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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.