Monday, March 26, 2012

Hearing The Big Lie Personally- Some Reflections

I ran into the vegetarian/vegan mythology this weekend. It was weird to me to find a script unfolding, one I know is completely wrong but one that is so directly compelling to it's believer. Framingham study, China study, the b-12 in beef is really contamination- all the bells and whistles seen on the internet but this time in person. Of course this is all trading on the average human's ignorance- Ancel Key poisoning rabbits and then pretend this has something to do with humans, etc...
I'd like to know what devil came up with the contamination theory for the B12 in ruminants. This lie trades on our complete ignorance of ruminant digestive systems. The bacteria are there and providing B12 because it is a symbiotic system, not a contaminating one. Bacteria provide us with various things- I'm not sure how many things, but I remember some can provide vitamin K and there's that short-chain fatty acid that vegetarian primates get from their gut flora. We get some of that fatty acid too, but our digestive system is shorter than most primates so we don't get as much. Anyway, nobody is running around saying these things are due to contamination.

It's another example of why I've run pretty cold in terms of trying to hash out logical arguments- people don't listen to them! I used to be pretty idealistic, thinking if I could just explain things properly everyone will agree with me. I don't even agree with the me that thought that, nor do I believe in the sort of egalitarianism necessary to sustain superhuman efforts of trying to explain complicated things to stupid people, or, in this case, simple things to intelligent people.

This is a weird age. The effects of government funding on science has degenerated to the point where most research is propaganda for whatever the government's agenda is. Sure, big coporations like Monsanto play a role too, but it is worth it to remember they are as big as they are because of government subsidies, and government willingness to do crazy things like grant property rights (in the form of patents) over living things. Studies based on epidemiology and multi-variant computer models rule the day because they look like science to the uninitiated.

Meanwhile, I am unlikely to provide the enthusiastic critique, as Denise Minger did with the China study. Is it worth it to provide such critiques? I wish I could feel more hopeful about sharing information. Certainly I benefit when other people share, but the process is so depressingly non-linear. If I had been looking for diet advice rather than merely coming across Seth Roberts by accident, I may have been snookered by these charlatans dressed up in scientist clothing.

If there is some glimpse as to why the lies work so well, in so many different areas of society, I'd guess it is some combination a feeling of certainty and morality. The feeling of being morally superior for not eating meat (though frankly, I don't know how ethicists arrive at it being more moral to eat the things that can't run away), the idea that you are helping the planet if you recycle, or that your vote matters- just do what they say and you get to feel certain and feel morally superior.

But what I have noticed is that I learned I knew a lot less than I thought I did. Of course, in the process I learned that experts know a lot less than they think they do. I've had certain benefits, but I also have to put up with a higher level of uncertainty, and your sense of morality has funny things done to it when you find simple ideas and techniques seriously out-perform all that sacrifice and self-discipline that was supposed to shape your character and help you improve.

The world is chock full of mirages of knowledge, interspersed here and there with something of real value.

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