Your facts are fragile
And so are mine.
Collectively coming to this conclusion could alleviate society’s division.
But, we are human. We like things to be black and white and we aren’t very good with nuance.
“This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. When things aren’t black or white, they’re uncertain. And when we’re uncertain, we don’t feel safe.” -Chris Kresser, Director of the California Center for Functional Medicine
To remain safe, our tribal ancestors required strong beliefs about their perceived facts in the world. Fragile facts would have cost us our life.
It was much safer to believe that something dangerous lurked behind every corner than to think factually about the likelihood of it.
It was much safer to believe what your tribe believed than to risk being contrarian and exiled.
For 99% of human history, we have lived this way. Therefore, it makes sense that we still harbor these tendencies today.
“A substantial proportion of human misery is probably due to genetic and cultural mismatch with our current environments.” -The Evolution Institute
“Evolutionary Mismatch” is the term evolutionary biologists use when species have traits that evolved under a much different environment.
For example, creatures beyond our imagination, like the Siberian Unicorn, the Diprotodon, Moa birds, Giant Apes, Cave Bears, and the Saber-tooth Tiger (more like a lion) used to live amongst us.
Imagine the psychological toll of watching a loved one being attacked by one of those large creatures or the fear of it happening to you.
Or, the feeling of being alone in the woods after being excommunicated from your tribe.
The memories of these experiences, and the stories we told about it them, trained our nervous systems to create fight or flight responses to avoid these threats.
The basic foundations of our autonomic nervous system (ANS), divided into two parts sympathetic and parasympathetic, originated in hagfish and lampreys about 500 million years ago.
This ANS is what runs the show. Some say 95% of what we call “I” is run by our ANS (aka our unconscious).
The saying goes,
“the emotional tail wags the rational dog.”
Our mind has to get its information from somewhere, right?
This information comes from our ANS, and our ANS gets its information from our environment.
By the time a thought arises in your mind, your biology has put it through a multitude of filters.
Leonard Mlodinow from the book Elastic, explains:
“Before an idea passes to your awareness, your brain conducts a kind of trial in which it considers all the evidence for the various meanings your unconscious mind has produced. Only then does it pass to your consciousness what it has deemed to be its best guess. As the brain weighs the meanings, its two hemispheres slug things out. Your left hemisphere advocates for the obvious and literal meanings, while your right hemisphere takes on the underdogs, the meanings that at first may seem remote, a bit of a stretch, but that are sometimes the correct interpretation.”
This is why our facts are fragile.
Our facts are determined by the information we consume, and the environment we consume it in.
Facts are not determined by the totality of information available.
Facts are determined by the totality of information available to you, which is heavily dependent on your environment.
A platitude is useful here,
“Context is king.”
Consciously and unconsciously, every single second of every day, we are all uniquely consuming information.
According to Daniel Kahneman, we can change people’s facts by changing the frequency of the information they consume:
People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory — and this is largely determined by the extent of coverage in the media.”
In surveys, Americans consistently perceive facts incorrectly:
- People will answer that tornados kill more people than asthma attacks, even though asthma attacks kill 20X more people than tornadoes every year
- Death by diabetes occurs 6.6X more than breast cancer although people guess the latter
A Ted Talk titled, “Is the world getting better or worse? A look at the numbers” has many more examples of these misperceptions.
The most illuminating examples of how information in our environment influences us are the Solomon Asch and the anchoring effect studies.
The Asch studies reveal the degree to which a person’s own opinions are influenced by those of groups. Asch found that nearly 75% of people are willing to ignore reality and give an incorrect answer in order to conform to the rest of the group.
The psychological effect of anchoring says that when we are exposed to a stimulus, we tend to anchor our judgments to that stimulus.
One anchoring study asked judges to establish a prison sentence for a woman who had made a robbery. Before answering, dice were thrown on the table. They were trick dice so that the result was always going to be a 3 or a 9. The judges which saw a 9 die before making their decision proposed prison sentences of 8 months on average. The judges who saw a 3 die before making their decision proposed prison sentences that were 5 months on average.
Kahneman says that all information has, “a priming effect, which selectively evokes compatible evidence.”
And that, “we understand sentences by trying to make them true, and the selective activation of compatible thoughts produces a family of systematic errors that make us gullible and prone to believe too strongly whatever we believe.”
Another study demonstrated that adding new classmates to a lecture hall, without students knowing, influenced their attraction for them. And, the more class sessions these new classmates attended the stronger the attraction.
They call this the mere exposure effect. It holds that when we are repeatedly exposed to something, we tend to like it more and give it more importance.
Would pharmaceuticals be as widely used if they weren’t continuously advertised? (The United States and New Zealand are the only two countries who allow advertising of prescription drugs directly to consumers)
Would bacon and eggs be an American breakfast staple if it wasn’t for Edward Bernays?
Do we really feed our children frosted flakes because of their nutritional content?
Would it be surprising to learn that 4–5 police officers are murdered a month in the United States?
You may be thinking to yourself, “but Science!”
Yes, science is a good method for getting us closer to the facts. It helps us understand the totality of information available.
But, again, we are human. We have a tendency to form beliefs about scientific findings instead of approaching it for what it is — a method.
You’ll notice the subtitle used a capital ‘S’cience and then followed up with lower case ‘s’cience. This is because science is often misused as a proper noun instead of a method.
“The method of science, as stodgy and grumpy as it may seem, is far more important than the findings of science.” -Carl Sagan
The method of science requires us to approach the world with an open mind without any preconceptions. It seeks to reduce uncertainty, not determine absolute truths.
We cannot blame science, blame the infallible humans wielding it.
In nutrition and medicine, early research is done in the lab with a very reductionist view. We study molecules in isolation then we extrapolate this to the broader world.
This is referred to as bench to bedside.
The first step for proving efficacy is to prove efficacy at the bench (petri dish and rodents) then move to the bedside (humans). Within pharmaceutical research, only 5% of pharmaceuticals make it from bench to bedside.
One reason for research not being able to extrapolate well is because of our human tendency to jump to conclusions, but it’s also how we are incentivized. We are not incentivized to learn, we are incentivized to do successful research.
This causes us to have a short-sighted view of what “success” means. We tend to use surrogate markers that are proxies for real success.
For example, a surrogate marker (e.g. reducing tumor size) is often used in cancer trials as a proxy instead of a more important measure (e.g. all-cause mortality).
“In 69 percent of the cases, approval of the new drugs was based on studies done on surrogate markers, meaning that they provided no real information on whether the drugs actually worked in terms of improving outcomes for the patients.” (Thomas Cowan, Cancer and the New Biology of Water)
Then, there’s our tendency to not control for many confounding variables and jump to conclusions. Nutrition research has an abundant amount of examples:
- We are told orange juice is healthy
- Meat is bad for you.
- Dairy is bad for you.
- Nuts are bad for you.
These recommendations, unfortunately, derive from studies on nutrition that completely ignore the importance of whole foods.
We see so many contradictory and inconsistent findings in nutrition research because of this.
Humans will modify whole foods, or reductionize them to isolated nutrients, and then expect the same outcomes.
“Whole food does not have the same impact on our bodies as isolated nutrients. When we eat whole foods, every nutrient that we consume is found within a matrix that includes other nutrients, co-factors, and enzymes, and this matrix is far more important in determining the health impact of a food than any single nutrient that food might contain.” -Chris Kresser
This is why the vitamin and supplement industry is constantly being criticized.
To properly metabolize and absorb nutrients our body needs the synergistic effects of other nutrients and enzymes. Any time humans intervene, we can expect unintended consequences:
- Orange juice removes key enzymes like fiber from the orange which negatively impacts our glucose response
Animals and vegetables that are prepared properly, are healthier:
- Carrots produced in a regenerative manner were 2,000X more nutrient-dense than those produced in a conventional manner.
- Regen Ag beef can have omega-6 to 3 ratios of 1.3:1 where conventional has 10:1–20:1.
- The “meat and dairy are bad” studies are not controlling for important variables. Their negative effects are negated when grass-fed animals are used or when they are eaten with vegetables. Dairy and butter are similar. When we began pasteurizing, we began removing important nutrients and enzymes which impact metabolism. Then, we replaced grass with grain and depleted key nutrients like vitamin K2 and omega 3 fats. Now, Americans are so low in vitamin K2 that every child is required to have a vitamin K shot at birth.
- Nuts contain “antinutrients” that disrupt metabolism and cause digestion issues, but when nuts are properly prepared as they’ve been for centuries, they are perfectly healthy.
When humans intervene with mother nature, expect her to produce unintended consequences.
When humans intervene, expect the facts to be altered and misinterpreted.
Once again, don’t blame science blame the infallible humans wielding it.
A glaring example of this can be gleaned from the seven hoax studies that were accepted for publication.
One paper rewrote a chapter of Hitler’s Mein Kempf and another was titled “Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks.”
Both were accepted.
Then there is the “replication crisis.” Irreproducibility estimates range from 75% to 90% in many high-profile journals.
A famous example is the Heidi vs. Howard study. This study is hailed as irrevocable proof that women are discriminated against in the workplace. It formed the bedrock of Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller Lean In and is considered evidence for holding women back.
The study split up business students into two groups. Then, told a story of a successful venture capitalist, Heidi or Howard, and were asked their perception. The two groups had the same description but different names. Students rated Heidi as more unlikeable and selfish.
Remember, “context is king.” Therefore, how do we expect out-of-context college kids to make out-of-context business decisions in a hypothetical scenario?
You may be concerned to know that 67% of American psychology studies use college students. These people are acronym-ed as “WEIRD”, aka Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. WEIRD participants have been shown to be outliers and are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about human behavior.
Come to find out, this study was never replicated, even among students. As I searched for the Heidi vs. Howard study I could only find references of it as sacred fact. You cannot even find the actual study’s details. In Lean In’s references, Sheryl says she talked to the study authors over the phone.
In 2013, CNN’s Anderson Cooper tried and failed to replicate the study, then cited an improvement in society’s perceptions of women as a reason. Although, the more likely reason is that the original study’s facts were fragile because it lacked a proper sample, replication, and control for variables.
I highly recommend Lean In and I don’t blame Sheryl.
This problem is ubiquitous across science.
Look no further than the “rat park” study. Traditional rat studies would give a caged rat a drug like morphine or cocaine and then show how the rat becomes addicted until it dies.
But, when researchers improved the rat’s environment, by giving it a park instead of a cage, the rats never became addicted. This means that our environment has a heavy influence on addiction.
Even our most sacred dogmas are at risk of being fragile.
If you google, “studies that prove masks work.” The most referenced studies for proof are using surrogate markers instead of outcomes to measure success.
- Surrogate markers they use: respiratory droplets
- Outcomes they should be using: rates of infection
A mask’s uncertainty in preventing transmission of infectious diseases has been known for a while, causing some operating rooms to stop using surgical masks because of studies like this:
“After 1,537 operations performed with face masks, 73 (4.7%) wound infections were recorded and, after 1,551 operations performed without face masks, 55 (3.5%) infections occurred.”
Notice the outcome in this experiment — the infection rate.
Viral droplets and load are a surface-level understanding of mother nature. Mother nature has many complex mechanisms for spread and prevention of spread.
And, the minimum effective dose for infection can be as little as one virus particle.
Even beyond viral droplets, nature has other potential mechanisms for spread. Nano-sized biomolecules called exosomes are released by every cell type in your body.
Evidence has shown exosomes could be involved in spread, even beyond infections. There’s evidence to implicate exosomes are, “causative players in the spread of neurodegenerative diseases”, which is too mind-boggling for me to think about.
Returning to Ancient Wisdom
In the 5th century B.C., Greek philosopher Protagoras came to this same conclusion. He said each individual is the measure of how things are perceived by that individual.
One person can feel a breeze and think it’s warm, while a different person judges the same wind to be cool. He said there is no one who can decide which judgment is correct because the wind simply is warm to one person and cool to the other.
We shouldn’t blindly follow Protagoras or my musings in this blog. We need a balanced approach because extremes will get us into trouble.
Therefore, I hope this emphasizes our shared humanness and interconnectedness to nature. I hope it motivates us to empathize without judgment. I hope it helps us lead with kindness and respect to family, friends, neighbors, and strangers.
If we want to reduce society’s divisiveness, we are much better off approaching the world with a philosophy of “I don’t know” than proselytizing our fragile facts.