Human Flourishing Project: Episode 13: Nutrition (part 1) Transcript

Background and Intro

Welcome to the human flourishing project, I’m your host, Alex Epstein. Alright, this is week 13, and for those of you who have been listening, we are finally discussing nutrition. The first week of the show I talked about the problem that most bothers fascinates me in the world, which is that human beings lack reliable access to the knowledge we need to flourish. And exhibit A was nutrition. This is something that seems to have huge impacts on our lives. Certainly it has huge impacts on how we feeling during the day. Just about anyone can perceive that eating different ways. And there is so much information in the world. And there are a lot of smart people who have studied this issue, but for almost for everyone, it is impossible to know what is true and what isn’t. And therefore, it is hard to decide what to eat and yet we think oh there might be huge stakes here. It make make of difference of 10 to 15 years of my life if I eat one way versus another way. This certainly bother me, and I know it bothers a lot of you because I have gotten a lot of questions about that. I think I indicated that I eat a certain way now that seems to work quite well for me and people ask about that, but for me the interesting thing isn’t how I eat right now. Because I’m sure it is not the ideal way and it could even be very flawed, but how do we go about seeking better knowledge of this issue. So, last week I mentioned that, in some ways I had been putting this issue off because it is really difficult and it is a little scary because nutrition is nowhere near my area of specialization. And yet the fact that it is so scary and difficult and that it is so hard to find anything makes me feel motivated to see what can I do, in terms of making some progress for me and also for listeners of this program. I think of all of us as students of life. We are people that knowledge is power, that better knowledge is going to empower us more. And there are all of these different issues that are involved in our flourishing and our success at every area of life that involve these complex things that we are not getting really good knowledge about now. So, I thought I’ll just start tackling this step by step. I’ll make lots of mistakes, but this is something that needs to be done. On today’s program I want to talk about 2 processes that I am using. There are going to be a lot more, but these are 2 that I think are going to be essential if we are going to have any chance at getting good knowledge. And if you have heard the program before, I talk a lot about knowledge systems, particularly knowledge acquisition systems, and those are the sets of processes we use to acquire knowledge or sometimes to fail to acquire knowledge. And one of my core convictions in life and in the show, is that a lot of the way we are going to get better knowledge is to have better knowledge acquisition systems. And the more we have that, that should also influence the knowledge explanation systems of people who know things and hopefully have them compete. I have talked about that on other episodes, how that can be done. But, let’s just take, as a given, right now we don’t have any control over the people who know a lot, what can we do. So, let’s get started jumping into this.

And one thing I did this week, was that I had a conversation with doctors that I respect. And I respect them partly because they are research oriented and also these are people that I have known for a while and regard as intellectually honest. And interestingly none of the doctors I talked to were specialists in nutrition and one of the reasons for this is I don’t know anyone who is a specialist in nutrition. I know people who know quite a bit about it, but the other reason is because you can often learn a lot about a field by talking to people who are experts in related fields, but not in that field. And a reason for that is often in a certain field people will have faulty knowledge acquisition systems themselves. There will be certain kinds of bad tendencies and I am going to be talking about some of those today. And often people outside the field are better at saying, hey there are some deficiencies in what these people are doing. Either what they are doing and or how they are communicating it. And when I talk to these doctors in the past week, I got a take away from them and this might seem obvious but I had not been applying it enough in my own processing of claims about nutrition. And the take away I got was that public commentators on nutrition, have a major tendency to exaggerate. And there is a couple of different ways this is true.

Exaggerating the amount that is knowable right now by anyone period. That is one. Is expressing way too much certainty about their particular position. Which everyone is doing for all these different views, so obviously some of them are wrong, but maybe all of them are wrong. And then three, this was a really interesting one, the importance of their views, or more broadly the importance of making certain nutritional decisions.

So the three big categories are, one is exaggerating the amount that can be known right now, two is their certainty in their particular view, and three the importance in the field. And maybe three doesn’t make sense yet, by I will go into it, after I go into the others. And to illustrate how this works, and why this works I want to talk first about how we are susceptible to this, and specifically, how I am susceptible to this, even though I try not to susceptible. So, I was watching a video last week. I have been watching some videos from different schools of thought, and this is one from the carnivore school of thought, which may seem really implausible, you should just eat meat. But, there are some really articulate people making that case and there are some really interesting seemingly use case of this. And I have talked to a couple of people who are really smart and claim to have really good results. This is not the way I eat right now, but it is something that I would consider. And I was watching this video, it was by a guy named Doctor Barry Groves, and there was a certain definite logic to what he was saying. What was interesting to me, observing myself watch it, I had this feeling of, I want this to be true. So, sometimes people have desires for things to be false, because it contradicts their worldview. But, for me in nutrition, I don’t have any kind of worldview that says, oh it is really good to eat plants, or it is really good to eat animals. I don’t have some kind of fundamental ethical preference there. My ethical preference I want to do what is good for humans, including the human that is me. And since I am not a vegan or something, I don’t have that kind of worldview that we should be a vegan morally, and then hoping that is the best kind of diet for us. I do not have that at all. So, I had this feeling watching this video, I really want this to be true, and why was that. Well, I realized, because this guy is making really forceful arguments. And A) one implication is, it is possible to know a lot about nutrition. B) That he knows a lot, that his view is really the right view.nd then C) it is going to make a huge difference in my life if I adopt his view. And all of those are naturally and understandably compelling things. All things being equal, we want there to be more knowledge in the world. We want to have access to the right version of it, and we want to be confident in that. And then we want that knowledge to make a difference. And when I was talking to these doctors, I reflected on this, and then it occured to me, well how much is known about this. And they raised a whole bunch of variables expressing skepticism on how much could be known in nutrition and maybe I will go into those some other episode, but in terms of, one thing that is very hard to do the kind of testing you do to generally validate things, like randomized double blind clinical trials, that is one kind of aspect. But, just talking about certain features of the human body and how we process things that are very hard to know. And even when you study populations, there are all these differences in the populations on all sorts of levels, so how do you know what is going on there. So, I just point out, there is a lot of, to say it might be hard to know things.

And one thing I noticed, in most of the public videos, is that most of the public commentators do not acknowledge that at all. And one thing they almost never do is say, ok there are certain things that we all know, that we all agree on. And then there are certain things I think I know that I disagree with other on, and then there are certain things I don’t think any of us know. And this is a really important thing to look for. This is one of my big lessons. Is that I want experts who acknowledge varying levels of confidence and ignorance on different issues. I want experts who acknowledge varying levels of confidence and ignorance on different issues. So, when some just say on a very controversial issue, they just give A, B, C. It all just follows perfectly, and they act like they have everything figured out. This is a big, big flag. It is also a big flag because they are not acknowledging the dissenting views and acknowledging those, and I will deal with that in a moment. But, even when when there are not these expressions of different levels of confidence, that is a flag. Maybe about the person’s methodology, but certainly about whether I can trust their presentation. Versus, when I see people and they say very clearly, this is what I know, this is what I don’t know, this is where there is disagreement. When they give me those different degrees or degradationsss that can almost lull me too much. I can almost be susceptible to that because it is so rare and it is so necessary to do. And one thing I want everyone here to think about is certainly when you are processing anything look for people who are acknowledging varying levels of confidence and ignorance on different issues in their field. So that is a good general thing. In particular, on nutrition I am very interesting to know from you. Either you can email at or go on the facebook group, let me know you have you seen, if anyone in the realm of nutrition that you feel is really good as specifying different levels of confidence and ignorance. Because that can help us whittle the field in terms of people who can be good potential sources of knowledge and also just understanding the different debates.

Now, one other aspect of this that I mentioned. So, there is the issue of to overrate how much is knowable at a particular given time and to be over certain in their field. There is also a tendency to inflate the importance of the field. Nutrition, is obviously important to some degree, probably to a substantial degree. As I said before, in terms of how we feel it makes a big difference at least within certain bounds. I think we all have the experience of eating a certain way and we feel really really bad. But, with anything, there is the potential of exaggerating its magnitude. And sometimes people will act like, if you are a vegan, then you are basically guaranteed to live to 90, and if you eat all meat, then you are basically guaranteed to die at 60. And interestingly you hear people say almost the exact opposite. And one of the doctors pointed out, when we do studies, one question we have when we are doing these studies, is, how big is the impact is the variable that we are studying. And she said, with nutrition, maybe we don’t know. Maybe it is a variable. But, maybe there are other variables that are drowning it out. And notice with this as with the other variables, in terms of how much knowledge exists and level of certainty there are incentives in place to encourage people to exaggerate these. As I said before, because all things being equal, we want these things to be at a high level. And if we want them to be at a high level, then certainly the media that we consume want them to be at a high level, and thus, as a general rule, media will tend to promote as authorities, people who express a very high level of confidence in how much they know and their particular view, and then a high level of confidence in how much it matters to our lives. I’ve certainly seen this very very directly studying environmental issues, a lot of which I have studied in quite a bit of depth. And when I see that I talk to different people in a field, even if I disagree with them, versus looking at mainstream portrayal, if you take something like climate science, just there is a clear tendency for media to look for the people with the most dramatic public predictions, and that is understandable in a certain sense. And who express a very high level of confidence. For example, there is a guy named James Hanson, who is probably the most prominent climate scientist, and starting in the 80’s he expressed a very high degree of confidence in a certain set of models in my reading didn’t go very well. But, it is no accident that he was chosen and promoted, because he expressed that hey, we know a lot about how human beings impact climate, and I am right myself, and this is really important, the fate of the world depends on it. Any given one of those could be, and I think in this case all are exaggerated. It doesn’t mean they aren’t not important, but it is really a disservice when we get these things exaggerated, and the thing we have to realize as knowledge consumers is that there are systematic incentives for these things to be exaggerated. And thus, one thing we want to do as knowledge consumers is seek out and reward experts who are much more objective. Who are intellectually honest, and one big give away there, is do they acknowledge varying levels of confidence and ignorance on different aspects of their issue. So, I would love to get any examples from you, of experts you have seen, particularly on nutrition, but if you have other fields too that is great, who you feel like these people are really good. So, that is one big process that I wanted to talk about today, is seeking out the experts who acknowledge the varying levels of confidence and ignorance.

And the second process is one I have talked about in a previous episode I believe, episode 2, but it is really relevant here, and I will set it up with the problem that necessitates it, which is that in trying to acquire real knowledge in nutrition and other fields we find that public experts very rarely acknowledge and answer the best knowledge of their opponents. And as I have mentioned in a couple of episodes, the ability to acknowledge and address the best arguments of your opponent’s is sooo valuable. It is such a service, if you are right, it is such a service, to the people listening because it just makes it so much easier for them to tell what’s right. So, i’ll give you some examples of not doing this in different things that I have watched. So, lets say I’ve been watching videos from schools of very different levels of thought. One is we can call it the carnivore school saying that you should eat primarily high fat meat. And then the other we can call the low fat plant based, sometimes people call it vegan, but low fat plant based is probably a better summary of that. So, I’ve been reading from these different experts or claimed experts and watching their videos. And there are a lot of really smart people and what is fascinating is that each of them makes points that seem like they could be really important and it super frustrating to not see them addressed.

I’ll just give you a couple, I was watching this Barry Grove presentation and he makes a point he addressed, now in a sense he does this a little bit, because he addressed the argument, and this is probably why I found it compelling, but then there is stuff that he is not doing too. He was looking at animals that eat plants, like gorillas, and he was taking the argument that look, there are all these big animals including primates and at least many of the primates just eat vegetation and they have almost no fat in their diet. And long story short, he had an argument that, not really, because they have a unique way of processing vegetables so they actually create an enormous amount of fat from vegetables, so they are actually being fueled by fat because that is the way in which they are accessing the energy. I didn’t’ know anything about this, but it is a fascinating kind of claim and really interesting counterclaim against people saying oh no they are just eating vegetation and if it is true about what he says about how they are actually using fat in practice that is something that even if the carnivore diet is overall wrong that is something the other side should be addressing. And I never, I have read a bunch of these low fat plant based, and I have never seen that from them. But, then they have a whole bunch of arguments about, there are so many examples of this, but I will just give a couple. They have so many arguments, the low fat plant based people, about population studies and just showing the populations who are most long lived are eating overwhelmingly plant based diets. And what was interesting when I watched Barry Groves presentation he would talk about certain tribes the way they ate the way he prescribed, but he didn’t give much of about their longevity, so he did not address, and he certainly didn’t, the way he characterized eating low fat plant based, it seemed like it was insane. Like if you eat this way, you are just going to be completely debilitated and yet there are these people who are eating this way and they seem to be living a long time. And he is not addressing that or that line of argument, so what am I supposed to make of that. And then there is just all these contradictory things like the carnivore people will say our way prevents heart disease, and the plant based people will certainly say our way prevents heart disease. And each of those has a certain mechanism or claimed mechanism to it and where are the people addressing the other people’s mechanism. So, imagine how great it would be if people really addressed the arguments of the others because the more you did that the more you would get a sense of what are the different mechanism at work in nutrition and the body that processes nutrition. How do they work together, which ones are important, which aren’t’. And crucially related to the first point today, how much do we know about any of these. Because there is a big tendency to exaggerate, how much is know, with the different presentations I have seen, almost nobody is saying I don’t know this, I don’t know this. They are expressing lots of confidence, and they are bringing up points that seem compelling, but they are not addressing the compelling points of others. One I read from the low fat plant based camp was a claim that when you eat fat, like the body is just very good at turning dietary fat into fat and that when you look at the fat on someone’s body you can trace the animal that it came from just by the fat. And the idea is that the body is just so good at turning dietary fat into body fat that it just gloms on, it is like oh salmon fat, it just becomes your fat versus they are arguing that other things have more difficulty becoming fat. So, is that true, is that relevant, does that actually lead to obesity, because it could be that well maybe that is true, but maybe your body feeds off that fat so it is fine. I would just love to see these things acknowledged and addressed. And the fact that they are not done, speaks ill of the explanation abilities of the people in the field. At least the people in the field that I have seen. So, what I would recommend always doing, is looking for experts who always acknowledge and answer the best arguments of their opponents. That is going to be a very small subset of experts, but that is going to be great, because just as much as possible go for them because if you can find them you are going to get a lot clearer a lot more quickly versus if you just you could find a 100 people who make compelling isolated claims, but you have no idea how those claims fit together and you have no idea what is true and what is not. So, big lesson is today from me, just thinking about it at this stage are I want experts who acknowledge varying levels of confidence and ignorance and I want experts who acknowledge and address the best arguments of their opponents and from you the listeners I’m interested in who in nutrition that does either of these or both of these because I would love to read them and I think that would move me forward a lot more quickly in terms of deciding on truth and falsehood or even, this is going to be a subject we talk about in a future weeks, even what is worth experimenting with. Because one theme we will talk about in a future episode, I’ve talked about it a little before, but I will talk about it in the context of nutrition is that often it is hard to get really pure general knowledge in a field, but you can get enough knowledge to give yourself a couple of concrete options to test. And then you can just test with your own body. And within certain parameters that can be a really really good idea because you can validate something for your body pretty well, that a whole bunch of studies for various reasons might not be able to tell you was good to know what to try. So, should I try this carnivore way of eating. I would like to know what are the carnivores, how do they answer all of the arguments of the low fat plant based people. How do they talk about longevity issues. Is it possible that maybe that’s a diet that it is really good in terms in that it makes you feel really good and strong and hardy for a certain amount of time but you don’t live as long. I was looking up Barry Groves, and he died at 77, now that is anecdotal, does that mean anything. It was a heart thing and they said it was genetic. And you know Doctor Atkins died in his 70s. The point I am making is that is so hard to sort through these things the way they are being presented. I really want people to acknowledge degrees of confidence and ignorance and to acknowledge and address the best arguments of their opponents. So, assignment for this week, if you choose to accept it and if you have any clue is let us know on the facebook page, any experts that you think at all meet these criteria or you can email me at

Also, if you want to make sure to get weekly updates go to and put your email in and then you will be on the email list. Alright we are going to be discussing nutrition in upcoming episodes, I’m not exactly sure how often and on what frequency, in part it will relate to feedback from the community and with different people that I talk to. But, this is something that I want to be pursuing over time and in general I want to do a lot of work in the next quarter on knowledge acquisition systems. So, give me feedback, let me know how you like this episode, how you like others, but I have a sense already that people are really interesting in how do we separate knowledge from non knowledge. I think nutrition is a pretty good place to start. I may take on other topics, I may share my work on energy and environmental issues where I have been doing knowledge acquisition study lately, but in general lots on knowledge acquisition and in some number of weeks hopefully we will have a little more clarity on how to eat in a way that helps us flourish. So, that is it for this week, until next time I’m Alex Epstein, this has been The Human Flourishing Project.