August 28, 2010

Are there groups of courageous academics?

Overall they're not courageous, obviously, but I mean relative to one another. Academics have some basic training in their field plus more specialized knowledge about their pet projects, but they don't seem to act on this knowledge very much -- perhaps because it's not very useful, so let's just stick with academics whose knowledge could be applied to real life.

Sometimes it's easy and painless to do so, like an engineering prof using a better type of building material rather than another for an addition to their house. But what about where it would cost them in reputation or social acceptance, which is what academics care most about (not money)?

For example, how many anthropologists or historians follow a low-carb diet? Other academics may not have a clue what happened to human health after we adopted an agricultural diet, but anthropologists do, and a fair amount of historians at least have the impression that it was for the worse. The most successful anthro / history book of the past several decades is Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, most of which chronicles how destructive agriculture was for human health. So even if this wasn't part of your specialty, you'd still recognize it as something that that Diamond guy talked about.

Conclusion for the real world: cut most carbs out. There can be no whining about taste, as how good something tastes is mostly due to fat, salt, and sugar. Most carb-eaters aren't eating cakes and ice cream all day, so they won't be missing much there. And they can eat all the fat and salt they want. Unadorned carbs taste like paper or grass -- nothing lost. The real reason they don't do so is that it'll make them stand out as a weirdo, even if they can explain why it's a healthier diet.

There is a mass suspicion about animal products in our culture today, so you can have a non-mainstream diet like vegans and not be considered weird (among academics anyway). But going the other way by relying more on animal products and eliminating grains -- now you are officially strange.

As far as I can tell, most anthropologists and historians don't apply this lesson at all in their real lives. Forget about those who say they don't care about their health (a lie almost always), and stick just with those who claim to want a healthy diet. Even they aren't majority low-carb.

Is there any group of grant-grubbers that does risk social disapproval to apply the wisdom or knowledge of their field to real life? Note the assumption -- that they possess such applicable wisdom to begin with. I'm not talking about an autistic economist who ruins his social life by contracting out the task of helping his friends to those who are specialists, which is more "rational" and "efficient." And, being less costly to the economist than doing them himself, are weaker signals of friendship, causing his friends to withdraw, so reducing his adaptedness to the highly social world we live in. This risk of social disapproval does not result from applying wisdom, as he has fundamentally misunderstood the purpose of helping out friends -- a big part of which is to give a costly (hence honest) signal of loyalty.

And I'm not talking about some sociologist who "just knows" that most of the differences in SAT scores are due to tutoring differences, and so spends a fortune for his kids to get top-rate tutors.

These people are fools whose decisions, if made commonly, would unravel humankind. I'm not ruling out anthropologists, economists, or sociologists -- but they surely wouldn't count based on the above examples. I know there are individual iconoclasts, but are there groups where most of them apply wisdom to real life despite the risk of broader disapproval?


  1. No. There are no courageous academics, because academics are selected for not rocking the boat.

    Consider, for example, when the Soviet Union was collapsing. In the last decade or so before it fell there were lots of reports in the popular literature that the Soviet Union was going to hell in a handbasket, but in Academia the debate was between the sensible mainstream majority, who held that the Soviet Union was doing really great, and a lonely minority of extreme right wing cranks, who held it was merely doing fine.

    In all of academia, not one single boat rocker. Presumably there were a lot of academics who inwardly suspected that the Soviet Union was indeed going to hell in a handbasket, but not one of them said anything.

  2. James_C2:41 PM

    And they can eat all the fat and salt they want.

    On this note, I just bought "The Paleo Diet" by Loren Cordain, and I was surprised to see he prohibits all dairy (including cheese), high salt foods, and high fat meats. What's the deal with that? He also suggests eating a ton of fruits. I guess this makes sense from a hunter-gatherer perspective, but differs from a lot of your recommendations in your low-carb posts, which honestly make the diet seem a whole lot easier to stick to.

  3. Anonymous11:53 PM

    James C, check out Rob Wolf or Mark Sisson instead.

    - Breeze

  4. "how destructive agriculture was for human health"

    You're right. Humanity is on the verge of collapse.

  5. Cordain is low-carb but not very paleo. I'm sure if pushed in person, he'd admit how animal-dependent we are, but his brand is made for the PC crowd who are afraid of fat and especially saturated fat, and who want to eat as much sweets as possible.

    Our ancestral diet is incredibly rich in fat, including saturated fat. The main error he and others make is by comparing just the muscle meat of wild vs. domesticated animals that we eat. Wild game meat has less fat, and less saturated fat.

    But that just means we got it from somewhere else, indeed in far greater amounts than most people realize -- namely from organ meat and bone marrow. There's nothing very tough about brains, hearts, kidneys, livers, intestines, etc. It's almost all fat, and particularly saturated fat (especially brains).

    Staying away from most fruits is a good idea since most are very saccharine and are the product of domestication to please our sweet tooth. Most wild fruits and nuts are poisonous, and the edible ones are tart, sour, or bland, not sweet.

    A handful of mixed berries once a day won't hurt, but beware anything that sets off your sweetness alarm.


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