In the past couple years I’ve slowly come to the conclusion that the more you know about something, the more difficult it becomes to talk about it with people who are unfamiliar with the topic. Positive psychology is such a thing for me and so is nutrition. When talking about them I will easily go into the specifics – usually the ones I’ve studied most recently – and fail to communicate on the broader level that would make more sense to the person I’m talking with.
This problem is emphasized by the fact that usually the more you know about something, the less black and white your perception becomes. When it comes to complex systems like human behavior or metabolism I could have given you much clearer answers two or three years ago than I can now. Now it’s all entangled in ‘ifs’ and ‘on the other hands’ and ‘howevers’. Let’s take low-carbohydrate diet and weight loss as an example:
Low-carbohydrate diet will promote weight loss because 1) it reduces insulin secretion, and 2) it reduces the amount of triglycerides your body can produce. This leads to less storage of fat and fat tissue releasing fatty acids into bloodstream to be used for energy. Pretty clear so far. But now we forgot about gut health. Eating foods that irritate gut – and carbs have little to do with this – might lead to foreign molecules getting into bloodstream, causing an inflammatory response and in worst case some really nasty autoimmune problems. Inflammation also has an impact on metabolism. And we haven’t talked about leptins yet. Damn those pesky hormones… So it’s not just about insulin and its effects on fat storage, or the effects of systematic inflammation, but we also should consider the effect that leptins have on satiety. Leptin resistance leads you to feel hungry even though you just had a large meal…
The more you learn, the more mechanisms you identify that all play a role in a complex system, and the less certain you become about how the cause-and-effect chains actually work. It gets complicated quickly and makes accounting for every possible factor and variable a tough job. And when you are continuously learning new things, you are also coming up with more questions that remain unanswered. As a consequence the limits of your knowledge and understanding become painfully obvious.
It’s interesting to listen to the low-carbohydrate diet discussions in the locker room at my gym, or in a bus, or in a restaurant. It’s immediately evident that almost everyone has gotten their information from mainstream media. There’s no intelligent questioning of the principles behind the dietary approach, there’s no discussion about the underlying biological mechanisms or causality, and there definitely is no exploration of alternative explanations to why it works beyond “it’s the carbs, maaan.”
The biggest problem is that when your primary source of information is the highly digested piece in a newspaper, tabloid, or a women’s (or men’s) magazine, it’s easy to become disillusioned about the extent of your knowledge. After all, shouldn’t the newspaper article contain everything an average Joe needs to know about the topic? Isn’t it the job of the journalists to find and communicate the truth in any matter? (1)
If only it was so easy. Reality is always more complex than a newspaper article. It’s easy to blindly trust an expert who claims to know the true path, packages it in a simple and appealing box, and discredits anyone who is not a true believer. When asked for specifics or presented with contradictory evidence, the expert can always hide behind complex jargon and confusion and smoke and mirrors. He knows the jargon so he must be credible, right? And his solution was so… reasonable and pretty and everything! (2)
In proper scientific inquiry there is always substantial disagreement amongst experts. Who do you trust? Who do you believe in? Even in scientific communities the elusive “truth” often becomes a matter of belief, not of knowledge or facts. Even Albert Einstein, one of the brightest minds of recent history, spent years and years during the later stages of his career trying to unsuccessfully refute some of the more disturbing aspects of quantum mechanics, simply because – and despite all evidence to the contrary – he refused to believe them to be true. (3)
Here is how you can identify someone who has actually taken the time to dive into a topic, and has the courage to tell the truth about the extent of her knowledge: She will not give you yes or no answers. That person operates in the gray area between yes and no, and is likely to start with “it depends” when you ask her something. Be vary of those who claim to have the definite answers and paint you a picture of black and white world, no matter how tempting that world might be in its beauty and simplicity. (3)
The black and white world is full of statements like:
- The fat you eat goes straight into your thighs/belly/wherever it is you don’t want it.
- If you eat cholesterol-rich foods, you will end up with high cholesterol.
- Human beings are rational decision-makers.
The real world is messy, ambiguous and sometimes counterintuitive. Welcome to the real world.
(1) To get some idea about the “evidence” behind media headlines in the field of medicine, watch these TED talks:
Goldacre, Ben (2011). Battling bad science. TEDGlobal 2011, . Available at: http://www.ted.com/talks/ben_goldacre_battling_bad_science.html [Accessed 21 November 2012].
Goldacre, Ben (2012). What doctors don’t know about the drugs they prescribe. TEDMED 2012, . Available at: http://www.ted.com/talks/ben_goldacre_what_doctors_don_t_know_about_the_drugs_they_prescribe.html [Accessed 21 November 2012].
(2) For some hair-raising reading on this topic, check: Tavris, C., & Aronson, E. (2008). Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts. Pinter & Martin Ltd. (Buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk).
(3) Isaacson, Walter (2007). Einstein: His Life and Universe. [Audible edition, Unabridged] Simon & Schuster Audio.