November 1, 2014

Searching for Truth

…in nutrition research, free-market economics and online

The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet
By Nina Teicholz. Simon & Schuster, 2014.

No one reads this book because of the nine years of scientific reporting it includes. Impressive as that research and the lucid conclusions drawn from it are, you read this book to get permission to eat big fat juicy steaks, eggs cooked in bacon drippings, sausage and butter—lots of it.

What Nina Teicholz, a writer for Gourmet and leading national newspapers, found after her exhaustive investigation is that we are on shaky scientific grounds believing that a diet low in saturated fat and high in plants is good for us. Early nutritional studies were usually on very small test groups, exclusively on adult men and often skewed to include only countries where the primary diet supported the hypothesis. Newer clinical studies on statistically significant numbers of people show that fat doesn’t make us fat, and saturated fat and cholesterol don’t lead to heart disease. The nutrition science community, Teicholz says, works backwards from the opposite belief and so simply dismisses studies that don’t jibe with the foregone conclusion.

The result is that we believe the food industry’s PR and buy lite, zero trans-fat, low-carb substitute food when centuries of evidence show primitive people eating full fat diets—and living to ripe old ages. Life expectancies were shorter, true, but the primary causes of death were infectious diseases rather than heart disease or diabetes.

The whole book damns the so-called experts and, in convincing fashion, shows how a low-fat diet “has been terrible for health in every way.” This is a long book, although almost 150 of its 480 pages are references and notes. Don’t read it unless you are intimately interested in the history of nutrition research in the United States. If not, just skip to the delicious conclusion: Permission granted.


How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region
By Joe Studwell. Grove Press, 2013.

“Southeast Asia remains a beacon for what not to do if you want economic transformation.” So concludes Joe Studwell’s clear-eyed look at “how rapid economic transformation is, or is not, achieved.” Studwell, founder of the China Economic Quarterly, lived in Asia for almost 20 years and wrote or co-wrote 10 books for the Economist Intelligence Unit plus The China Dream and Asian Godfathers. In this book, he covers nine Asian economies (with defined reasons for those included and excluded) and finds that there is a simple three-part formula to “what gets you into the rich man’s club in the first place.”

Asian countries that have succeeded economically have done the same three things in the same order: First, they maximize agricultural output. This employs a lot of people, and in poor countries, agriculture is what most people already do. Studwell means “a slightly larger-scale form of gardening” like what goes on in much of Africa today. “Maximizing” it in turn necessitates land reform, as production increases. This creates a surplus and a demand for goods, which propels the country to step two: manufacturing. In the beginning, this is fairly low quality but capitalizes on the relatively low skill level available. Finally, the government focuses the financial sector on supporting these two activities. Government and financial policies that reward exporting, for instance, lead to the development of global brands that can compete internationally rather than propping up companies that cater to a captive domestic market.

The countries that took the misguided advice of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the U.S. Treasury—that free markets were the Holy Grail—deregulated their banks too quickly, failed to force local companies to face foreign competition and did not reform land policies that left people underemployed and land unproductive. It is “very hard to recommend lying,” Studwell writes, but in this instance that is what Asian countries must do. They have to pay lip service to free-market economics in order to have a seat at the table and then “go quietly about [their] dirigiste business.” Countries on whatever continent have to do what is best for their own economic development regardless of what hard-line free-market economists think.

The problem comes once they are in the “rich man’s club.” When the one-two-three development stage ends, a new sort of economics takes over, one that “requires less state intervention, more deregulation, freer markets and a closer focus on near-term profits.” Japan, for instance, succeeded spectacularly well at the first sort of economics but has never transitioned to the second. The result is “economic sclerosis,” Studwell writes.

Studwell does not have to sell his ideas; history does it for him. He reports on what happened and lets the story tell itself. His reporting disproves what free-market economists everywhere say. The history of economic development in Asia shows that “there is no significant economy that has developed successfully through policies of free trade and deregulation from the get-go.” If you want to understand what’s really going on in China or India—or Brazil or Cuba for that matter—this is the book for you.


Virtual Unreality: Just Because the Internet Told You, How Do You Know It’s True?
by Charles Seife. Viking, 2014.

Following his excellent book Proofiness, Charles Seife starts again with journalism, his profession, and shows how information is transformed, deformed and manipulated, and why we just swallow it without question. “We have become reality engineers,” he writes, making it almost impossible to “disentangle” virtual and real.

The Internet made information democratic. We can all see it, read it and write it. That means it is subject to as much disinformation as fact and, suckers that we are, we believe it. We have yet to develop the healthy sense of skepticism necessary for the new information age. Unfortunately, we are not likely to.

Seife goes into epidemiology and parasitology to illustrate how bad things spread and how susceptible we are to infection. He includes examples from the most obvious, Wikipedia, to the NYPD’s use of “sock puppets,” i.e., fake online personalities, to look for criminal activity. Now fraudsters, he cautions, can get thousands, even millions, of believers with the click of a mouse. Worse, as we go down the rabbit hole of bogus websites, we reinforce misinformation.

The comic strip Shoe once had Skyler, a 12-year-old dweeb, conversing online with a hot supermodel. His uncle pointed out that the hot supermodel was, in fact, another dweeby 12-year-old boy. One of the New Yorker’s better-known cartoons has one dog, talking to another in front of a computer monitor. “On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog,” the mutt says. That’s exactly Seife’s point. We’re just as naive and, with the online medium still in its infancy, more than a little vulnerable to fraud.