Category Archives: books

Books that I have read over the years and what I think of them.

“A lawyer should seek the truth”

Mason shook his head.
“Why not?” Drake asked.
“Because,” Mason said, “it isn’t the truth.”
“Don’t be naive,” Drake said. “A lot of criminal lawyers I know don’t pay much attention to the truth. Often when the truth would get a client stuck a good lawyer has to resort to something else.”
“I’m afraid of anything that isn’t the truth.” Mason said. “My client tells me a story that’s almost impossible to believe, but it’s her story. If I, as her attorney, adhere to that story I at least am being true to the ideals of my profession. I may think it’s a lie, but I don’t know it’s a lie.
“If, however, I think up some synthetic story, then I know it’s false and I’m afraid of anything that’s false. A lawyer should seek the truth.”
“But your client’s story, from what I gather about it, can’t be true,” Drake said.
“Then,” Mason said, “it’s up to me to seek out the truth.”

Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Glamorous Ghost

“And all for a lie”

For him personally there could be no assimilation; he had known that after the first five years. By then he had learned fluent Russian, written and spoken, but he still retained a remarkable English accent. Apart from that, he had come to hate the society. It was a completely, irreversibly and unalterably alien society.

That was not the worst of it: within seven years of arriving he had lost his last political illusions. It was all a lie, and he had been smart enough to see through it. He had spent his youth and manhood serving a lie, lying for the lie, betraying for the lie, abandoning that ‘green and pleasant land’, and all for a lie.

Frederick Forsyth, The Fourth Protocol

Bookkeeper of Calories

I finished Taubes’ book a few weeks back and can now say that I’m absolutely convinced that his view that carbohydrates are directly connected to obesity and diabetes is correct. One of the blurbs on the back cover of the book calls it “the most important book on diet and health to be published in the past one hundred years.” It might very well be that too. Chapter after chapter painstakingly documents the errors and omissions, and the prejudices and biases that went into manufacturing the consensus against dietary fat and in favor of carbohydrates. I do not wish to go into the details, but I do wish to quote from the Epilogue-

In the 1890s, Francis Benedict and Wilbur Atwater, pioneers of the science of nutrition in the United States, spent a year in the laboratory testing the assumption that the law of energy conservation applied to humans as well as animals. They did so not because they doubted that it did, but precisely because it seemed so obvious. “No one would question” it, they wrote. “The quantitative demonstration is, however, desirable, and an attested method for such demonstration is of fundamental importance for the study of the general laws of metabolism of both matter and energy.”

This is how functioning science works. Outstanding questions are identified or hypotheses proposed; experimental tests are than established either to answer the questions or to refute the hypotheses, regardless of how obviously true they might appear to be. If assertions are made without the empirical evidence to defend them, they are vigorously rebuked. In science, as Merton noted, progress is made only by first establishing whether one’s predecessors have erred or “have stopped before tracking down the implications of their results or have passed over in their work what is there to be seen by the fresh eye of another.” Each new claim to knowledge, therefore, has to be picked apart and appraised. Its shortcomings have to be established unequivocally before we can know what questions remain to be asked, and so what answers to seek—what we know is really so and what we don’t. “This unending exchange of critical judgment,” Merton wrote, “of praise and punishment, is developed in science to a degree that makes the monitoring of children’s behavior by their parents seem little more than child’s play.”

The institutionalized vigilance, “this unending exchange of critical judgment,” is nowhere to be found in the study of nutrition, chronic disease, and obesity, and it hasn’t been for decades. For this reason, it is difficult to use the term “scientist” to describe those individuals who work in these disciplines, and, indeed, I have actively avoided doing so in this book. It’s simply debatable, at best, whether what these individuals have practiced for the past fifty years, and whether the culture they have created, as a result, can reasonably be described as science, as most working scientists or philosophers of science would typically characterize it. Individuals in these disciplines think of themselves as scientists; they use the terminology of science in their work, and they certainly borrow the authority of science to communicate their beliefs to the general public, but “the results of their enterprise,” as Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, might have put it, “do not add up to science as we know it.”

Taubes is being polite when he refrains from using the term “scientist” to describe someone working in these fields. These people discard empirical evidence if it doesn’t fit their preconceived notions, don’t understand causality (or physics, for that matter), specialize (and then work in isolated silos) to the point of lunacy, engage in research that is incapable of answering the relevant questions, and do a million other things of a similar nature. And then have to gall to provide “expert” advice to everyone else. If I look for a term to describe such a person, “quack” comes to mind. And witch doctor. And whatever you call those people who burned Bruno at the stake, given the way they treated scientists who dared to oppose the consensus, and the number of careers they managed to sabotage as a result.

I’m surprised at my own surprise, though, because this is not a unique situation. Hayek once “accused” economists of pretense and scientism. And what is the IPCC but an attempt at “manufacturing consensus”?

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.

Atlas

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!