Welcome to the Human Flourishing Project, I’m your host, Alex Epstein. Last week we talked about the subject of nutrition. And this is a subject that I raised in the first episode of this podcast (08-03-18). It has been 3 months. The reason that I introduced it, is that this is maybe the example of the problem that this show exists to solve. Which is that humans lack reliable access to the knowledge we need to flourish, with crucial issues like nutrition, psychology, relationships, pretty much anything we really need to know about to flourish in life, we really have a lot of difficulty finding it. Now, my own experience is trying to find real knowledge in industrial fields, specifically energy, and the environmental impacts of energy. And if you are interested in that you can read my other work or listen to my other podcast ‘Power Hour’ which hasn’t been updated in awhile, but will hopefully be updated soon. But, I have been really interested in, how can I take what I have learned about what I call knowledge acquisition systems, developing better sets of processes, for finding the right knowledge. For separating real knowledge from non knowledge. For integrating knowledge together. How can I take what I have learned about that and apply it to other fields with the hope that I and other people can get better knowledge by having better knowledge systems. One of the basic ideas of this show is that the key to better knowledge is that the key to knowledge is not just to expose ourselves to new claims of knowledge, it is to develop better knowledge acquisition systems. So, I am in week 2 of this very exciting and precarious foray into nutrition, which is something that I have looked at recreationally for a long time, but I have never made any in depth study of. But, I think maybe the approach that I have to getting real knowledge can be useful here. So, if you are joining me on this journey thanks for listening. And just to recap, last week I talked about some specific challenges that we face in learning about nutrition which pertain to experts and I talked about how it is very valuable to look for experts who do 2 things.
One Is that they express objectivity or honesty about their level of certainty about issues. So one indication of an expert is if they indicate oh I know a lot about this and this. I’m unsure about this, and this is completely speculative. When they express these different degrees of confidence and uncertainty about things we can be more confident that they are actually looking at things in an objective way, versus just having some perfect theory where they act like they are certain of everything. Which in this kind of realm where you are dealing with very complex systems, it is very unlikely that everyone is going to have everything figured out to every degree. And in fact, that is never really true, because in any field, even when you have a lot of certainty and a lot of confidence there is always new things that are at the periphery where you have different degrees of probability and uncertainty about. So, that was one thing, looking for experts who express objectivity about their level of certainty.
And the other thing was experts who respectively engage the best arguments of others. They acknowledge and engage the best arguments of others. And I asked listeners, particularly on the facebook group to suggest experts that they thought met this criteria. And I highly recommend looking at the discussion from last week, which interestingly has more comments on it and more interaction on it, particularly if I include things that occured on my personal facebook that were a spill over from it. Probably is more than all the episodes combined. So, this topic definitely strikes a nerve. But, certain names came up from different schools of thought as this is a person that people regard as a seemingly responsible expert or at least a responsible inquirer about these issues. And certain names that came up from what they often call themselves low carb high fat school, which I also call carnivore.
I’m not sure what he calls himself, but science journalist Gary Taubes, then there is doctor that is often connected to him Peter Attia. People had a lot of regard for them.
Then in terms of people in very different camp in terms of critical of them I have got Stephan Guyenet and Michael Gregor, which is someone that I have read a little bit. Then there is a website called Science Based Medicine which is intriguing and they had some interesting stuff about Taubes.
So, I started scanning these different things, and different people recommended, and some of them struck me as more or less credible. But I decided, for reasons that I think are reasonable, but this isn’t the best way to do it, but I decided I want to try first looking at the arguments of Gary Taubes, but at the same time looking at the arguments of people who are highly recommended who directly engage Taubes. And reason for that, is when I was reading some chapters of Taubes’ book or at least scanning them, he was very focused on the issue of method. So, how it is that different scientists in this field are going about reaching conclusions. And he was critical about peoples’ method including saying people were sloppy about different things. So, for me I thought this is a pretty good starting point, because some of the points he made intrigued me, including there is a huge controversy over what they call energy balance, and I don’t want to get into that right now. I’ll get into it in a later episode. But, the point is, he had a point about it, a criticism in the way it is conventionally thought about, that was plausible to me, and that is a, he is dealing with fundamental issues.
So, one thing I am looking for when I am just surveying a field or surveying a debate, is I want people who are focused on issues of method, issues of clarity. That does not guarantee at all that they will be right, but it’s creating a context where then the discussion about them will end up being discussions about method. Another way of putting that, that means discussions about the knowledge acquisition systems that people are using. So, I decided I’m going to read Taubes, then read in parallel some other people. The person that I am most planning on reading right now is this guy Guyenet, in part because my colleague Don Watkins knows a lot about this stuff recommended him. And specifically because he has a lot of his own stuff, but he also has interaction with Taubes and Taubes has responses to him. And I think this is great because usually when I watch people interact I can get a good sense of how their minds work by how they are interacting with one another. It is just this great little “petri” dish where I can assess people. This is just one way to approach things, it could be that what I should do is start reading nutrition textbooks. Maybe I will at some point soon. At least the way,an entry point that I am comfortable with and have become comfortable in other subjects is looking for people who are claiming expertise and clarity on something and then finding people who disagree and seeing how their ideas interact and then often from that I’ll get a sense of these are the basic issues in the field. Then I will often read more generally. But, what I have noticed in my thinking, particularly as I have done this show, is that I am very very focused on expert curation, on finding people who are working with these issues day in and day out and then evaluating them. I am effectively hiring them to be my expert and it really is a type of employee. You are usually not paying them, except maybe you are buying a book. But we are really deciding, whom do we trust in the sense that we are going to act on information that we don’t usually have direct access to. And so there is so much that goes into who is most credible. This is why I like to focus on finding a debate, finding smart people disagreeing with each other because usually I can have a sense of this way of thinking seems to make a lot more sense. It seems better at addressing those arguments. And then the people who look more credible, I can then invest more time in them. Still looking for disagreements and keeping an eye out for that.
By finding these really good clear experts, by starting the process of finding that, I think that is where I have a real shot at making progress. This is not at all to say that Taubes will qualify in the end. There are certain things I am weary of already, from just from the things I have read. But, I think he is a good enough starting point where he, studying the debate around him, including the many experts who have joined that debate on different sides, should be profitable. But, we will see.
Now, today what I wanted to share with you, beyond just updating you where I am, is to share something on how I read expert things in really anything. And that gives me a much better shot than I would otherwise have of who has the best arguments, and before I talk about what I do, I want to talk about the problem we run into. And I will describe it with the Taubes’ book as an example. I started reading maybe 5 chapters of his book, I read them pretty quickly. Even though I’m a pretty critical thinker, what happens is, I’m reading this and the person has a narrative. He has a journalism background, and is telling it as a story, which has certain potential benefits, but also has certain huge hazards to it, because you can get sucked into a narrative and there can be a whole bunch of things left out that you can’t see. But, with any kind of narrative it is just easy to get sucked into the logic of the author and just follow it. And for individual points it just seems like that is a good point, and that is a good point, and that is a good point. And then at the end of it I think well that was a lot of good points. And then I read a criticism and it is this long thing. Ok, they have a lot of good points too. Then, it is well how do I, how do I make sense of that. And a big way to make sense of that is to, when reading these long things be able to distill them to the essentials. To understand, ok what are really the core arguments being made here. And then if I can really boil those down, I can see the criticisms, then I can see how good are these criticisms. Are they addressing these points. Are they conveying them accurately, are they ignoring them because someone could just pick on one little thing and just spend a huge amount of time on that, and then they are ignoring most of the stuff. So, what I really want to be able to do with these viewpoints, as I am learning about them, as I am evaluating the thinkers, is to try to boil them down to their essentials.
And this connects very directly to the show on week 4 I believe, where I talked about context bridging, the context bridging model of explanation. And the idea is that when we are explaining something whether as ourselves or whether we are an expert in something, really what we are doing is taking someone from a context, which is a sum of what they know or think they know. From there context to our context, and we are doing it by adding certain premises or understanding, and then subtracting certain things that we think are wrong and then also modifying things that they are partially clear on but also partially unclear on, or partially informed about and partially misinformed about. That model of explanation, is useful for explaining things ourselves, but it is also useful for looking at other people’s explanation.
And the way I try to get at someone’s context bridging, what they are trying to do and whether it is good context bridging or whether it seems flawed, is that I want to grasp the outline of what we have created. And I was taught this years ago, and the terminology of what I was taught was which I still use is reverse outline. So to reverse outline, means to take an extended work and then to reverse engineer the outline that the author is writing from. It doesn’t really matter that they wrote it from, the idea of an outline, is the outline summarizes the essential arguments to the content creator, so the content creator can then remember the argument, can have them in mind to expand on them in writing, and in some cases it is in speaking. But, if you can get to the outline of something, it is this really beautiful thing, where you can get, now I really understand this, now I really get what the forest is of this. And the more we can outline, the more we can grasp how ideas fit together. And how different arguments intersect with one another. So, I reversed outline all the time, and I will give you a little bit of guidance on how to do that. The key thing is, there are three words that begin with ‘p’ that capture what I am looking for in a reverse outline. I want a purposeful progression of propositions. I’ll start out with propositions. A proposition is a statement about reality. It is a full thought about reality versus a topic. So, if I am looking at Tabues, I don’t want to just say he talks about fat here or energy balance here, no he is saying, he is making a certain assertion about that in reality and I want to capture it as a complete sentence. So, that is one thing I like, when I am outlining somebody, I want it to be in complete sentences. And then purposeful progression is when I’m outlining somebody, say it is a 5,000 word piece and I’m boiling it down to 6-8 points, I want to boil it down so that each of the points follows from the next. So, it is not just one sentence and then another sentence and you are not clear how they are related. If the piece is coherent you should be able to relate the points, one after another after another.
Give you an example of this, I haven’t yet reversed outlined enough of these nutrition people to do that, but I will give you a reverse outline of my book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. This is going to be a very very high level reverse outline because that is a 200 page book and I’m going to boil it down 7 points. But what I want you to pay attention to, is that each of these is a proposition and in some cases it is a little complex because it is a whole chapter of a book, or sometimes even more than a chapter that I am summarizing. Sometimes it is two chapters that I am summarizing, but pay attention, so the progression and then. The propositions rather progress, and progress in a purposeful way. And the ultimate purpose is what we can call the theme and that is the central summarizing proposition of the entire thing. Any piece of content, if it is coherent should boil down to one theme and then you have an outline which is usually say 4, maximum 8 or 9 points that give you what are the key elements, what are the key steps, and then sometimes within, and then those can be the big steps and then within each outline point then you can have steps. And when I work on a book I’ll have 3 layers, so I’ll have the theme of each chapter, and then the theme of each sub chapter and then the theme, and then within that I’ll want.. Sorry. So there is the theme of the overall book. So, in the case of The Moral Case of Fossil Fuels, we can put the theme of that book as fossil fuel use as indispensable to the future of human flourishing. So, that is the central idea of the book. That is like level 0. And then level one is I’m going to divide it into 7 and even one of those, each proposition you can think of that as a theme. So, not to confuse you. I’m going to share a document by the way so this is clear and so you can see this, but let me just read through the progression.
So the theme is fossil fuel use is indispensable to the future of human flourishing, and I apologize if some of you have not read the book before or are not familiar with it. I’m not aiming for this to try to persuade you just by summarizing this, but I think you will see there is something interesting about the argument and you’ll be able to see where it fits in with other arguments. Then if you see people comment on it you will see oh is this comment really addressing the claims of the book or is it accurately representing it. Most of the commentators I would say definitely not.
So the first point is, to make the right choices about fossil fuels, which the fate of humanity depends on, we must engage in full context analysis with human flourishing as our standard of value. So, that is point one, I’m just going to read them through, just so you hear them, but each sentence is going to be a new chapter with human flourishing our standard of value.
Human flourishing requires cheap, plentiful, reliable energy which is both extremely hard to produce and in extremely in short supply.
The fossil fuel industry is the only industry with the ability to produce the variety and quantity of energy required by a world of 7 billion people.
Fossil fuels impact on climate livability is overwhelmingly positive with the climate protection impact of fossil fuel energy far outweighing the mild warming of its CO2 byproduct.
Fossil fuels impact on environmental quality is overwhelmingly positive with the environmental improvement impact of fossil fuel energy far outweighing the declining pollution impact.
Fossil fuel impact on resource availability is overwhelming positive with the fossil fuel industry creating new fossil fuel resources as well as the wealth necessary to develop other energy resources, therefore if human flourishing is our standard, fossil fuels usage needs to be liberated, not restricted.
So, that was 7 sentences and that is capturing the essential progression of an entire book, and then for each of those I have 7 or so points within each chapter. And then within each sub chapter I have 7 or so points within those.
And then the idea is if you can see that outline, then it is a lot easier to retain what is going on in the book, and then to understand where my position fits in in the debate. So, for example with the point I made about climate. You can see ok, he says something about a warming influence, so he doesn’t say there is no warming influence, but he describes it as mild and then he is comparing it with a climate protection and impact of fossil fuel industry which is not something you hear with most arguments. They don’t talk about the role in energy in making our climate safter usually, they just talk about the warming influence. So, then you would say I can see how it fits in with other people. And then if someone says, oh Epstein is a climate denier, you would say no that is not what he is saying. Where is if you just read the whole book, which I hope you do, it can be hard to retain that. So, it is a really good exercise to try to reverse outline the piece in that way.
And one thing I will share with you, which I have never shared before, is I’m going to create a folder. I’m going to create a folder because what I want you to really do, is if you think there is something really good on nutrition, I would love for you to reverse outline that and then share it with the rest of us because I think that could be a really efficient way of getting a sense of these different arguments. But what I will put as the first document in that folder, is I’ll put a document called the Ultimate Outline: A Step by Step Guide, and that is actually a positive guide to outlining that some of you might benefit from. A lot of people have benefited from it that I have shared it with so far, but that will also give you a sense of what goes into a good reverse outline.
The core thing is purposeful progression of propositions. And I have started doing that with some of these nutrition people. And I hope to have some good progress within a week. And I really hope that you, if you recommend certain youtube videos or other things, I hope that you try to reverse outline them. I think it is a really empowering exercise and one thing to note, and this can happen a lot is sometimes you will find that certain people are easier to reverse outline and certain people are harder to reverse outline. And what that can mean often, if they are hard to reverse outline, is that they do not have a really clear seamless logical progression, or at least there can be a lot of junk added in. But, it can tell you a lot in terms of can I really get the essential progression, and I’ll just make a note, with just my preliminary progression of reading Taubes’ book Good Calories, Bad Calories. When I tried to reverse outline it, it was a lot more difficult than I would like it to be. And I am not drawing anything definitive from that, but there is something about the way that he writes that it makes it hard to get ok what exactly is he saying. And what exactly is this study supposed to prove. This can often happen with people who have a journalism background. There are many reasons why this can be the case, but it is just one other benefit of reading things this way, of reading things to grasp the essential argument or outline, is just very powerful for so many reasons and we will find that most people it is hard to do this with. Or what we come up with is not very persuasive, and that can be a sign that this is not the person to use as our expert. We want to use people who are really really clear, and often a way to tell if they are really clear is to look at their reverse outline. So, what I’m going to share on the facebook page and also if you are on the email list, make sure you are on the email list by going to humanflourishingproject.com is I’m going to share a folder, which is a shared google doc folder, hopefully most of you use google docs. It is going to be a public folder and you can then upload anything you want to that folder and we will have it so that people can’t delete or edit what you write, you could control whether other people could comment on it or not, that could be an interesting feature. But, if you do that, now maybe no one will do this and that is totally ok, but it would be really cool if some of you did and I will share that ultimate outline thing, and that is very much focused on my book as a use case because that is the outline I know really really well, but hopefully you will find utility in creating your own outline, but also in understanding the outlines of other people’s books.
So that is it for this week. I am committed to sticking with this topic as long as I feel like I am making some progress, so feel free to send me any feedback on what you thought of the first 2 exploratory episodes, hopefully it is moving us closer to getting some good stuff about nutrition, but also moving you closer to having some good tools for evaluating any kind of claims that you hear. So, comment on the facebook page.
Email me with any questions or comments. Alright that is it for this week. I will talk to everyone next week. Until then, I’m Alex Epstein, this has been The Human Flourishing Project.