Belmont Club

The Information in the Outlier

Making people better has been a goal of the better people from time immemorial. But not everyone thinks this is a completely good idea. One of the key lines in modern science fiction cinema was spoken by Captain Malcolm Reynolds of Serenity as he struggles to maintain a measure of chaos in the universe. Most people remember the line: “I aim to misbehave”. But they often forget what his reason is.

Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: Y’all got on this boat for different reasons, but y’all come to the same place. So now I’m asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all. Sure as I know anything, I know this – they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten? They’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people… better. And I do not hold to that. So no more runnin’. I aim to misbehave.

For that we have to turn to Tennyson, who argued that “God fulfils Himself in many ways, Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.”

Probably nowhere is this truer than in the subject of dieting, an art entirely devoted to the problem of curbing misbehavior. “Dieting is the practice of eating food in a regulated fashion to achieve or maintain a controlled weight. In most cases dieting is used in combination with physical exercise to lose weight in those who are overweight or obese.”

But there are many diets, some of whose philosophies are at such variance that not all of them can possibly be correct for everyone. Consider low-fat and low-carbohydrate diets. Any attempt not to choose between them must involve the embrace of a low-calorie diet in which you do not eat, or even more potently, an extremely low-calorie diet in which you eat even less.

A man who had lost a very considerable amount of weight — and who has kept it off for years — ascribed his success to the realization that the proportion of food that the body turned to fat was determined primarily by the chemical signaling of the body. He said.

It’s that partitioning process that determines whether you eat more. If your hormones (insulin, etc.) are telling the body to make fat, the blood sugar is turned into fat, and the hunger impulse gets stronger (due to low blood sugar).

High blood sugar is so toxic that insulin will force the production of fat rather than let it escalate out of control. If that happens, you get fat – and THEN you eat more. And exercise has the same effect. If your body is producing fat from blood sugar, exercise makes you incredibly hungry, so you end up eating more than you exercise away.

It’s really biochemistry that drives the process. If insulin is working properly, you eat until your blood sugar reaches a saturation level, and you stop. You just can’t eat any more.

What’s maddening is that this was conventional wisdom until the late 1960s. And then a charismatic Harvard professor named Jean Meyer convinced the world that we needed to get everyone to eat a low-fat diet. The government signed on, and now we have an obesity epidemic.

These words seemed to have a direct effect on another person close at hand who responded, “It is not paranoia, sometimes, to think the government is out to get us. I don’t think is necessarily deliberate. But the whole prussian school system, the fact that, for pepole in their 20-30’s (educated by the government, who owe their school loans to the government) eventually derive their eating style, their mortgage patterns, retirement plans, their healthcare consumption to the government.”

I had never thought about diets that way. “This is an eye-opener,” I said. But what was it that I should see?

This is not the place to recommend a dieting plan (that particular diet comes by the way from Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It by Gary Taubes) but only to observe the fact that this particular diet worked for the person who used it to lose a lot of weight. He came to it only after trying the other methods and failing.

I was told during counseling that “calories in/calories out” is the right way to think about it. But that never really made sense when I considered my real experience.

For instance, I could eat exactly the same thing on two given days, except for one of those days I would drink a big glass of milk. The glass of milk would increase my weight by 1 pound.

Which is crazy. But I saw it again and again and again. But it was maybe 200 calories of milk. A pound of fat is 3,500 calories. How could that be?

“Because it changed the allocation switch?,” I offered. “Exactly” came the answer. Maybe he found what worked for him.

It got me to thinking about a cancer patient I had helped out some years ago who came from the treatment experience remarking that “doctors only know what chemotherapy does for patients on average. They never know what it will do to you as an individual.” This realization convinced the patient that there was an aspect to health care that could never be completely delegated to the doctor. So the patient began to take copious notes of everything experienced: what seemed to help, what treatments were administered, what didn’t work. The patient was engaged in the process of “taking control” of the treatment process — understanding the individual variables that were not in the statistical regressions — but this was a particularly determined individual.

Not everyone has the energy to take control of his life.  Most of us “aim to behave”, and not simply in regard to our diets or medication.  We take our castor oil when told to. We pay our taxes on the appointed date. We follow on the basis that somebody knows how to fix us best.

But it’s perhaps significant to realize that there are thousands of people out there who are just raring to fix us. They’ve got the answer. And we let them tell us what it is. Most of them mean well, but I wonder whether they sometimes don’t do more harm than they think. Perhaps it’s the born rebels who finally decide to wander off the beaten track. But you have to nerve yourself to try. The man who had lost a lot of weight said:

The data is compelling. We eat more because we get fat, not the other way around. We have causality completely backward. Like climate change. CO2 goes up because temp rises, not vice versa

It’s all about hormonal signals.

Well maybe it is about hormonal signals. At least for this individual. And perhaps the hidden danger in the “settled consensus” is that it is undervalues the information content of the outliers. All conventional wisdom deserves to be challenged every now and again. And as for myself, though it is not through virtue, I’ve never had any other impulse but to misbehave. But I don’t think it will make me any thinner.

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