Can You Handle The Truth?

April 17, 2012

Jessup (Jack Nicholson): You want answers?

Kaffee (Tom Cruise): I think I’m entitled to them.

Jessup: You want answers?

Kaffee: I want the truth!

Jessup: You can’t handle the truth!

A Few Good Men, written by Aaron Sorkin

A philosophical post, on the stages of truth, and why it can be so hard to see the truth in new information.

Schopenhauer wrote of the 3 stages of truth. I would like to introduce a fourth stage of truth, a final and critical stage which explains the first two. This explains why progress is so painful. Schopenhauer power. This is followed by 2 favourite examples to see if you can handle the truth

“All truth passes through three stages.
First, it is ridiculed.
Second, it is violently opposed.
Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”
– Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860)

The current 3 stages are very practical to followers of the paleolithic diet and ancestral health. We maintain that we are a new and exciting science totally founded on the strongest evidence from biochemistry, physiology, dietetics, anthropology, archeology and a host of other sciences. We welcome all scientific data. We are intelligent, well informed, open minded, kind and caring. We value the truth, the service of our fellow man, and we avoid conflict of interest. So we are often surprised by the incredible illogical opposition we receive when we discuss nutritional issues with our fellow doctors, scientists, nutritionists  and are ridiculed (and I expect even some naturopaths will do this). Yet they are simply being honest. They are simply replying in the same manner that they would if we were to say that we believed in phrenology (the quack study of the bumps on the head which was popular in bygone centuries).

If the ridicule does not work and we don’t back down, then the opposition becomes more determined, eventually shunning us or attacking us with violent logic or even resorting to false logic or fallacious methods of argument or any other dirty trick. Fortunately we get some converts who then see it all as self evident. As for the others, well they can’t handle the truth and perhaps the following tells us why.

I would like to introduce a Fourth Stage of Truth. Following the 3rd stage where we see the truth as SELF EVIDENT, we can then progress further along until the 4th stage where truth becomes INTUITION. Now intuition is a very deep and emotional certainty, a form of “auto-pilot” which we would not question. Our intuition tells us not to go out in the pouring rain as we will be soaked, not to play of the freeway because we will get injured, not to pat a strange dog for we will get bitten, to dress warmly when we see it is cloudy and windy outside and many other things.

Because our truth has become intuition, it has changed. It is more than a piece of knowledge, it operates automatically, effortlessly, and has a priority in our minds. It has a life of its own. It can defend itself.

A much bigger problem lurks which explains why am making all this fuss. In order to stop believing in our INTUITION, we can only do so by using COUNTER INTUITIVE THINKING. This is a most difficult form of thinking. Therefore if our intuition is challenged, we defend it because it is very hard to do the alternative, which is counter-intuitive thinking.

When our intuition then meets a new (and better) truth we do not recognise its superiority and fall into the trap of the first stage of the new truth- we ridicule it. This is driven by the automatic knee jerk reaction of the affront to our intuition. If the challenge persists, we then violently oppose the new truth. It is as if we are brainwashed, we are totally, unshakably convinced. But intuitions are not invincible, eventually our intuition can be overwhelmed by the sustained force of a new and better truth (perhaps driven by the social pressure of the crowd supporting the new truth).

Following this we may hopefully eventually take a cool look at the evidence and support the new and better truth. Or we may go to our grave never having accepted the new and better truth, leaving it to  new generation of younger thinkers who are more willing to accept the new truth, in much the same manner as we once surpassed our elders. And yet none of them having ever understood the process in its 4 stages, and so each generation repeats the mistakes of the former. We have to pardon ourselves, we did not know what we were doing.

These stages of truth segue neatly into the stages of scientific revolutions described by Kuhn which I will discuss in another post.

Doctors like shortcuts in thinking. One of them is to deny new truth as they have safety in numbers- the majority of new theories are wrong. My colleague Dr Chee Leong Khoo once suggested that our medical mentality is that if we are told something which we did not learn in medical school, it must somehow be not true. I think he hit the nail on the head. It’s a form of laziness we prefer to call efficiency. If we can understand the process of truth a little better, perhaps we might see more clearly.

Scientists all have a duty to scrutinise their beliefs in the light of evidence, be they doctors, dietitians, physiologists or physicists. There is no place to hide. To ignore evidence and carry on is to be a Luddite.

How can we avoid falling into the traps described above? Firstly be alert, awareness is the first step. Be well informed, be open minded. Think things through. Look at the references behind the information. Don’t be lazy, don’t trust kneejerk reactions. Don’t trust throwaway lines. Have a keen sense for what IS NOT known, as much as what IS known. (In medicine we probably only know the root cause of 15% of illnesses, sorry to disillusion you)(as to the other 85%, well I reckon 85% of those are explained by Paleo diet and lifestyle theory). Keep looking for other ways to avoid the pitfalls. If you know where the crocodiles are, they can’t bite you.

So this is why the skeptics put up such a fight. Or perhaps you are a skeptic who want to understand why he can’t break through his own belief system.

Cucumber Science. Paleo science is not the first time I encountered medical opposition to well founded science. In the late 1990’s I became interested in the prevention of childhood lead poisoning. Whereas in the USA this is everyday family medicine, and indeed universal blood tests used to be recommended, and the EPA and HUD have spent billions on lead abatement programs, in Australia doctors treat it as if it were a green and alternative point of view. This is totaly ignorant. So I call it “cucumber science”- green on the outside and white on the inside. I suspect that some dietitians and doctors and scientists wrongly label Paleo as green or alternative. And of course I have long maintained that being a vegetarian is NOT green!

So can You handle the truth? Here are 2 quick questions. Both are favourite common throwaway lines of the “medical establishment” (hey I’m one, but I’m reformed) used to decry common “alternative” beliefs.

1. Do you believe that the Western food supply is so good that a peron eating a sensible diet has no need to take vitamin supplements?

A. This is a myth. It is not only incorrect, it is illegal. By law the food supply must be fortified with several vitamins in order to prevent diseases such as pellagra and beri beri. Much of the world food supply is fortified with iodine by law or by choice or by accident (iodophore cleansers), and without this probably 2  billion people would be iodine deficient instead of the 1 billion currently. So everyone is taking vitamin supplements by law, and this is because they have been proven to prevent public health scourges. Vitamin supplements have a measurable physiological effect because our enymes evolved in the paleolithic during which time paleolithic diets were the only diet, and these supply 3 to 10 times the level of most vitamins. Vitamin intake in excess of paleolithic intakes is unlikely to assist and may be harmful.

2. Do you believe that taking vitamin supplements just gives you “expensive urine”.

A. This is a myth and really shows poor reasoning. The idea is that because excess amounts of water soluble vitamins may be excreted into the urine that they must nothing for you. Let’s look at other tablets. Many drugs get excreted in the urine, for example most antibiotics. Does your doctor say “take these antibiotics so you can have expensive urine”? I think not. Cholesterol lowering drugs are excreted into the bowel motions, so perhaps they could say that Lipitor just gives you expensive stools. Really it is the same logic and incorrect on all 3 counts. Of course it is irrelevant that a vitamin or a drug appears in your urine or stools. What matters is what they do before they get to the urine or stool.

If those 2 arguments don’t convince you, then you have absorbed the myths to the degree that they have become intuitive, so you can’t see past them. You need a good hard look at yourself, you have become an old dog who can’t learn new tricks. You need a dose of Jack Nicholson. give him a click.

“The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it. Ignorance may deride it. But in the end, there it is.”

– Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965) gives some other quotes:

Every great scientific truth, goes through three stages. First people say conflicts with the Bible. Next they say it had been discovered before. Lastly, they say they always believed it. Louis Agassiz

Theories: Four stages of acceptance: i) this is worthless nonsense; ii) this is an interesting, but perverse, point of view; iii) this is true, but quite unimportant; iv) I always said so. (J.B.S. Haldane, Journal of Genetics #58, 1963,p.464)