Tag Archives: pseudoscience

Review of “The Age of Genius: The 17th Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind”

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19th-century painting depicting Galileo Galilei displaying his telescope to Leonardo Donato in 1609

 

 

I just finished reading A.C Grayling’s “The Age of Genius: The 17th Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind”.

This book covers a lot of territory in 324 pages. In summary, it’s about how the scientific revolution of the 17th century amidst the tumult of religious war resulted in humans coming to see the world very differently at the end of that century compared to the beginning.

At the beginning of the 17th century, the educated elite of Europe still believed in geo-centrism; by the year 1700, most of the educated elite believed the earth revolved around the sun, among other things.

One of Grayling’s most controversial assertions is that the 30 years war(1618 – 1648) acted as a midwife of the birth of the modern mind. This war was the most destructive in European history until World War I. Millions of people were killed as a result of the 30 Years War, mostly in Germany(which was then called the “Holy Roman Empire”, a loose confederation of German-speaking states primarily divided by religion) where it is estimated that 1 in 3 Germans perished. Many other historians and philosophers disagree with Grayling, believing this war greatly hindered scientific and social progress.

Grayling argues that however devastating this war was, it greatly weakened the Catholic church which had long suppressed free-inquiry, which is essential for science. Wars can also have a direct effect on material science, as rivals figure out how to better engineer weapons(he makes an analogy with the vast improvement of rocketry during World War II by the Germans).

Grayling also argues that the scientific advances of that era were essential for or at least concomitant with social and philosophical advances that led to modern secular democratic states. It just makes sense that if humans are no longer assumed to be at the center of the universe, lots of other erroneous assumptions can also be questioned and pushed aside, including the divine right of kings. This kind of thinking played a huge role in the political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. This paradigm shift also paved the way for Darwin’s theory of evolution in the mid 19th century which put an end to the idea that humans are God’s special creation(as I said before, this book is like a prequel of Dennett’s “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”).

One little thing that surprised me was the author’s contention that the scientific revolution influenced language, particularly English, French and German. The clarity and precision required for scientific thinking and writing also influenced language in general, according to the author. He even contrasts the long-winded, opaque writing of English authors of the early 17th century with the more clear, economical writings of late 17th century authors to make his point(also remarking that one of the things classicists of the era most admired about ancient Greek and Latin writers was their directness and clarity).

One thing that surprises many people is how practically all the early scientists who launched the scientific revolution were not only very religious but were also alchemists or occult enthusiasts forever searching for the elusive Philosopher’s Stone. Doing real science was more like a side project for some of them. I was already aware of this(in particular when it comes to Newton), but he goes into great detail about how much science had to disentangle itself from alchemy and pseudoscience to become science as we practice it today.

Toward the end of the book, while Grayling celebrates the triumph of scientific rationalism, he warns about attempts at reversing the progress we’ve made since the scientific revolution and Enlightenment. Reason and free speech are under assault, and not just by the religious but by political extremists. I’d also add that the “new age” and various pseudoscience movements are also a threat.

All in all, a good book if you’re into the history of ideas and understanding how the world came to be the way it currently is.

5 More Things That Aren’t Necessary For Being a Healthy Vegan

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The long-awaited sequel is here! The post I did back in November of last year titled “10 Things That Aren’t Necessary For Being a Healthy Vegan” was so popular(a big thanks to everyone who shared it), I decided to do a followup. Many things were left out because I didn’t want the post to be too long, so I prioritized the most common things that I believe are problematic. Here are 5 more things you don’t need to be a healthy vegan:

1) Eat alkaline

This form of pseudoscience has a following both within the vegan/plant-based community and misguided health nuts among omnivores. It overlaps to a large extent with rawfoodism, though isn’t necessarily the same thing. The idea behind this diet is that most people eat diets that are too “acid-forming”, and that an acidic environment inside the body can lead to serious diseases, including cancer.

By eating an alkaline diet, you are helping to prevent this unhealthy acidic environment in your body and the diseases it causes. Some advocates go even further and claim it can be used to treat serious diseases. Basically, eating alkaline means consuming lots of fresh fruits and vegetables(since they are generally alkaline), which is excellent advice, though alkaline gurus recommend it for the wrong reasons. There is virtually no scientific basis to this type of diet. You can’t do much to alter your PH through diet, and your body works hard to make sure your PH stays within a very limited range to keep you healthy.

Some medical conditions can lead to a significant shift in PH, which can be dangerous; the medical conditions associated with a PH imbalance require urgent medical care. Assuming you have this type of problem, you cannot fix it through diet. There is no good reason whatsoever to embrace this fad diet and its idiotic restrictions.

2) Give up all grain including bread

One of the hallmarks of disordered eating is avoiding perfectly healthy food for irrational, pseudoscientific reasons. It’s disturbing witnessing all the over the top fear-mongering on social media concerning soy foods, olive oil, cooked food, and even staples like grain and bread. Grain-free is yet another ridiculous, unnecessary restriction that greatly increases your chances of failing at veganism. It’s no coincidence that the zealots pushing this “grain is poison” madness are very often rawfoodists, though they have allies among the paleo, high meat/protein crowd.

At its most basic, the idea behind this type of dietary restriction is that grains will ruin your health because we supposedly didn’t evolve to eat them. Grains cause obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and Adam Sandler movies. As always with pseudoscience based restrictions, there is virtually no evidence for these claims, except that in a generic sense there is a grain of truth to it. Eating too much of anything can lead to health problems, not just grain. Yes, grain isn’t perfect, it contains “toxins” like phytates, but there is no such thing as a “perfect” food or a “perfect” diet. If you had to abstain from something because it contains small quantities of “toxins” and therefore falls short of perfection, you’d have to give up everything and end up starving to death.

Now while a minority of the population are better off restricting carbs or eating high-protein, this approach doesn’t appear to benefit most people. This fad is best ignored. Grain won’t harm you when consumed in reasonable amounts; whole grains are one of the cornerstones of a healthy vegan diet.

3) Focus on super foods

The most important thing you should realize about “super foods” is that this is purely a marketing term, not a special class of food recognized and recommended by reputable health professionals. That said, there’s nothing wrong with eating them, just don’t get carried away with thinking there is something magical about them.

What you really should be focusing on is eating a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. The wider the variety, the better. The criteria for deciding what is a “super food” is usually pretty arbitrary and changes with time and what is fashionable at the moment. Since antioxidants are all the rage right now, “super foods” very often have a high antioxidant content. All too often, the evidence showing some unique medicinal effect for a certain “super food” is weak or preliminary, but that doesn’t stop health guru authors, supplement pushers, and retailers from hyping them. Again, “super foods” can be part of a healthy diet, but there’s no good reason to consume them in supplement form.

Ignore the hype and just eat several servings of fruits and vegetables every day – darker, more colorful ones are generally more nutritious.

4) Go macrobiotic

The popularity of the macrobatic diet waxes and wanes. Right now, this Japanese type diet doesn’t seem all that popular, but all it would take to make it popular again is a major celebrity endorsement. Macrobiotics isn’t a vegan or vegetarian diet(it usually includes fish) but it comes close, so it is easy enough to make it vegan.

For the most part, a macrobiotic diet is pretty healthy(though it can be salty), at least when you compare it to the way most Americans eat. It emphasizes fruits and vegetables, legumes(especially soy), and whole grains. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that macrobiotics is an overly restrictive diet based on pseudoscience. Although it gets a lot of things right, it does so for the wrong reasons. An important feature of macrobiotics are these arcane, complicated food combining rules, the purpose of which is to properly balance the “yin and yang” elements of food to help you achieve optimum health. For example, perfectly healthful members of the nightshade family like potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplant are excluded from this diet because they are considered too “yin”. It really should go without saying that there is no scientific basis to “yin” or “yang”; you could be missing out on a lot of nutritious foods if you follow these nonsensical rules.

There really is nothing macrobiotics can add to an already healthy plant-based diet except unnecessary restrictions, so there’s no good reason to embrace macrobiotics.

5) Go paleo

Finally, the diet that combines the best of both worlds, with incredible health benefits reflecting this best of both worlds approach. However, does it live up to the hype?

The paleo diet, which mimics the way our caveman ancestors ate is thought by proponents to be the ideal human diet since we evolved to eat this way. Or at least that is what paleos want you to believe. In essence, the paleo diet is really just the latest iteration of high protein dieting; it’s more or less a successor to the Atkins diet.

The central idea to paleo is that if you want to be optimally healthy, eat like a caveman. That’s because cavemen ate the way nature intended us to eat, we “evolved” to eat a paleo diet. Since cavemen didn’t eat processed foods, the paleo diet excludes processed foods like refined sugars, oils, etc. This is generally a good idea, though some people get a little too carried away with this. Paleos also typically eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and don’t consume dairy, so it should be easy for vegans to go paleo, right? Only if you ignore the fact that paleos typically eat a lot of meat and generally forgo grain and legumes, and that the diet is followed purely for health reasons.

To me, there’s always been something very oxymoronic about this “paleo-vegan” phenomenon. After all, a great way to describe the paleo diet is “wholefoodism for meat-lovers”. People who think paleo and vegan are compatible or combine well are usually clueless hipsters obsessed with all things trendy. I struggle to think of two things more antithetical than veganism and paleoism.

A lot of half-truths, distortions and pseudoscience underpin the paleo philosophy, but I’m mainly concerned here with how paleo-veganism is often promoted as an improved version of veganism by paleo-vegan adherents. In a lot of ways, it’s certainly healthier than the way most Americans eat, but does it offer anything to vegans?

As far as I can tell, it doesn’t offer anything to vegans except unnecessary restrictions which puts them on a slippery slope to disordered eating. Like I said before, a small percentage of the population may benefit from minimizing grain and carbs, and eating more high protein foods, but one need not go paleo to accomplish this. If you eat a whole food vegan diet, embracing paleo is largely redundant, since you’re already excluding dairy, and eating lots of fruits and vegetables. Science doesn’t suggest that paleo-vegans are healthier than regular vegans, or that this is the best diet.

In my opinion, just ignore this fad or anyone who fancies themselves as a reborn caveman. We already knew that eating fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole foods was good for us, and that dairy isn’t necessary, well before paleo came along.

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These are just 5 more things that may screw up your vegan diet, on top of the 10 from the previous post. I could have easily added several more to this list, but it starts getting repetitive. I write these lists because I am troubled by all the bad health advice that encourages disordered eating being spread on the blogosphere and social media. I run into ex-vegans all the time and I usually find they embraced a type of extreme diet based on lots of terrible advice and/or unnecessary restrictions like those on this list. Vegans shouldn’t be made to feel guilty by fellow vegans for not following some “perfect” version of a vegan diet, when there is no good reason to follow this “perfect” diet. I want veganism to be as practical and evidence-based as possible, not difficult and esoteric.

Pseudoscience and misinformation does nothing to help vegans improve their health, or for that matter, in case you’ve forgotten, live an ethical lifestyle that does not exploit animals, which is all that veganism is supposed to be about.

Related articles:

Is the “alkaline diet” legit? Does meat cause cancer because it’s acidic?

There’s no such thing as a superfood. It’s nonsense.

 More Trouble for Antioxidants

Stop Confusing Veganism with Clean Eating (and Pass Me That Vegan Donut…)

Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit

I believe this is a very useful tool for evaluating all the various health claims you encounter:

Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit

The health world is currently plagued by misinformation and pseudoscience. But with the Baloney Detection Kit, it should be easier to separate fact from fiction.