Mastery, Masturbation and Members of an Angry Mob

02/26/2014 03:20 pm 15:20:24 | Updated Apr 28, 2014

Selectively seeking, finding, and/or citing those sources that affirm what we already believe and wish to be true is not scholarship. It does not qualify as research. It does not even meet standards for homework of any respectable pedigree. It is the academic analogue to masturbation: self-gratification, devoid of meaning. It is the quintessentially trivial pursuit, signifying nothing.

Why do I care? I can assure you I have no interest in policing anybody's masturbation, mental or otherwise. But in this cyberspatial age, this particular brand of self-indulgence has been turned into a spectator sport, and I a member of its captive audience. Exactly this variety of gobbledygook gums up my inbox every day, and the only way I can avoid it is to abandon my email entirely. I draw the line there, so my inadvertent and unwelcome voyeurism goes on.

From my perspective, this vapid variety of pseudo-erudition is New-Age charlatanism. Charlatans abound today as they always have, they have just traded in their buggies for bandwidth. Some know they are charlatans, others have drunk so deeply of their own Kool-Aid, they truly believe it to be the magical elixir they contend. I don't much care for either breed, but I do prefer the latter to the former; they, at least, are honest.

There have always been good charlatans, and bad; the good ones are the problem. Bad charlatans make up indefensible nonsense. They may manage 15 minutes of fame and fortune, but rarely more than that. Sunlight does its disinfecting work, and the charlatans with overtly indefensible claims wither and disappear.

Good charlatans are, and always have been, far more pertinacious. Good charlatans don't make up nonsense -- they tell the truth. Generally, the truly good ones tell nothing but the truth. They just very assiduously avoid telling anything like the whole truth -- often because they don't know it.

So the arguments they make not only seem erudite, but up to a point -- actually are. But it's like a trial that's all defense and no prosecution, or vice versa. It's a handpicked version of the truth, spared the test of challenge. For anyone doubting the need to hear both sides of a case before reaching a verdict, it's time to re-watch 12 Angry Men.

These one-sided arguments populate my in-box every day. For every one making the case that X is the best food, nutrient, plan, program, or potion- there is another to say it is the worst. For every one contending that Y is our nemesis, another suggests it is our Messiah. And so it goes.

This sordid story could be about total fat or carbohydrate or protein; omega-6 fat, or saturated fat, or coconut oil; meat, or wheat, or corn, or all grains; fructose, or sugar, or gluten; glycemic load or aspartame; fish, or eggs, or dairy; salt or saccharin; calories or carnitine. So it's about all of them in general, and none in particular. I have bigger fish to fry than any given fish, or oil -- my point is generalizable.

Imagine if for many years we had operated under the prevailing delusion that formaldehyde was a perfectly good thing for people to eat. This was the old days, so there was no real science to it, but everybody ate formaldehyde routinely, and nobody thought much about it.

Then, along came some hot shot to point out that formaldehyde was bad for us. The notion caught on, and we decided to take the stuff out of our food. But for some reason (let's not even get into this thicket!), we didn't replace formaldehyde with fennel. We replaced it with mercury.

Now with a substantial daily per capita intake of mercury, suffice to say the public health does not improve. Over time, this observation catches on -- leading to the growth of a "we were clearly wrong about formaldehyde!" movement. Studies are done showing the lack of benefit from taking formaldehyde out of the diet, and these are used to support arguments that formaldehyde was good for us all along.

But of course you see the problem. We are just picking poisons here. If we replace one way of eating badly with another and don't show health gains, does it prove that the first way of eating badly wasn't bad? No, it just shows that we have many flavors of poisons from which to choose.

The good news is we also have many variations on the theme of healthful eating from which to choose, too. But with so much New-Age masturbation masquerading as mastery, picking poisons prevails -- and public health pays the price.

Alas, the tawdry spectacle will undoubtedly go on. And most of us, one way or another, will be obligated to watch. But we can decide not to be passive viewers of spectator sport, but rather active participants in a trial. We can decide we are the jury, and the verdict rests with us. And we can decide that every time somebody tries to make us render a verdict based on whatever small piece of the whole truth they happen to be peddling, that all it makes us is -- angry.


Dr. David L. Katz is President of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine; he was recently named one of the most influential people in Health and Fitness (#13) by He is the author of 3 editions of a nutrition textbook widely used in medical education; has reviewed thousands of scientific papers; and has changed his mind along the way as new facts have come along. He is the principal inventor of the only nutritional guidance system thus far shown to correlate directly with health outcomes, including all-cause mortality. And besides, his mother says he really knows what he's talking about!