validity of intellectual property going on between the Randians and Rothbardians, this is a good time to do it.

Oliva writes-

[R]and’s defense of intellectual property outshines even the most litigious pharmaceutical company. Consider a core argument of the Randian canon – Howard Roark’s trial defense in The Fountainhead. Roark manages to justify trespassing and physical destruction of another person’s tangible property, all in the name of preserving the sociopathic architect’s “right” to avoid looking at a building that was similar – but not identical – to one he designed.

For those unfamiliar with the novel, Roark is an architect who spends his career in relative obscurity despite his obvious talent. Roark personifies Rand’s concept of pure egoism: He designs and constructs buildings primarily for his own satisfaction. The climax of the novel involves Roark designing a government housing project called Cortlandt. Roark makes a deal with Peter Keating, the architect who actually holds the commission for Cortlandt: Roark will design Cortlandt for Keating anonymously and free of charge provided the complex is constructed to Roark’s exact specifications. Keating cannot change the design. Keating, in turn, secures a similar promise from Cortlandt’s owners, but they ignore this and make changes. When Roark sees the “deformed” Cortlandt, he sneaks onto the property and blows it up with dynamite.

(About the trials, court cases, in The Fountainhead, K.M. linked to this interesting analysis a few months back.)

He’s right for the most part, and has more to say on the subject (I will come to that later), but here’s the situation again. Cortlandt is a government housing project whose units would be let out at a low rent to people whose income is below a particular threshold. Keating gets the commission, but Toohey, the man who has the power to recommend an architect, knows that there’s only one person who can create Cortlandt, Roark. And that if Keating does come up with the plans, the man behind him would have to be Roark. Now what does Roark think about the whole thing?

I hate the whole blasted idea of [housing]. I think it is a worthy undertaking—to provide a decent apartment for a man who earns fifteen dollars a week. But not at the expense of other men. Not if it raises the taxes, raises all the other rents and makes the man who earns forty live in a rat hole. That’s what’s happening in New York. Nobody can afford a modern apartment—except the very rich and the paupers. Have you seen the converted brownstones in which the average self-supporting couple has to live? Have you seen their closet kitchens and their plumbing? They’re forced to live like that—because they’re not incompetent enough. They make forty dollars a week and wouldn’t be allowed into a housing project. But they’re the ones who provide the money for the damn project. They pay the taxes. And the taxes raise their own rent. And they have to move from a converted brownstone to an unconverted one and from that into a railroad flat. I’d have no desire to penalize a man because he’s worth only fifteen dollars a week. But I’ll be damned if I can see why a man worth forty must be penalized—and penalized in favor of the one who’s less competent.


I don’t believe in government housing. I don’t want to hear anything about its noble purposes. I don’t think they’re noble. But that, too, doesn’t matter. That’s not my first concern. Not who lives in the house nor who orders it built. Only the house itself. If it has to be built, it might as well be built right.

So we know his stand on the morality of government housing, and why he would do it regardless.

Then he lays down the conditions under which he will do the project-

Your government housing, among other things, has made all building so expensive that private owners can’t afford such projects, nor any type of low rent construction. And I will never be given any job by any government.


Peter, I love this work. I want to see it erected. I want to see it real, living, functioning, built. But every living thing is integrated. Do you know what that means? Whole, pure, complete, unbroken. Do you know what constitutes an integrating principle? A thought. The one thought, the single thought that created the thing and every part of it. The thought which no one can change or touch. I want to design Cortlandt. I want to see it built. I want to see it built exactly as I design it.


[H]ere’s what I’m offering you: I’ll design Cortlandt. You’ll put your name on it. You’ll keep all the fees. But you’ll guarantee that it will be built exactly as I design it.


You’ll have to get yourself an ironclad contract with your bosses and then fight every bureaucrat that comes along every five minutes for the next year or more. I will have no guarantee except your word.


Sign it…. [a] contract between us, stating the terms of our agreement….It would probably have no legal validity whatever. But I can hold it over your head. I couldn’t sue you. But I could make this public.

This…is a contract between Roark and Keating. Keating has a different contract with the government, which then goes on to ignore it. Roark dynamites the monstrosity, and this is what he has to say in his defense-

Now you know why I dynamited Cortlandt.

I designed Cortlandt. I gave it to you. I destroyed it.

I destroyed it because I did not choose to let it exist. It was a double monster. In form and in implication. I had to blast both. The form was mutilated by two second-handers who assumed the right to improve upon that which they had not made and could not equal. They were permitted to do it by the general implication that the altruistic purpose of the building superseded all rights and that I had no claim to stand against it.

I agreed to design Cortlandt for the purpose of seeing it erected as I designed it and for no other reason. That was the price I set for my work. I was not paid.

I do not blame Peter Keating. He was helpless. He had a contract with his employers. It was ignored. He had a promise that the structure he offered would be built as designed. The promise was broken. The love of a man for the integrity of his work and his right to preserve it are now considered a vague intangible and an inessential. You have heard the prosecutor say that. Why was the building disfigured? For no reason. Such acts never have any reason, unless it’s the vanity of some second-handers who feel they have a right to anyone’s property, spiritual or material. Who permitted them to do it? No particular man among the dozens in authority. No one cared to permit it or to stop it. No one was responsible. No one can be held to account. Such is the nature of all collective action.

I did not receive the payment I asked. But the owners of Cortlandt got what they needed from me. They wanted a scheme devised to build a structure as cheaply as possible. They found no one else who could do it to their satisfaction. I could and did. They took the benefit of my work and made me contribute it as a gift. But I am not an altruist. I do not contribute gifts of this nature.

Oliva attacks this sequence of events in various ways. One, Roark has no “intellectual property,” or any kind of property right in the design of the actual Cortlandt Homes. Two, Roark’s contract, “the promise,” with Keating is meaningless because Keating is not the owner of Cortlandt. Three, Roark has no case of “fraud” against the government because he didn’t enter into a contract with the government, but with Keating.

Rand did have very strong views on IPR, and her distinction between first-handers and second-handers in The Fountainhead could, if one wants to, be read as a support for IPR. But I don’t think looking at this from an IPR perspective is going to provide any solutions. A very strong reason: the Stoddard fiasco. Roark built the “temple,” knew later on that he had been baited by Toohey, lost the suit filed against him, quietly paid up the damages sought, and watched his building being desecrated by louts like Prescott, Webb and others. Rand describes what happened to the temple which was converted to “The Hopton Stoddard Home for Subnormal Children”-

The original shape of the building remained discernible. It was not like a corpse whose fragments had been mercifully scattered; it was like a corpse hacked to pieces and reassembled.

Writing about what he calls the “Roark Doctrine,” Oliva says-

But the most offensive part of Roark’s defense is that his intangible “right” to destroy a building with a similar-but-not-identical design to his supersedes the tangible property rights of – wait for it – altruists. Since Cortlandt’s owners had an “altruistic purpose,” this effectively negated any rights they had in their own physical property, including their right to change a building design without the permission of an architect they never actually hired.

If that were the case, one wonders why Roark didn’t demolish the modified “temple.” It wasn’t fear that stopped him. He had been paid for his work. He knew he had been had. It taught him to stop building structures to abstractions that people would struggle to understand.

Which is why the Cortlandt case is not about IPR, but breach of contract. Before I make the case for breach of contract, I would say that whatever one’s opinion about the legalities of IPR, there does exist something called a moral right. One does find declarations in books where authors assert their “moral right” to be recognized as such. Regardless of whether one pays for one’s copy of The Fountainhead, or lifts it from a server and redistributes it for free, it would be disingenuous for him to claim that he wrote the book. Anyone interested in Human Action, author George W. Bush?

Okay, breach of contract. Roark has an agreement with Keating. Keating has one with the government which incorporates his “promise” to Roark. But this is ignored.

When Keating invoked his contract, he was told: “All right, go ahead, try to sue the government. Try it.”

Roark sold his services, the economical design for Cortlandt, to Keating and demanded as payment the construction of the project “exactly as I design[ed] it.” Unless Keating pays him for the same, Keating is not the rightful owner of the design, or any part of it. Keating’s contract with the government is of a similar nature. And thus, if Roark is not paid, the government cannot make use of his design. If anyone argues (rightly) that contracts only bind the contracting parties, like Stephan Kinsella does in his Against Intellectual Monopoly-

Suppose, for example, that A writes a book and sells physical copies of it to numerous purchasers B1, B2 . . . BN, with a contractual condition that each buyer B is obligated not to make or sell a copy of the text. Under all theories of contract, any of the buyers B becomes liable to A, at least for damages, if he violates these provisions.

But the advocates of the contractual approach to IP are mistaken if they believe that private contract can be used to recreate the same type of protection afforded by modern IP rights. Patent and copyright are good against all third parties, regardless of their consent to a contract. They are real rights that bind everyone, in the same way that my title to a parcel of land binds everyone to respect my property—even if they do not have a contract with me. A contract, by contrast, binds only parties to the contract. It is like private law between the parties. It does not bind third parties, i.e., those not in “privity” with the original parties.

I would say: true, but we have two contracts between three parties, and one of them incorporates the conditions specified in the other. If Webb & Co. had broken into Roark’s offices and copied the designs and then sold them to the government, or if they had merely copied the design of one of Roark’s existing buildings, or if Keating had not signed a contract with the government, that would have been a different matter. In such cases, Roark wouldn’t have any case against the owners of Cortlandt, but only against Webb, Keating etc.

But that’s not what has happened here. Even someone who does not believe in IPR has to acknowledge that Roark “worked” on Cortlandt, and was not paid for it. The government broke its agreement with Keating, which automatically resulted in the breach of his contract with Roark. If the case had gone to a proper court, the judge would realize after consulting the books of accounts and the tendering process of the project that it was not the balconies added by Webb, the “alteration,” or the bricks and cement supplied by someone else but Roark’s design that was the mainstay of the project. And he would have assessed damages accordingly, the government being liable to compensate Keating, and Keating, Roark. But where’s the drama in that? Rand’s resolution of the Cortlandt case—Roark dynamiting the project, but being freed by the jury in spite of “confessing” to the “crime”—accomplishes the same result in a far more satisfying manner.

In a civilized, capitalist, society with a proper legal system, there would be no need for a “right” to dynamite something. In a decaying society where rights are not protected and the government simply takes what it wants without paying for the same, there is.

[*Except the last paragraph or so, and minor edits, everything else is as written in December '09]


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.