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How Networks Bring Down Experts (The Paleo Example)

Paleo meal

Voice & Exit 2016 is this November. Tickets are on sale now but will sell out fast! 

For most of our lives, we’ve taught some variation on the food pyramid. The advice? Eat mostly breads and cereals, then fruits and vegetables, and very little fat and protein. Do so and you’ll be thinner and healthier. Animal fat and butter were considered unhealthy. Certain carbohydrate-rich foods were good for you as long as they were whole grain. Most of us anchored our understanding about food to that idea.

“Measures used to lower the plasma lipids in patients with hyperlipidemia will lead to reductions in new events of coronary heart disease,” said the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1971. Such expert advice was supported by the Surgeon General of the United States and prescribed by doctors for obesity and heart disease. This is called the “lipid hypothesis,” or “lipid theory” and its orthodoxy was shored up by the USDA, the medical establishment, and the American Heart Association.

For years, saturated fats like butter and bacon became public enemy number one. People flocked to the supermarket to buy up “heart healthy” margarines. And yet Americans were getting fatter.

But early in the 21st century some interesting things happened.

  • Robert Atkins, a cardiologists, popularized the “Atkins” diet, which got a lot of people reducing carbohydrates.
  • Arthur de Vany, an economist, began to talk about a low carbohydrate diet, which he referred to as the “Evolutionary Fitness Diet.” He developed the lifestyle while searching for ways to help his son and late wife deal with Type I diabetes.
  • Loren Cordain, a health and exercise scientist, explicitly popularized the Paleolithic Diet (or Paleo Diet).
  • Gary Taubes, a journalist interested in both the history of the lipid theory and the ill effects of sugar, shook up the nutrition world with articles and books that got saturated fat off the hook and put glucose, refined sugar and high-fructose corn syrup on it.
  • Mark Sisson, a marathon runner, triathlete and blogger, created a twist on the Paleolithic diet, which he called the Primal Diet. Mark was joined in lauding the primal/paleo diet by Nora Gedgaudas.
  • John Durant, a professional and Harvard graduate in evolutionary biology, began to hold paleo lifestyle events in New York City.
  • Dave Asprey, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, set about hacking his own body to lose weight and optimize his performance. He borrowed from paleo to start the process.

And while their nutrition philosophies remain controversial among experts, one thing we can say is that they all helped bring down the USDA food pyramid, the lipid theory, and the notion that a high-carb, low-fat diet are keys to good health.

Forty years of nutrition orthodoxy had been upended. And the experts are now joining the chorus from the rear.

How did they do it?

The Power of the Network

It wasn’t that Atkins, De Vany, Taubes, Sisson, Gedgaudas, Durant and Asprey were all trained nutrition experts — at least not the kind we normally think of. Nor had they commissioned expensive studies or gotten the imprimatur of the NIH. Loren Cordain had published some papers, but barring that, the expert “consensus” had not been with them.

First, each of these figures had had a lot of good reasons to abandon the experts: Some were trying to help family members; Others thought the nutrition orthodoxy went against evolutionary biology; Still others just saw a nation of millions were getting fatter despite both expert nostra and fad diets.

Then, they started talking to each other. They were influencers–force-multipliers. You might think of them as comms hubs or bigger nodes in a network. And they couldn’t have done it alone. The network had been millions of other amateurs willing to give these lifestyle changes a try. Most in this army of experimenters got incredible results and shared their experiences with others in the network. What followed was a wisdom-of-crowds phenomenon. Millions of people were not only seeing positive results, but starting to check the expert orthodoxy.

Experts don’t like their dogmas to be checked and rechecked, because their expertise gets called into question. And when their expertise is called into question, they might lose funding, cushy jobs, and gravitas. But that’s life in the peer-to-peer age.

The Problem with Expert Opinion

It’s true that to some degree we have to rely on experts. It’s a perfectly natural part of specialization and division of labor that some people will know more about some things than you and that you are likely to need their help at some point. I am terrible at math, for example, so I try to stay away from accounting. I am probably not very good at brain surgery either, so I might want to consult a neurosurgeon if I end up with a tumor in my head.

But when you get an army of networked people — sometimes amateurs — thinking, talking, tinkering and toying with ideas — you can hasten the proverbial paradigm shift. And this is exactly what we’ve seen with practitioners of the paleo and epi-paleo communities with respect to so-called nutrition expertise.

The problem of expert opinion is that it can very often be cloistered and restrictive. When science starts to seem like a walled system built around a small group of elites (many of whom are only sharing ideas with each other) — hubris and groupthink can take hold. No amount of education can catch up with an expansive network of people who have a greater stake in finding the truth than shoring up the walls of the guild.

Experts can hide behind the vagaries and denseness of their disciplines. But it’s in cross disciplinary pollination that so many different ideas can sprout.

How Networks Contribute to the Republic of Science

In his legendary 1962 essay, “The Republic of Science,” Michael Polanyi wrote the following passage, which I think beautifully illustrates both the problems of science and of society, and how they will be solved in the peer-to-peer age:

Imagine that we are given the pieces of a very large jigsaw puzzle, and suppose that for some reason it is important that our giant puzzle be put together in the shortest possible time. We would naturally try to speed this up by engaging a number of helpers; the question is in what manner these could be best employed. Suppose we share out the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle equally among the helpers and let each of them work on his lot separately. It is easy to see that this method, which would be quite appropriate to a number of women shelling peas, would be totally ineffectual in this case, since few of the pieces allocated to one particular assistant would be found to fit together. We could do a little better by providing duplicates of all the pieces to each helper separately, and eventually somehow bring together their several results. But even by this method the team would not much surpass the performance of a single individual at his best. The only way the assistants can effectively co-operate, and surpass by far what any single one of them could do, is to 1st them work on putting the puzzle together in sight of the others so that every time a piece of it is fitted in by one helper, all the others will immediately watch out for the next step that becomes possible in consequence. Under this system, each helper will act on his own initiative, by responding to the latest achievements the others, and the completion of their joint task will be great accelerated. We have here in a nutshell the way in which a series of independent initiatives are organized to a joint achievement by mutually adjusting themselves at every successive stage to the situation created by all the others who are acting likewise.

This is the Republic of Science. And this is how smart people, even amateurs with different interests and skillsets, can help us put together life’s great puzzles.

In the Republic of Science, there is room for experts. But they are only hubs among nodes in a much larger network. And in this network, leadership is earned not by sitting atop an institutional hierarchy with the plumage of a PhD, but by contributing, experimenting, communicating and learning with the rest of a far bigger hive mind.

People Aren’t Abstractions

Another interesting angle to the peer-to-peer nature of nutrition science is the that the shift from experts to networks opens the door to pluralism. In other words, expert science tends to present theories as monoliths or singular abstractions. What this change represents is, at least in the case of nutrition, is that people aren’t all the same. Subtle changes from one person to the next can make a big difference in how we can best eat and live our lives. Networked biohackers tease out these differences, but compare notes. The norming of monolithic peer reviewed studies has to make room for people who are listening to their own bodies and talking to each other.

What about Paleo?

So are variations on the Paleo diet the best way to live? One might argue that this a question best answered not by experts, but by individuals who are experimenting with their lifestyles. In other words, it might not be the right fit for you. Most of the paleo adherents think of it as a means of biohacking — a kind of elimination diet, or place to start based on good guesses about how our bodies would likely have evolved over the last million or two years on a steppe without bread sticks and donuts.

But all that’s really beside the point. The key thing for networks of experimenters is to try it, measure results and share your experiences. We may find that the next big leap in nutrition is not paleo at all, but in people discovering something new and better by accident — without experts.

Welcome to life in the peer-to-peer age.

Join us at Voice & Exit 2015 in Austin, June 20-21 for more on biohacking, peer-to-peer networks, and the future of human flourishing.

Bonus: Paleo lifestyle guru John Durant gave a talk at Voice & Exit 2014 that explains that the key to live more like our ancestors is not a religion but a biohack. Sound evolutionary thinking can help people sleep better, think better, and live healthier lifestyles.

  • Eric

    “But when you get an army of networked people — sometimes amateurs — thinking, talking, tinkering and toying with ideas — you can hasten the proverbial paradigm shift.” Translation: when you get a bunch of people fiddling around with something they have no training, no education, an no expertise in, it pulls attention away from established, verified, tested and reviewed and proven science and opens up a world of opportunity for quacks and charlatans to hawk their pseudoscience and make bajillions of dollars off of the impressionable sheep that follow them.

    • Jason Koch

      I never reply but dang well said Eric. Spot the frick on.

    • MaxBorders

      The beauty of choice is that you don’t have to adopt the lifestyle. If you want to carry on eating processed carbs and sugar, trying to keep fat out of your diet, be my guest! But we’re already starting to see the experts line up on this side of the debate.

      • rapier1

        Max, you kind of missed the point on that one. Look at it this way – who do you want to fix you car; A mechanic with years of training or a large group of random people who happen to wander by? The random people might have the very best of intentions but good intentions doesn’t fix your transmission.

        • MaxBorders

          I didn’t miss the point at all. The point is that people who have been telling us not to eat butter and fat are now changing their tunes. This is true for the dieticians and the experts, not to mention large peer-reviewed studies. It took a network of experimenters to hasten the process. Now, a car is a thing that is designed by people, so it’s physics, systems and constituent parts are fully knowable by experts. It is a complicated system, but not a complex one. Complex systems are a different animal. And expert consensus about complex systems have been deeply flawed in the past. Sometimes it takes tinkerers and cross-disciplinary thinkers to break out of the incentives and the bubble created by a community of experts–then the experts grudgingly follow on. We’ve seen this over and over again throughout history. Thomas Kuhn wrote a great little book on this called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

          • rapier1

            I’m familiar with Kuhn’s work – trust me on that one. One important aspect of Kuhn’s writing on paradigms shifts is that what may seem like a rapid overturn of the dominant paradigm is often the culmination of years of work conducted by dedicated experts. The experts might be in the minority but (as Kuhn would point out) they are still experts. For example, the paradigm on the health consequences of dietary fat shifted not because a group of non-expert people pushed the change but because a growing number of studies (some conducted over the course of decades) pushed against the foundational assumptions that came from the Framingham studies. If you look at the ‘science’ behind Atkins and the paleo diet you’ll find that neither are actually supported by strong evidence. That either diet works is because both end up being calorie restrictive. I mean, its awesome that those diets work for people but the Paleo diet isn’t better for us because we evolved to eat in a particular way.

            And my apologies for using the car analogy. I’ll use one I’m more familiar with (and is an example of a chaotic system) – if you want to enhance predictive modeling of TCP transactions in relation to AS topology at both the aggregate and flow based level are you going to ask a network research scientist or your Mom’s bridge group? Now, if the majority of network research scientists say one thing (It’s self referential complex and irreducible) and one single guy says”I think we can make an approximation that fits within 2 sigmas for periods up to 36 hours” you may latch onto that one guy (which would be cool) but that guy is still an expert. If the prevailing paradigm in overturned it will be because that an expert provided compelling proof. Not because the wisdom of the crowd was able to overturn the paradigm through sheer numbers. When you get right down to it, when science works (and it works far more often than it doesn’t) it is a self correcting process but it is a *rigourous* process that doesn’t care how many people ‘know’ something to be true. You have to provide a falsifiable hypothesis and sufficient evidence to support it.

        • Aussie Sutra

          I think the example you want to use is would you take your car to a mechanic who talks about fixing cars and has all the certificates on the wall, but who actually has no idea of how to make a car become “fixed” because they have never actually done it because their theories don’t work in practice.

        • sabelmouse

          humans aren’t machines and doctors are mostly clueless on nutrition. so , what ”expert”do we go to?

  • Every scientific theory is subject to revision and every consensus is temporary; even Newton’s Law of Iniversal Gravitation was replaced by Einstein’s correction of the factors that led Newton’s Law to incorrectly predict the orbit of Mercury. That correction wasn’t the result of a cadre of shills selling telescopes, it was further scientific work by an expert.

    The high carb consensus was the result of a body of research that pointed to a conclusion, and the emerging low carb consensus us the result of expert research that happens to be more precise.

    The current spate of low carb, high fat fad diets are the result of wishful thinking by and for people who don’t want to exercise. Fitness fanatics don’t find them useful and medical professionals aren’t thrilled by their tendency to increase cortisol (the stress hormone,) raise blood pressure, create kidney stones, and cause muscle wasting.

    The paleo diet is a joke because it has nothing to do with real human diets in the Paleolithic or any other era of human evolution. No, Virginia, cavemen didn’t eat almond flour cakes, drink coconut oil coffee, or eat bacon and chicken eggs for breakfast; nor did they do cross-fit.

    Bloggers are way too eager to endorse miracle cures because they’re totally unencumbered by knowledge.

    • MaxBorders

      “The high carb consensus was the result of a body of research that pointed to a conclusion, and the emerging low carb consensus us the result of expert research that happens to be more precise.” This may be true, but you miss the point. If the experts are coming onto the bandwagon now, it’s not because it originated in their communities. There might have been a couple of rogue scientists out there touting a lower carb regime, but they were not the consensus.
      “The current spate of low carb, high fat fad diets are the result of wishful thinking by and for people who don’t want to exercise.” This may be true in part but it is beside the point. Nearly all of the original leaders who began to experiment with evolutionary thinking as a biohack integrated exercise, as well. Of course there are lots of lazy people out there, but that’s not what committed practitioners recommend.
      “The paleo diet is a joke because it has nothing to do with real human diets in the Paleolithic or any other era of human evolution.” This is a claim — a Straw Man — concocted by people who have never had anything but a cursory understanding of the lifestyle. No one anywhere ever argued that cave men ate almond flour cakes. The idea is to find creative, filling ways to replace things people like — like wheat flour and sugar — which are clearly causing health problems.
      But here’s the final point: people who have changed their lifestyles to reduce sugar and carbohydrates, and reintroduced more saturated fats, vegetables and lean proteins are healthier by far than people who try to eat granola bars and run on the tread mill for an hour per day. There is plenty of scientific evidence to back up these simple changes. What is that a joke?

      • Max, your comments show a total lack of understanding about how science and scientists work, especially in the nutrition field. I know this because I have a relative with a Ph. D. in nutritional bio chem from one of the major research institutions that’s routinely skewered by frauds like Gary Taubes and his peers. Taubes gave a talk there once and the kids ate him alive.
        Scientists don’t read blogs to get research ideas, they study issues that flow out of previous research. The low-carb consensus was based on research such as the Framingham study that showed high correlation between sat fat intake and heart disease. But there are always other factors at work, such as activity level, general fitness, other dietary factors, and genetic factors. So each study raises some questions that require additional research. People like Taubes like to cherry pick research that they don’t completely understand to weave conspiracy theories that sell books. This isn’t really helping anyone but the book sellers.
        There have been studies of various fad diets that have shown pretty much all of them – low carb, low fat, low protein, as high carb, hight fat and high protein – will lead to weight loss if closely followed. But the issue that haunts all fad diets is the fact that nobody can follow them for more than six months to a year, and when people fall off the wagon the weight comes back.
        All fad diets tend to over-emphasize the role of macro nutrients and underestimate the role of non-dietary factors such as fitness, exercise, and genetics. Some people actually don’t increase fitness through exercise, but most do. This is a quandary for researchers, and it won’t be resolved by millions of N=1 experiments, but it will yield to controlled experiments at some point.
        I appreciate the excitement that comes from believing you’ve found the silver bullet that answers all the questions about food and health, but I would suggest that this emotion of yours is illusory. Time will prove that.

        • Aussie Sutra

          I’ve watched lots of Taubes lectures and have never seen him skewered on ANY point at all, not by all the so-called “experts” in the room. That’s because he knows more about the physics than they do, and by and large, it’s the physics that is the message. The reason he knows more than they do is because he is a Stanford trained physicist who has applied his knowledge to the field of biology in order to stimulate discussion and perhaps research. I note that Taubes presents his thoughts as a hypothesis that needs to be considered in the light of the facts.

          I will await with great interest a reply in which even ONE element of Taubes’ presentations have been “skewered” by ANY so-called “expert”.

          • Taubes claims that carbs are instantly stored as fat instead of burned for fuel. That’s a claim that needs some biochemical support; it’s well outside the realm of physics.

            That wasn’t even hard.

            The larger point is that the frauds raid the research to support their oh-so-trendy theories. So even if scientists were working from fraudster theories, that would just be going full circle.

            BTW, I’ve read that Taubes studied physics at some fancy school, but I’ve never read what degree he has. Did he graduate?

          • Aussie Sutra

            I have read Taubes’ books, more than once, and I have listened to numerous lectures given by him, and I have NEVER heard him say that carbs are instantly stored as fat.

        • Aussie Sutra

          And by the way, the Framingham Study did NOT actually show a high correlation between saturated fat intake and heart disease. The inability of those who seem to think that they are “educated” when they aren’t even very good at basic analysis is at the heart of many of these problems, and this is no more terrifyingly evident than in the field of nutrition in which study after study has the most appalling levels of analysis applied to them. The fact is that most people working in the field are badly educated and incompetent, and because this has been going on for decades, there are few left in the more mature generation of researchers who are competent enough to see what is happening. Many of them have been sounding the alarm. The entire basis of the “saturated fat” debacle is based on a single clinical study in which rabbits, an animal with no real need for fats in their natural diet, were fed vast amounts of fat which led to fatty build-up in their arteries. After that, there was a growing push for consensus on the politically approved and commercially funded theory that natural saturated fats were “bad”, and researchers simply played with every piece of data until they could make their abstract read so it would “fit” with the reigning paradigm. Now that the PUBLIC, armed with the work of a few good researchers and doctors, have made such a fuss, a growing number of researchers are beginning to report the TRUTH.

    • sabelmouse

      he high carb/bad sat fats consensus was propaganda in favour of the veg oil, cereal, and sugar industries.

      • Don’t overlook the influence of alien astronauts; the high carb diet mania started after the Roswell landing, just like the Innernetz and the cell phone.

        • sabelmouse

          now that you mention it…

  • BTW, folks, if you’re in thrall to the Paleo Diet or any of the other recent fads, you really should read this article: Surprisingly, Elle Magazine is closer to the scientific facts on this question than Voice & Exit is.

    I thought the smart people moved on from Paleo two to three years ago, it’s not really the hip and happening thing any more.

  • A way to look at it: the universe is in motion. Particles move through and around us, most of which we are not consciously aware of, but we are aware of them at some level. If personal motion is not in alignment with universal motion things will begin to clog up because the particles don’t flow through, they stick. All of our conscious perceptions affect this as well. To adhere to one idea or another of any kind is not a good idea as it is trying to find a solution to the wrong problem, and do outside one’s own perception. The jist of it is look at how you feel and go with the flow. My experience.