Monday, September 5, 2011

Gary Taubes blog post

Some very interesting thoughts from Taubes relating not just to health and obesity, but also to science and the drivers behind paradigm shifts in any field. A lot of what he is saying reminded me of things Steve Keen has talked about. While Taubes is questioning the validity of the calories-in/calories-out model of weight loss/gain (that is a massive simplification of his ideas, for the record), Keen is questioning the validity of neoclassical economics. Both are challenging the most conventional wisdom of the day, and both I think are worth paying close attention to, no matter which "side" you may currently find yourself on when it comes to these topics.

This is why a common and understandable response to any challenge to the existing paradigm – to the conventional wisdom, in effect – from an outsider is this: “who the hell are you (or am I) to be questioning us? You’re not a member of the priesthood. Not an upper wizard of the stratosphere. You haven’t trained in the field. You haven’t proven yourself. You haven’t done, in effect, what we have done; you haven’t learned what we have learned. You didn’t have the necessary apprenticeship in the relevant arts. Bug off!” (Although, this is by no means a universal response, as this paper – “Obesity and Energy Balance – Is the Tail Wagging the Dog?” — published in July in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition demonstrates, taking my ideas and those of Robert Lustig’s and exploring the implications.)
And here’s the challenge to both the scientist working in the field and the lay observer following along: how do we tell the difference between the one in a million times, say, that an outsider comes along and gets it right, and the other 999,999 quack-driven attempts? The numbers alone tell us that the best idea is always to bet against the outsider, that we’re always best served by ignoring him or her and getting back to science as usual (what Kuhn called “normal science”). The odds are enormously in our favor if we do so. But, still, when a paradigm is shifted, it’s going to be an outsider who does it, so keeping an open mind is a reasonably good idea, particularly when the evidence suggests such a shift is in order (see aforementioned obesity epidemic).

This leads to a second major problem with making these assessments – who’s right or what’s right. As Kuhn explained, shifting a paradigm includes not just providing a solution to the outstanding problems in the field, but a rethinking of the questions that are asked, the observations that are considered and how those observations are interpreted, and even the technologies that are used to answer the questions. In fact, often the problems that the new paradigm solves, the questions it answers, are not the problems and the questions that practitioners living in the old paradigm would have recognized as useful.

“Paradigms provide scientists not only with a map but also with some of the direction essential for map-making,” wrote Kuhn. “In learning a paradigm the scientist acquires theory, methods, and standards together, usually in an inextricable mixture. Therefore, when paradigms change, there are usually significant shifts in the criteria determining the legitimacy both of problems and of proposed solutions.”

As a result, Kuhn said, researchers on different sides of conflicting paradigms can barely discuss their differences in any meaningful way: “They will inevitably talk through each other when debating the relative merits of their respective paradigms. In the partially circular arguments that regularly result, each paradigm will be shown to satisfy more or less the criteria that it dictates for itself and to fall short of a few of those dictated by its opponent.”


Taubes also links to and quotes from Feynman's lectures, which are available HERE.

Related books:

Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It