Is Rationality Overrated? What an 18th Century Medical Mystery Can Tell Us About the Power of Blind Copying

By the 1730s a new type of disease was starting to pop up across Europe. Sufferers would lose their hair, develop lesions all over their body, lose their mental faculties and eventually die.

The disease seemed to be linked to corn consumption. Corn was a new crop imported from the Americas only two centuries earlier. Corn is a nutritious, high-calorie crop, and in the intervening two hundred years some regions were already starting to use corn as their main food supply.

Authorities believed the source of the problem to be spoiled corn. Prohibitions on the sale of bad corn were enacted and new laws were created to prevent its consumption. Unfortunately, this did little to stop the disease.

Despite these problems in Europe, Native Americans had been eating corn for thousands of years without contracting the disease. The solution? Mix a little ash from the fire into your corn and soak it before eating.

The disease, which we now know to be pellagra, is caused by a niacin deficiency. Corn does contain niacin, but it is chemically bound and unavailable through digestion. A little alkaline solution, in the form of ash, will free the niacin and prevent the debilitating effects of a nutritional deficiency.

Europeans never thought to copy the Native Americans. Instead, they developed a incorrect causal understanding of the disease and many suffered and died.

A Culture of Reasonableness

The above story was recounted in Joseph Henrich’s book, The Secret of Our Success, which argues that cultural learning, in particular by copying seemingly useless steps, is one of the great intellectual advantages of our species.

Note that the Native Americans themselves weren’t aware of the niacin-unlocking properties of the ash. Speaking with the Machupe in southern Chile, Henrich asked what the reason was for putting ash in the corn. “It’s our custom,” was the only response offered.

Henrich, a trained anthropologist, notes that such responses are common in tribal cultures. In contrast, he argues, “educated Westerners are trained their entire lives to think that behaviors must be underpinned by explicable and declarable reasons, so we are more likely to have them at the ready and feel more obligated to supply ‘good’ reasons upon request.”

Note that the reasons need not actually be correct, they simply must seem reasonable. Pellagra isn’t an infectious disease. But the idea that it is caused by moldy corn is more reasonable than insufficiently following the ritual steps of more experienced agriculturalists.

This finding meshes with what Seligman, Weller, Puett and Simon argue is a modern shift toward sincerity in our belief systems. Sincerity is the idea that our beliefs and practices should be underpinned by good reasons. Science is a natural by-product of the pursuit for sincerity, but so is fundamentalist Christianity. The former seeks to pin reasons in terms of natural laws and experimental evidence. The latter pins reasons in scripture. Both are attempts to give better reasons for our beliefs and behavior.

Useful Superstitions

Pellagra is only one example of seemingly useless traditions having surprising benefits. Henrich also suggests that many hunting superstitions, such as determining the next place to hunt based on the cracks in caribou bones or bird calls, have complex game theoretical justifications.

We’re predisposed to seek and create patterns. Coming up with genuinely random patterns of behavior is very difficult. However there are many situations in game theory where randomness can be a virtue. If your prey animals know that you will tend to return to the same spot, or avoid returning to the same spot, after a hunt, they will use this knowledge to try to escape you. The most effective strategy, therefore, is to randomize your behavior so your opponent can’t predict your next move.

Superstitious rituals can serve as that randomizing element. Of course, the stated reasons for such rituals (if there are any) are unlikely to be complex discussions of game theory. But the outcome is the same—on the long-run, an essentially random ritual, will outperform more reasonable, patterned responses.

When is Innovation Overrated?

Corn ash and caribou bones are not exactly reasons to abandon science and rationality. But I do think they suggest an alternative method of finding useful beliefs and behaviors to the more culturally accepted practice of developing a causal model and having good reasons.

In particular, I think we could expect such ritual-copying to be more advantageous when:

  1. The available causal models for a situation have weak explanatory power.
  2. The situation is too complex to easily break down why something might work.
  3. There is a history of success associated with the practice.

One area I could imagine this playing out is nutrition. Nutrition is still an area poorly understood (1)—only decades ago we were told fat intake needed to be reduced, which many now believe is part of the cause of the obesity epidemic today. Nutrition is horribly complex, so guessing the correct diet from first principles is unlikely (2). Finally, we do have records of other cultures with much better health outcomes, a history of dietary success (3).

Using this knowledge, I don’t think it would be unreasonable to pick a successful culture (say French cuisine or the Okinawans) and try to emulate as much of their culture of eating as possible. Such a step may require a stay in that country to observe not only the what to eat, but when, how and how much, but it seems a more likely successful strategy to me than opting into a newer fad diet.

Another area I could see benefiting from copying without understanding is career success. Often the variables which dictate career success are causally opaque. In that case, simply researching what successful people did and copying them, might be more useful than attempting a more innovative approach.

I take a similar tack with learning new things. Although I have spent a lot of time trying to understand the science of learning, my first step when learning a subject I’m not experienced with is to see what successful learners do. With languages, that was immersion. With math, that was problem sets.

When Should You Be More Reasonable?

The advantage of reasons is that they are flexible. When you know the underlying principles, you can extend them to new situations, discarding the ineffective parts and enhancing the parts that do work. The hidden power of traditions and rituals isn’t to deny the power of science, or be fatalistic about the progress of knowledge.

Copying without understanding is simply an additional tool to deal with the practical realities of life. Sometimes we need to take actions where good reasons are either hard to find, or fail to account for complexity. In these situations, copying from success can be a better strategy than trying to analyze.

  • Todd

    When I was trying to improve at chess, I found the advice to imitate without understanding was common from stronger players. There are tons of different opinions and systems being sold about how to learn chess. But what strong players always did and recommended was to play through lots of master games, with or without explanatory notes. I think this is applicable in learning most things… you begin by imitating your teachers, and slowly develop understanding, with which you can teach others eventually.

  • Todd

    When I was trying to improve at chess, I found the advice to imitate without understanding was common from stronger players. There are tons of different opinions and systems being sold about how to learn chess. But what strong players always did and recommended was to play through lots of master games, with or without explanatory notes. I think this is applicable in learning most things… you begin by imitating your teachers, and slowly develop understanding, with which you can teach others eventually.

  • Jeffrey Wu

    I agree with you in respect to following what has worked in the past without understanding, when the available models are not great at explaining a phenomenon. However with many things in life, I feel like blindly copying success is a very dangerous mentality, as what has worked in the past may not work in the future, or may not work for your own personal circumstances. I feel like you should always try understand first, and only when faced with issues that are not solved (such as the Pellagra at the time), should we revert to copying success. That being said, that was a fascinating read Scott.

  • Jeffrey Wu

    I agree with you in respect to following what has worked in the past without understanding, when the available models are not great at explaining a phenomenon. However with many things in life, I feel like blindly copying success is a very dangerous mentality, as what has worked in the past may not work in the future, or may not work for your own personal circumstances. I feel like you should always try understand first, and only when faced with issues that are not solved (such as the Pellagra at the time), should we revert to copying success. That being said, that was a fascinating read Scott.

  • Astrapto

    Very thoughtful, thanks!

  • Astrapto

    Very thoughtful, thanks!

  • Donna

    Good article, but I don’t think this line of thinking works with diet. The Okinawa diet may be good for Okinawans, but if you are not Okinawan, it may not be good for you personally.
    I think one of the ways microevolution works is that when people in one culture decide to eat in a certain way – they don’t eat those foods but they do eat these foods and they’re prepared in this way – they are selecting for people who can eat that way and be healthy. If you were to take a vegetarian from India and feed him the traditional Inuit diet, you just might kill him. But the traditional Inuit diet is great for the Inuit.

  • Donna

    Good article, but I don’t think this line of thinking works with diet. The Okinawa diet may be good for Okinawans, but if you are not Okinawan, it may not be good for you personally.
    I think one of the ways microevolution works is that when people in one culture decide to eat in a certain way – they don’t eat those foods but they do eat these foods and they’re prepared in this way – they are selecting for people who can eat that way and be healthy. If you were to take a vegetarian from India and feed him the traditional Inuit diet, you just might kill him. But the traditional Inuit diet is great for the Inuit.

  • This may be good advice for people with the discipline to distinguish between problems that can be solved with a completely rational approach and those that are complex enough to require copying without understanding. But people are already inclined to the latter approach, even people in the most rational of professions (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cargo_cult_programming). I think unwillingness to accept scientific evidence (the anti-vaccine movement, climate science denial, etc.) is a lot more of a problem than excessive rationality.

  • Duncan Smith

    This may be good advice for people with the discipline to distinguish between problems that can be solved with a completely rational approach and those that are complex enough to require copying without understanding. But people are already inclined to the latter approach, even people in the most rational of professions (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…. I think unwillingness to accept scientific evidence (the anti-vaccine movement, climate science denial, etc.) is a lot more of a problem than excessive rationality.

  • Michael Schmidt

    Despite the positive comments, Scott I’m pretty disappointed in this post…
    The whole theme is that irrationality is welcomed and crazy religious rituals are acceptable because they have some occult meaning or use that has been forgotten in our culture.
    So to the others who liked this post, who else likes irrationality and satanic rituals involving ash and bones? Post what you think below0 .The reason why I read this blog is to get cool ideas or insights, but maybe as a long time reader I will take a break from reading this blog…… Don’t get me wrong, I think you are a pretty level headed guy, but maybe you are trying to rational something you did recently or some cult your a part of…. Anyways, farewell Scott…..

  • Michael Schmidt

    Despite the positive comments, Scott I’m pretty disappointed in this post…
    The whole theme is that irrationality is welcomed and crazy religious rituals are acceptable because they have some occult meaning or use that has been forgotten in our culture.
    So to the others who liked this post, who else likes irrationality and satanic rituals involving ash and bones? Post what you think below0 .The reason why I read this blog is to get cool ideas or insights, but maybe as a long time reader I will take a break from reading this blog…… Don’t get me wrong, I think you are a pretty level headed guy, but maybe you are trying to rational something you did recently or some cult your a part of…. Anyways, farewell Scott…..

  • Paul Jenner

    But but you could also say that Scott is just suggesting to think outside of the box even if it’s not immediately rational and then looking to analyse why this can sometimes work.

  • Paul Jenner

    But but you could also say that Scott is just suggesting to think outside of the box even if it’s not immediately rational and then looking to analyse why this can sometimes work.

  • Yesbol Kulanbekov

    Don’t you think it’s a little bit ironic that you describe yourself as being on the side of logic AND then at the first sign of disagreement you turn your back. That’s the behavior of superstitious people. You are no different than those people you describe as “crazy religious”.

  • Yesbol Kulanbekov

    Don’t you think it’s a little bit ironic that you describe yourself as being on the side of logic AND then at the first sign of disagreement you turn your back. That’s the behavior of superstitious people. You are no different than those people you describe as “crazy religious”.

  • Mike3821

    “The whole theme is that … rituals are acceptable because they have some … use that has been forgotten in our culture”. Yep, that seems to be the theme. Scott says “the most effective [hunting] strategy .. is to randomize your behavior so your opponent can’t predict your next move”. Sounds good to me. How would YOU randomise your behaviour if living in a hunting culture lacking laptops with (pseudo-)random-number-generating software?

  • Mike3821

    “The whole theme is that … rituals are acceptable because they have some … use that has been forgotten in our culture”. Yep, that seems to be the theme. Scott says “the most effective [hunting] strategy .. is to randomize your behavior so your opponent can’t predict your next move”. Sounds good to me. How would YOU randomise your behaviour if living in a hunting culture lacking laptops with (pseudo-)random-number-generating software?

  • DisplayName

    This is my favourite thing that Scott has written in a long time. Great stories. I think this means we should all start drinking green tea ;).

  • DisplayName

    This is my favourite thing that Scott has written in a long time. Great stories. I think this means we should all start drinking green tea ;).

  • Cindy

    Love your posts and been following a while. About the nutrition, it’s not true. Nutrition is known, by nutritionists, people who study the digestive system, acupuncturists, etc. But what is commonly repeated in popular culture and what is common practice, even in hospitals, etc. is very different from following the principles based on what happens in the digestive system. You can follow scientific principles for a good diet or meal.

    The digestive system starts with thoughts of food, followed by saliva in the mouth digesting carbohydrates. The stomach uses acid to dissolve protein, so acid pairs well with protein. Fat is imported into the lymph system in micelles, so pair fat with vitamins that need to be transported in micelles, such as from fruits and vegetables. You can look up fat-soluble vitamins, but it’s easier to remember all fruits and veggies. Sit down for a complete meal that includes a wide variety of foods known to be healthy, different types of fruits, green-leafed, root, and fruit-like vegetables, nuts, a variety of grains, beans, seafoods and fish, meat, milk, cooked in a variety of ways, raw, dried, baked, boiled, dry heat, pickled or fermented, etc. Eat regularly, and when you are hungry. Stop eating when you are full. Use taste as a guide to what you want to eat. If you eat sugar and it doesn’t taste good, you have too much sugar in your diet, stop eating so much of it. If you are feeling sick and you crave bitter foods, eat bitter foods. If you crave sweets, you might be craving antioxidants. Try to direct that craving to high antioxidant foods. If you crave high mineral foods such as dates, nuts, you might be mineral deficient, use that bodily cue to find high mineral foods. If you feel like eating a heavy meal with fat and protein, eat a heavy meal with fat and protein. If you feel an aversion to eating a food, follow that aversion. Some mild allergies to food can be ameliorated by cooking or treatment with acid, and eating those foods traditionally, such as avocado made into guacamole rather than plain avocado, might be helpful. Avoid eating spoiled or poisonous foods, pay attention to shellfish and fish toxicity warnings, avoid plants treated with pesticides or grown on contaminated land, etc. If you smell food and it smells bad to you, don’t eat it. Be knowledgeable about food and learn to cook it, to be able to know what is in a recipe or dish.

    Saying that, following traditional meals is a fine idea, but be aware that traditional meals were healthy in a different time and place, with a different agricultural system and traditions that you may not be able to replicate, and it may be difficult to know what is there that you want to replicate. Well this has been a ridiculously long essay, I should stop now.

  • Cindy

    Love your posts and been following a while. About the nutrition, it’s not true. Nutrition is known, by nutritionists, people who study the digestive system, acupuncturists, etc. But what is commonly repeated in popular culture and what is common practice, even in hospitals, etc. is very different from following the principles based on what happens in the digestive system. You can follow scientific principles for a good diet or meal.

    The digestive system starts with thoughts of food, followed by saliva in the mouth digesting carbohydrates. The stomach uses acid to dissolve protein, so acid pairs well with protein. Fat is imported into the lymph system in micelles, so pair fat with vitamins that need to be transported in micelles, such as from fruits and vegetables. You can look up fat-soluble vitamins, but it’s easier to remember all fruits and veggies. Sit down for a complete meal that includes a wide variety of foods known to be healthy, different types of fruits, green-leafed, root, and fruit-like vegetables, nuts, a variety of grains, beans, seafoods and fish, meat, milk, cooked in a variety of ways, raw, dried, baked, boiled, dry heat, pickled or fermented, etc. Eat regularly, and when you are hungry. Stop eating when you are full. Use taste as a guide to what you want to eat. If you eat sugar and it doesn’t taste good, you have too much sugar in your diet, stop eating so much of it. If you are feeling sick and you crave bitter foods, eat bitter foods. If you crave sweets, you might be craving antioxidants. Try to direct that craving to high antioxidant foods. If you crave high mineral foods such as dates, nuts, you might be mineral deficient, use that bodily cue to find high mineral foods. If you feel like eating a heavy meal with fat and protein, eat a heavy meal with fat and protein. If you feel an aversion to eating a food, follow that aversion. Some mild allergies to food can be ameliorated by cooking or treatment with acid, and eating those foods traditionally, such as avocado made into guacamole rather than plain avocado, might be helpful. Avoid eating spoiled or poisonous foods, pay attention to shellfish and fish toxicity warnings, avoid plants treated with pesticides or grown on contaminated land, etc. If you smell food and it smells bad to you, don’t eat it. Be knowledgeable about food and learn to cook it, to be able to know what is in a recipe or dish.

    Saying that, following traditional meals is a fine idea, but be aware that traditional meals were healthy in a different time and place, with a different agricultural system and traditions that you may not be able to replicate, and it may be difficult to know what is there that you want to replicate. Well this has been a ridiculously long essay, I should stop now.

  • RT Wolf

    It sounds like you’ve (re)discovered the idea of conservationism. Not the dirty word it’s become among left-leaning intelligentsia associated with George Bush and Rob Ford, but the origin of the position as a reaction to the wipe-the-slate-blank-and-start-over ethos of the Enlightenment. The saying “don’t tear down a fence until you can figure out why it’s there” captures classical conservatism pretty well. Here’s a quick summary from Joseph Heath’s excellent and highly recommended book Enlightenment 2.0: http://news.nationalpost.com/full-comment/joseph-heath-the-hubris-of-modern-rationalism

    Probably the strongest proponent of conservative theorizing these days is Nassim Taleb.

  • RT Wolf

    One minor point about your otherwise excellent post: nutrition is so poorly understood that the very fact that nutrition isn’t (entirely) about the food we eat isn’t well understood. An example: a few years ago the finding that red wine drinkers lived longer gained international publicity, and so it was off to the races to find out what in red wine caused longevity and how to bottle it (no pun intended). They found reversterol or some such thing and it was widely publicized. But follow up studies found that red wine drinkers were more likely to be wealthier and higher status, and higher status people live longer. Red wine had little to nothing to do with it. So like you said, you need the entire toolbox.

  • RT Wolf

    It sounds like you’ve (re)discovered the idea of conservationism. Not the dirty word it’s become among left-leaning intelligentsia associated with George Bush and Rob Ford, but the origin of the position as a reaction to the wipe-the-slate-blank-and-start-over ethos of the Enlightenment. The saying “don’t tear down a fence until you can figure out why it’s there” captures classical conservatism pretty well. Here’s a quick summary from Joseph Heath’s excellent and highly recommended book Enlightenment 2.0: http://news.nationalpost.com/f

    Probably the strongest proponent of conservative theorizing these days is Nassim Taleb.

  • RT Wolf

    One minor point about your otherwise excellent post: nutrition is so poorly understood that the very fact that nutrition isn’t (entirely) about the food we eat isn’t well understood. An example: a few years ago the finding that red wine drinkers lived longer gained international publicity, and so it was off to the races to find out what in red wine caused longevity and how to bottle it (no pun intended). They found reversterol or some such thing and it was widely publicized. But follow up studies found that red wine drinkers were more likely to be wealthier and higher status, and higher status people live longer. Red wine had little to nothing to do with it. So like you said, you need the entire toolbox.

  • Scott Young

    I think you’re overstating my case. The point of the article is that in some cases traditions with a history of success is a viable alternative strategy to causal models in some cases.

  • Scott Young

    I think you’re overstating my case. The point of the article is that in some cases traditions with a history of success is a viable alternative strategy to causal models in some cases.

  • Scott Young

    I don’t doubt that many of the biological underpinnings of digestion and nutrition has been discovered. But I caution that there’s still a lot we don’t know.

    I don’t want to make the case that we know nothing useful about nutrition. That’s a straw man argument which is certainly false. But so is the opposite, that we’ve scientifically cracked the code to nutrition and know exactly what it will take to keep people healthy.

    Faced with this uncertainty, the practical problems of deciding what to eat remain. In these settings, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to offer traditionally healthy diets or cultures of eating as an alternative.

  • Scott Young

    I don’t doubt that many of the biological underpinnings of digestion and nutrition has been discovered. But I caution that there’s still a lot we don’t know.

    I don’t want to make the case that we know nothing useful about nutrition. That’s a straw man argument which is certainly false. But so is the opposite, that we’ve scientifically cracked the code to nutrition and know exactly what it will take to keep people healthy.

    Faced with this uncertainty, the practical problems of deciding what to eat remain. In these settings, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to offer traditionally healthy diets or cultures of eating as an alternative.

  • Scott Young

    I’m on the fence. I don’t subscribe to the extreme view that all traditions embody wisdom and any cultural changes risk disaster.

    But I think there are mechanisms other than science which can generate practical information. Perhaps in some contexts these are actually preferable. Expanding the variety of tools can help resolve practical issues in our lives.

  • Scott Young

    I’m on the fence. I don’t subscribe to the extreme view that all traditions embody wisdom and any cultural changes risk disaster.

    But I think there are mechanisms other than science which can generate practical information. Perhaps in some contexts these are actually preferable. Expanding the variety of tools can help resolve practical issues in our lives.

  • Scott Young

    I’m not sure anti-vax and climate science denialism relate to the structure of the ideas of this post. Think of it this way–lots of people develop strange causal models of the world that they believe sincerely. This, too, is along the dimension towards sincerity and can also be seen as a kind of rationality.

    Think about people who believe vaccines cause autism or other diseases. They have a rich causal model where drug companies conspire with scientists and political leaders to suppress evidence of their damage. It isn’t as if anti-vaxxers avoid inoculating their children because of rituals. If anything, it’s probably the opposite, with most anti-vaxxers being people who’ve stumbled upon a somewhat perverse causal model that allows them to break with the culturally dominant practice of vaccinating (which has been common for several generations now).

    If you compare rationality versus ritual as meta-strategies for solving practical problems, you can’t simply look at the successes of thinking deeply and trying to form true beliefs (science) and ignore the people who likely develop even more harmful beliefs than when they started (religious fundamentalism, conspiracy theories). Similarly, it’s easy to point at situations where copying successful practices failed. But I think that also ignores the huge abundance of situations where it is a viable strategy.

    At the end of the day, I don’t suggest either meta-strategy for solving problems is superior, but simply that people should be aware of both tools, why they might work and why they might fail. It seems clear to me that each has domains where it is advantaged, so a mixed strategy is probably best overall.

  • Scott Young

    I’m not sure anti-vax and climate science denialism relate to the structure of the ideas of this post. Think of it this way–lots of people develop strange causal models of the world that they believe sincerely. This, too, is along the dimension towards sincerity and can also be seen as a kind of rationality.

    Think about people who believe vaccines cause autism or other diseases. They have a rich causal model where drug companies conspire with scientists and political leaders to suppress evidence of their damage. It isn’t as if anti-vaxxers avoid inoculating their children because of rituals. If anything, it’s probably the opposite, with most anti-vaxxers being people who’ve stumbled upon a somewhat perverse causal model that allows them to break with the culturally dominant practice of vaccinating (which has been common for several generations now).

    If you compare rationality versus ritual as meta-strategies for solving practical problems, you can’t simply look at the successes of thinking deeply and trying to form true beliefs (science) and ignore the people who likely develop even more harmful beliefs than when they started (religious fundamentalism, conspiracy theories). Similarly, it’s easy to point at situations where copying successful practices failed. But I think that also ignores the huge abundance of situations where it is a viable strategy.

    At the end of the day, I don’t suggest either meta-strategy for solving problems is superior, but simply that people should be aware of both tools, why they might work and why they might fail. It seems clear to me that each has domains where it is advantaged, so a mixed strategy is probably best overall.

  • Scott Young

    Possibly. There seems to be two issues here:

    1. Some diets are good or bad for different people. This probably has a small amount of truth to it, but I don’t think it’s significant. Take North America, which has an obesity epidemic despite being a melting pot of genetic backgrounds. If there is a difference from being Indian or Inuit, I think it’s going to play out in smaller ways (say lactose intolerance) rather than being the decisive factor of what makes a good diet.

    2. Some diets work in certain cultures, but not others. This seems far more likely for me. It’s not enough to eat what the Okinawans eat, you have to eat how they eat. That means when, how much, with what customs, etc. That might be significantly harder than simply eating a few meals copied from them. Although this is a strike against cultural copying in the realm of diet, I don’t think it makes the situation impossible, just one that requires more thought (and perhaps immersion).

    Once again, cultural-copying strategies have their weaknesses, but so do nutritional science approaches which are also incomplete.

  • Scott Young

    Possibly. There seems to be two issues here:

    1. Some diets are good or bad for different people. This probably has a small amount of truth to it, but I don’t think it’s significant. Take North America, which has an obesity epidemic despite being a melting pot of genetic backgrounds. If there is a difference from being Indian or Inuit, I think it’s going to play out in smaller ways (say lactose intolerance) rather than being the decisive factor of what makes a good diet.

    2. Some diets work in certain cultures, but not others. This seems far more likely for me. It’s not enough to eat what the Okinawans eat, you have to eat how they eat. That means when, how much, with what customs, etc. That might be significantly harder than simply eating a few meals copied from them. Although this is a strike against cultural copying in the realm of diet, I don’t think it makes the situation impossible, just one that requires more thought (and perhaps immersion).

    Once again, cultural-copying strategies have their weaknesses, but so do nutritional science approaches which are also incomplete.

  • Scott Young

    I feel the opposite. One should start with copying and then adjust when what one does doesn’t work.

    Luckily, we’re hardwired to copy so this is the default for most people (despite our cultural obsession with creativity). There’s many, many more ways something can fail than go right, so copying is a good way to get in the ballpark of correct behavior and then using rationality to adjust the approach based on the circumstances seems fine to me.

  • Scott Young

    I feel the opposite. One should start with copying and then adjust when what one does doesn’t work.

    Luckily, we’re hardwired to copy so this is the default for most people (despite our cultural obsession with creativity). There’s many, many more ways something can fail than go right, so copying is a good way to get in the ballpark of correct behavior and then using rationality to adjust the approach based on the circumstances seems fine to me.

  • Cindy

    There’s a lot that is not known, but be careful about the ‘we’ and ‘science’. You wrote that “only decades ago we were told fat intake needed to be reduced, which many now believe is part of the cause of the obesity epidemic today.” Fat soluble vitamins were discovered in 1914? (http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/themes/medicine/carpenter/)

    So, decades ago, say the 1960s, the ‘we’ of popular knowledge and diet fads were out of date 40-50 years from the cutting edge of science. So, was that science they were repeating?

    Personally, I don’t think so. I think that was a meme and was unscientific. I feel pretty confident that ‘we’ have cracked the code enough to guide people better than traditional diets. For one thing, they lived in a world without plastic (http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0055387 Plastics Derived Endocrine Disruptors (BPA, DEHP and DBP) Induce Epigenetic Transgenerational Inheritance of Obesity, Reproductive Disease and Sperm Epimutations) and a world with a different agricultural system.

  • Cindy

    There’s a lot that is not known, but be careful about the ‘we’ and ‘science’. You wrote that “only decades ago we were told fat intake needed to be reduced, which many now believe is part of the cause of the obesity epidemic today.” Fat soluble vitamins were discovered in 1914? (http://www.nobelprize.org/nobe

    So, decades ago, say the 1960s, the ‘we’ of popular knowledge and diet fads were out of date 40-50 years from the cutting edge of science. So, was that science they were repeating?

    Personally, I don’t think so. I think that was a meme and was unscientific. I feel pretty confident that ‘we’ have cracked the code enough to guide people better than traditional diets. For one thing, they lived in a world without plastic (http://journals.plos.org/ploso… Plastics Derived Endocrine Disruptors (BPA, DEHP and DBP) Induce Epigenetic Transgenerational Inheritance of Obesity, Reproductive Disease and Sperm Epimutations) and a world with a different agricultural system.

  • Dana Quantz

    One area you might consider looking at is causation in law. As a matter of practice you get an interesting conflict between physicians who are working from a theoretical basis of medical proof versus the legal standard of the balance ofor probability – ie 51 vs 49 percent. There is a consistent struggle between the evidence that satisfies doctors and the evidence that satisfies the law, which in many cases has been borne out of tradition and culture.

  • Dana Quantz

    One area you might consider looking at is causation in law. As a matter of practice you get an interesting conflict between physicians who are working from a theoretical basis of medical proof versus the legal standard of the balance ofor probability – ie 51 vs 49 percent. There is a consistent struggle between the evidence that satisfies doctors and the evidence that satisfies the law, which in many cases has been borne out of tradition and culture.

  • Jerrybrandz Ibe

    am inspired by your article…

  • Jerrybrandz Ibe

    am inspired by your article…

  • Alberto Cabello

    Great reading. Science and reason without deep understanding (could we call it “blind reason”?) is not better than random, and usually worse than trial-and-error established beliefs.
    Just correct the Chilean tribe as “Mapuche”, not “Machupe”.

  • Alberto Cabello

    Great reading. Science and reason without deep understanding (could we call it “blind reason”?) is not better than random, and usually worse than trial-and-error established beliefs.
    Just correct the Chilean tribe as “Mapuche”, not “Machupe”.

  • Scott Young

    Are you arguing that the scientific establishment wasn’t highly against saturated fat intake in the preceding decades, and is now moderating those claims because the evidence isn’t coming out against such beliefs?

  • Scott Young

    Are you arguing that the scientific establishment wasn’t highly against saturated fat intake in the preceding decades, and is now moderating those claims because the evidence isn’t coming out against such beliefs?

  • Cindy

    Huh. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0002934377908749

    In 1977, the evidence was already ‘coming out against such beliefs’. You can read it for yourself. Who do you think the ‘scientific establishment’ is? The researchers who are 40-50-60 years ahead of ‘people who make up stories and sell articles and influence policy decisions’ about the topic and may never had the misconceptions those other people had? Or the ‘people who make up stories and sell articles and influence policy decisions’ without knowing what the hell they are talking about? They are not the same people.

    Here is a copy of the abstract.

    Lipid and lipoproiein values, including fasting triglycerides and high
    density lipoproteins (HDL), low density llpoproteins (LDL) and total
    cholesterol levels, were obtained on 2,815 men and women aged 49 to 82
    years chiefly between 1969 and 1971 at Framingham. In the approximately
    four years following the characterization of lipids, coronary heart
    disease developed in 79 of the 1,025 men and 63 of the 1,445 women free
    of coronary heart diseases. At these older ages the major potent lipid
    risk factor was HDL cholesterol, which had an inverse association with
    the incidence of coronary heart disease (p < 0.001) in either men or
    women. This lipid was associated with each major manifestation of
    coronary heart disease. These associations were equally significant even
    when other lipids and other standard risk factors for coronary heart
    disease were taken into consideration. A weaker association with the
    incidence of coronary heart disease (p < 0.05) was observed for LDL
    cholesterol. Triglycerides were associated with the incidence of
    coronary heart disease only in women and then only when the level of
    other lipids was not taken into account. At these ages total cholesterol
    was not associated with the risk of coronary heart disease.

  • Cindy

    Huh. http://www.sciencedirect.com/s

    In 1977, the evidence was already ‘coming out against such beliefs’. You can read it for yourself. Who do you think the ‘scientific establishment’ is? The researchers who are 40-50-60 years ahead of ‘people who make up stories and sell articles and influence policy decisions’ about the topic and may never had the misconceptions those other people had? Or the ‘people who make up stories and sell articles and influence policy decisions’ without knowing what the hell they are talking about? They are not the same people.

    Here is a copy of the abstract.

    Lipid and lipoproiein values, including fasting triglycerides and high
    density lipoproteins (HDL), low density llpoproteins (LDL) and total
    cholesterol levels, were obtained on 2,815 men and women aged 49 to 82
    years chiefly between 1969 and 1971 at Framingham. In the approximately
    four years following the characterization of lipids, coronary heart
    disease developed in 79 of the 1,025 men and 63 of the 1,445 women free
    of coronary heart diseases. At these older ages the major potent lipid
    risk factor was HDL cholesterol, which had an inverse association with
    the incidence of coronary heart disease (p < 0.001) in either men or
    women. This lipid was associated with each major manifestation of
    coronary heart disease. These associations were equally significant even
    when other lipids and other standard risk factors for coronary heart
    disease were taken into consideration. A weaker association with the
    incidence of coronary heart disease (p < 0.05) was observed for LDL
    cholesterol. Triglycerides were associated with the incidence of
    coronary heart disease only in women and then only when the level of
    other lipids was not taken into account. At these ages total cholesterol
    was not associated with the risk of coronary heart disease.

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