Is reading comprehension really such an undernourished skill?

Two articles today got my dander up.  First we have this one – in which the author dismisses the Paleo/Primal diet as nonsense based entirely upon what is either a superficial reading of the basic concepts behind it, or an inability to understand those concepts.  Second, we have this opinion piece from the Washington Post – in which the author dismisses the collective works of Tim Ferris as being nothing more than snake oil sold to “gullible nitwits.”

I’ll tackle the Paleo/Primal diet article diss first.  The author just regurgitates the standard, conventional wisdom critiques of the Paleo/Primal diet – that it’s too high in fat, that it’s a clone of the Atkins Diet and that our ancient ancestors died young and, using these tropes, waves the whole thing away as obvious nonsense.  Ugh.

The argument that the Paleo/Primal diet is too high in fat is predicated on acceptance of the lipid hypothesis, that dictates that cardiovascular health is utterly dependent upon one’s cholesterol levels.  Now, if the lipid hypothesis is correct, then the Paleo/Primal diet probably is going to kill you.  Here’s the thing though – more and more evidence is accumulating that calls the lipid hypothesis into question very seriously.  Dr. Chris Kresser handles this much better and much more thoroughly than I ever could – read up if you’re interested.  To simplify, here’s the money quote from Dr. Kresser’s article:

Though it still accepted as gospel truth by the general public and many medical professionals, most researchers now believe the primary causes of heart disease are inflammation and oxidative stress.

See, the point here that’s being missed by the author who is dumping on what she regards as a sort of obvious stupidity involved in anyone who follows the Paleo/Primal diet is not only that consumption of fats do not impact cardiovascular health, but that other aspects of the Paleo/Primal diet actually reduce inflammation and oxidative stress – the two primary causes of heart disease.

The second bit here is key, because the author’s dismissal of the elimination of grains, legumes and dairy from the diet are not mirrors of the Atkins Diet at all.  Atkins adherents are expected to reduce or eliminate nearly all carbohydrates – including fruits and most vegetables during the first phase of the diet.  Paleo/Primal never suggests a restriction on carbohydrates, other than those that require extensive processing in order for them to be marginally edible.  For instance, grains (corn, wheat, barley, rice, etc.) and legumes are inedible without being processed.  Human beings CANNOT derive any nutritive value out of raw grains or legumes.  Also, the phytic acids in even processed grain and legume products actually inhibit our ability to digest other foods properly and derive nutritive value from them.  The Paleo/Primal notion is not, as it is with South Beach or Atkins, that you can trick your body into dropping extra pounds by depriving it of carbohydrates and causing ketosis.  In fact, Paleo/Primal adherents are encouraged to consume as many vegetables and fruits as they like.  For most folks this will result in more satiety and pretty dramatic loss of excess body fat, as well as more energy (and regularity, due to the decent quantities of fiber consumed).

Her third regurgitated bit of misinformation (or lack of understanding/superficial reading) talks to the point of our ancient ancestors dying young.  Dr. Loren Cordain, who has helped to popularize the Paleo Diet specifically, has done extensive, peer-reviewed research on this topic, and come to the conclusion that while average ancient life spans were shorter than those we enjoy in modern society today, this has much more to do with other factors – infant mortality due to communicable disease, warfare and the absence of other technologies common today – than it does with diet.  As evidence of this he, and other researchers, have looked at the archeological record and discovered that once the grain based diet made possible by organized agriculture took hold physical stature diminished (our ancient ancestors were tall compared to our recent ancestors – human stature has only returned to what it was in the ancient world in the past 50 years or so), and evidence of food-based illness that is almost utterly absent from the ancient fossil record goes crazy once agriculture and the grain-based diet take hold.  Most telling is that our ancient ancestors practically never died with any cavities in their teeth, while our medieval ancestors, if they lived into their 30s, for instance, ended up with mouths full of rotten teeth.

The second article that got on my nerves this morning bugged me for basically the same reason the first one did – it’s one big assumption based upon either willful misunderstanding of the ideas he is critiquing, or a judgement based upon reading second and third-hand sources in order to form an opinion.  Mr. Weingarten pretty openly accuses anyone who has derived value from Tim Ferris’ books, The 4-Hour Work Week and The 4-Hour Body, as a “gullible nitwit.”  Again, I take this a bit personally, since I’ve gained tremendous value from reading The 4-Hour Body.  Suffice to say, I don’t like being called either gullible or a nitwit.

The author is upset that Amazon, as their first entry into the world of publishing, will be publishing Tim Ferris’ next book, and suggests that since he is himself an author, perhaps they’d be interested in some of the books he could write that would appeal to gullible nitwits. Maybe Mr. Weingarten ought to simply come up with a compelling story to tell or some useful knowledge he could share with the world and work at writing this tome with style, flair and in a way that’s fun to read.

Weingarten quotes the NY Times to sum up Tim Ferris’ niche thusly:

Mr. Ferriss has risen to mass popularity by explaining to readers how to get the most change in their lives for the least amount of effort.

The rest of his column is a list of titles of books Weingarten could potentially write that would fill this exact same niche.
Well, yes, that’s what the dust jacket says, because part of what Tim is doing is trying to sell books, and, yes, there are a lot more folks out there willing to buy a self-help book that promises miracles through little or no effort than there are folks out there who will buy a book whose dust jacket tells them that they’ll need to become highly disciplined self-experimenters and junior scientists in order to maximize their results – and that is precisely what Ferris’ books are all about.

Now, I assume that had the columnist actually read either of Tim Ferris’ books (or even looked at his website), he would know that Tim’s schtick really is not about minimal effort at all.  It’s about expending your effort – your available time and energy – in ways that really pay off, instead of expending effort and energy in ways that are conventionally held to be productive, but really are huge time sucks that rarely pay off in the ways we expect them to.

My gripe, to sum up, is that we’re all getting too comfortable with misreading things or looking at them so superficially that we accept critiques that don’t hold water when you really examine them.  Heck, the whole Republican field of Presidential candidates is a sea of people who not only do this constantly, but who are counting on a majority of voters to swallow it whole.  Don’t.

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