Does #Banting compromise humour and understanding of metaphor?

It’s been an amusing few days for those of us who follow the social media commentary related to Prof. Tim Noakes and the Banting diet. Earlier this week, an investment strategist named Magnus Heystek posted an opinion piece titled “Is Noakes running a Ponzi scheme?“, in which Heystek uses the example of Ponzi schemes (where people get suckered into poor investments via a combination of wishful thinking and deception) to riff on the “collective delusions” that can accompany diets.

The analogy is clear, even if imperfect – in the Banting analogue, someone uncharitably disposed towards what they think of as a fad diet could argue that the flock isn’t seeing the evidence and argument objectively, but are instead being seduced by the charisma of a person or an offer into a poor investment (in their health) – just as is the case in the investment analogue.

The analogy is imperfect in the sense that – as I’ve argued in the past – Noakes seems entirely sincere, and second that he is using the proceeds of the “real” meal revolution to fund research into health, rather than for personal enrichment. But even if imperfect, it’s fair comment, and has certainly provoked debate (if not much thought).

Heystek is making a similar point to the one that I’ve repeatedly made here, which is that the evangelical fervour in support of the diet, and the casual dismissals of any opposition to it as simply uninformed, both offer little reassurance that people are thinking things through carefully, rather than being in the grip of a collective delusion (of sorts).

There’s also a sense of humour and perspective failure in the responses – from the earnest (and unfortunately snide) response of one of Noakes’s co-authors, Jonno Proudfoot, to the Twitter contingent who think Noakes should sue for defamation, the Banters need to realise that as strong as they think the evidence is for their point of view, it’s not heresy to think things aren’t as simple as all that.

By contrast, what Heystek is pointing to (and again, my main point in all these words about Noakes and Banting) is that we already know things are not simple, and that we therefore have reason to believe that evangelism is taking the place of reason when people claim they are simple.

It’s when reason is sacrificed that we encounter Noakes saying, on the one hand, that when you get personal, you’ve lost the argument; and on the other hand dismissing the arguments of critics on the grounds of their being overweight (as he’s done at least twice, with Catherine Collins and with Anthony Dalby).

His followers have learnt the lesson well, rushing to dismiss Heystek on the grounds that he, too, could lose a few kilograms (which is something Heystek himself points out in the column, but since when does the playground pay attention to details like that?).

This doesn’t mean that criticism of Noakes and Banting can’t itself sometimes be overly simplistic – nobody is immune to error. Heystek was pricking a bubble of pomposity, though, not making a scientific argument, and his column needs to be read in that context.

By contrast, this Sunday Times piece arguing that Noakes has made a u-turn on dairy is shamefully misleading (rather than simply mischievous), and really just an example of someone exploiting a popular trend to generate some traffic, with complete disregard for the evidence.

The ninth of the “10 Commandments for beginner Banting” – right there in the first edition of “Real Meal Revolution”, you are told “Control your dairy. Although dairy is good for you, it does contain carbs and can be a stumbling block for some. In your Banting beginning, perhaps avoid eating too much dairy.” (I’m leaving complexities regarding particular forms of dairy aside here – they aren’t relevant to this argument.)

Later on in the book, readers are told: “If you are not intolerant to dairy products and find they do not affect your weight loss or blood sugar levels, aim for high-fat dairy products, not skim or reduced fat, light or fat-free alternatives – they must be full-fat.”

In other words, the advice regarding dairy was always qualified advice. The authors made a mistake in compiling their green, red and orange lists of foods, though, in that greenlisted foods were described as follows: “GREEN is an all-you-can-eat list – you can choose anything you like without worrying about the carbohydrate content as all the foods will be between 0 to 5g/100g. It will be almost impossible to overdo your carbohydrate intake by sticking to this group of foods.”

That needed a “terms and conditions apply” in the case of dairy, especially because we can predict in advance that many people would go for the simple heuristic of the list (you don’t even need to read the book for the list – it’s freely available on the Real Meal Revolution website), but despite this error, there’s no evidence of any flip-flopping or change of mind for dairy, as purported by the Sunday Times.

The team simply realised that dairy being in the green list was causing people to consume more of it than was compatible with the weight-loss they were expecting, so they moved it to the orange list – in line with the qualifications above. To put it even more simply, the heuristic of the colour-coded lists wasn’t sending the right signal, so it was adapted.

And then, because people don’t pay sufficient attention to detail or relevant qualifications as they sometimes should, there was a freak-out regarding dairy suddenly being unsafe, and Noakes having “changed his mind” – so they moved it back to the green list, and re-iterated the relevant qualifications.

So, no drama there. Of course, that didn’t stop the chief lobbyist for the Banting cause (or, “science” “journalist”) Marika Sboros, from using this as an excuse to write a new piece of hyperbolic prose in defence of her hero (in which she of course links to all her old pieces, which continue being edited and added to yet carry the same permalinks as before, which seems a rather odd way to practice journalism. But I digress.).

patrick3In this new piece, much effort is directed at undermining the criticisms made by Patrick Holford in relation to Noakes. Now, contrary to how some Noakesians like to read me, I’ve never called Noakes a quack (I have said he can sound like one, though) – but I have no reservations in calling Holford a quack, and I also think he’s a mendacious one, in that he knows he’s a fraud.

There’s no need to waste time debunking Holford’s criticisms, if you are Noakes or a mouthpiece of Noakes, like Sboros. Doing so is like writing a column refuting the metaphysical views of George down at the pub, as Holford is irrelevant to science and scientific reasoning – except as an example of doing so badly.

It’s perhaps instructive, though, that even Noakes seems to think he needs to play in that market, or believes that he should – I suppose that once you become a populist, it comes with certain obligations, or at least expectations. The thing that should concern you, though, if you are a Noakes-supporter, is how defending oneself against populist criticisms can lead you to oversimplification – itself a characteristic of populism.

Sboros reports that Noakes said (it’s not an attributed quote, unfortunately) that “the clear evidence is that carbohydrate in the diet is linked to colon cancer”, in response to Dr Roger Leicester (via Holford) claiming that Banting is a risk-factor for colon cancer. Noakes also says – and I’m sure that you’ll all find this as persuasive as I do – that “that’s all unscientific twaddle”.

Except, that’s utter bullshit. It might turn out to be false – as might any hypothesis – but right now, we’ve got good evidence that high red-meat consumption is associated with increased risk of colorectal cancer. And yes, association/correlation isn’t causation, but it’s the best clue as to causation available to us in many cases – and a staple of much pro-Banting literature also (and as much as you might like to, you don’t get to cherry-pick).

Oh wait, you do get to cherry pick. Sorry, I forgot.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.