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The Definitive Guide to Conventional Wisdom

Posted By Mark Sisson On May 14, 2009 @ 8:00 am In Definitive Guides | 41 Comments

Every story needs a villain, and every protagonist needs an antagonist. Here at Mark’s Daily Apple, my regular nemesis is none other than Conventional Wisdom.

But first, let me qualify that statement. Conventional Wisdom isn’t necessarily evil. Take the current medical position on smoking. It seems like common sense to us now that inhaling superheated carcinogenic vapor on a regular basis leads to health issues, but fifty years ago, doctors swore up and down that it wasn’t harmful. They’d light up while taking your temperature, and it was common for pregnant women to enjoy a nice smoke. That was the CW regarding smoking (though I wonder what kind of moneyed interests were behind that one) for years. Eventually, the lung cancer-smoking link became undeniable, and scientists now unanimously agree that smoking is bad for your health. It took them awhile, but they did get it right, and Conventional Wisdom shifted to acknowledge this “new” reality.

That’s rare, however.

In most cases, CW is a lumbering beast: slow to move, but difficult to alter course once its big bullish head is set on moving in a certain direction. It’s the pigheaded, stubborn curmudgeon yelling at those darn kids to get off his lawn. It’s loud, pervasive, and impossible to ignore – and avoid. Oftentimes, entire careers are staked on maintaining its veracity. When that veracity is challenged, either by critics or by experiment, the challenger is often silenced. No, I’m not talking about some conspiracy theory wherein a rival scientist is snuffed out by a cabal of evil scientists. Rather, it’s that a conforming chorus of assent can be mobilized to drown out even the most rigorously defended thesis, just as long as Conventional Wisdom is at stake. The simple fact that faulty Conventional Wisdom – especially nutritional – is mostly supported by not malevolent, but altruistic and good-intentioned people is what makes it so difficult to defeat. Scientists, nutritionists, and doctors are generally convinced that the CW they support and defend is in the best interest of the population. These aren’t evil geniuses; these are good people operating from a fundamentally flawed stance.

Such a fundamentally flawed stance forms the basis for the nutritional CW that we all know and despise: the dietary fat-heart disease link. It started with Ancel Keys’ 7 Country Study, in which he examined heart disease rates in dozens of countries looking for support of his hypothesis that saturated fat intake correlated positively with heart disease mortality. He was able to put together a group of 7 countries that fit the bill – but only after discounting and excluding data points from the 14 other nations that showed little to no correlation! Keys set out to prove a previously-held position and, as is so often the case, he managed to focus only on the evidence that supported it.

Still, even the most inert, seemingly immovable consensus can change if faced with a perfect storm of insurmountable evidence, financial motivation, and unflappable criticism. The money angle is the toughest nut to crack, of course, but it’s our responsibility – as conscious skeptics of all things Conventional – to utilize the evidence and level the criticism on those who deserve it. Good intentions aside, what’s important is getting good health information out there and challenging status quos that don’t jibe with the facts.

I want to clarify something: I do so not question Conventional Wisdom because I fancy myself a contrarian for contrariness’ sake. I do it because there’s a lot of disinformation out there, horribly misguided or just blatantly false nutritional info that’s all the more dangerous simply because it has been deemed Conventional Wisdom by the omniscient “they” – who “they” are, it’s often difficult to know; just know that “they” know what they’re talking about (or so they say). If it were that crazy homeless guy outside the liquor store screaming about the dangers of a diet high in animal fats, it’d be easy to ignore. But when “they” happen to be a panel of experts in white coats hailing from important-sounding government acronyms, we tend to listen up.

CW rarely changes, but when it does, it’s generally for the better. I already mentioned the obvious example of smoking, but the Internet is making it harder and harder for unsubstantiated nutritional advice to go unchallenged. The bulk of people still get their dietary information from Oprah or the media’s cursory interpretation of the latest industry-funded study, but an increasing number of individuals are empowering themselves and others with the wealth of information available online. People no longer have to settle for a nutrition “expert’s” analysis of a particular study; they can access the same information and pull up the same abstracts and draw their own conclusions. And for those of us who might not have the tools or the time to break down each study, there are blogs like this one, or Dr. Eades’ [7], or Conditioning Research [8], or Whole Health Source [9], or Richard Nikoley’s [10] that do the leg work for you, making it incumbent on us to do our homework and make sure we don’t commit the same errors we criticize in the establishment. Of course, there is the fact that, though the Primal way is the right way, we cannot lose our skepticism. A new “alternative” Conventional Wisdom is emerging from the Primal/paleo/low-carb blogosphere, but it remains a vocal minority, and maintaining our intellectual rigor is crucial if we want to make an impact on society as a whole.

Like omega-3s, saturated animal fats, and brightly colored vegetables, a good-sized chunk of skepticism makes for healthy living. We have brains, big, immensely complex ones that are the products of millions of years of evolution, and we should use them. Grok didn’t rely on Conventional Wisdom; he created it. Accepting what “they” say on blind faith is tantamount to relinquishing what makes us essentially human: our ability to harness reason and logic in the pursuit of truth. At the same time, we must also probe, test, and constantly examine our own ideas.

And so, this guide does not purport to tackle every bit of misleading or false nutritional Conventional Wisdom (I think we do an adequate job of that in our regular daily posts); I simply wish to remind each and every one of you to never stop asking questions and seeking truths.

In the end, we subscribe to perhaps the most Conventional Wisdom of all – the time-tested, naturally-selected wisdom spanning hundreds of thousands of years, the wisdom, founded in the incontrovertible facts of evolutionary biology, that guided our ancestors. We may not ever change the minds of society at large, but we can make the small – or big – changes in our own lives that will ensure health, longevity, and wellness.


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