At a recent health conference in Boston, I was privileged to share the podium with a physician colleague who serves as senior health editor at The Atlantic, writing articles on topics in health and medicine that routinely reverberate far and wide. To protect the innocent, probably best that I not mention Dr. Hamblin by name.
On this particular occasion, my physician colleague was addressing an audience of health and nutrition experts on the topic of best-selling nonsense. His task was to explain, from the perspective of a media insider, why we have new fad diet books every week if not every day, and why the media and public alike tend to devour them.
My unnamed, high-profile, media-savvy colleague invoked the same toxic formula for success that I have oft lamented on these and other pages. The recipe is as follows:
1) Cite only those studies that support the position you held before you examined the evidence.
2) Invoke a scapegoat, silver bullet, or both.
3) Offer the moon and stars, by means of pixie dust.
4) Insinuate (or say) that everyone who addressed this topic before is a moron.
5) Proclaim absolute certainty.
If you want to write a best-seller on health, weight loss, or diet, there's your formula. It has worked for thousands before, why not you?
I hope you don't take that bait. Yes, it works for the author. But it is a calamity for the reader. Here's why:
1) Citing evidence selectively is an easy, old, and rotten trick. By citing studies at all, you can make yourself seem, to any reader less versed in the subject than you, rather erudite. Readers are unlikely to conduct a systematic review of the peer-reviewed literature to learn that for every study you cited, there are a hundred saying the opposite. As a would-be, best-selling author of dietary nonsense, you must, and alas, can, count on that.
2) No one thing is wrong with our diets or lifestyle, and no one thing will fix it all, any more than some cockamamie, get-rich-quick scheme will make you rich overnight. But people favor hope over experience in this area, and there is (lots) of money to be made exploiting that willful suspension of common sense.
3) Worthwhile things always take time, effort, and patience. Think about education, work, love, money. But somehow, health doesn't make the cut. Please make mine a magical short cut with a side of pixie dust! Fad diet and health authors do just that, and presumably laugh about us buying it, all the way to the bank.
4) To get full respect as a renegade genius, you have to point out that nobody but you ever really “got it.” You have to do that even if you are stating something entirely self-evident for decades, such as: eating too much sugar isn't a great idea. You want to look smart and sell a lot of books? Call a whole lot of perfectly reasonable, intelligent people morons and climb over them. (Case in point: how many times can someone tell us that nobody but them has ever told us that too much added sugar is bad for us, before we remember that we have, in fact, heard that somewhere before ...)
5) Bertrand Russell famously said this: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” You will note that the authors of fad diet and health books speak with absolute conviction at all times. That may invite you to question the wisdom of reaching for your credit card.
Since this is what prevails in our culture, it is at the level of our culture that it all must be addressed. I have a plan.
The plan is to establish a True Health Coalition: a global group of leading experts and organizations in health, nutrition, fitness, and medicine from diverse disciplines to come together, and rally around the core truths about disease prevention, health promotion, and lifestyle as medicine. The idea is for this group to speak loudly, and often, with one voice, reaffirming that we should, indeed: not smoke; be active; eat food, not too much, mostly plants; sleep enough; manage stress; and nurture our social connections. With the relentless cadence of the percussion section, this group will tell us all, again and again and again, the truth about getting to health, until the noise and the nonsense, the static and the salesmanship, the hype and hooey, are drowned out. Until the truth prevails.
The True Health Coalition, in turn, is part of a larger plan, to propagate access to the power of lifestyle as medicine. But it does begin with the relentless propagation of the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. For the truth is what can set us free, and we are incarcerated in an endless cycle of false promises, procrastination, and missed opportunity.
Had enough hooey, profitable for its peddler, costly for the rest of us? Had enough quick-fix nonsense? Ready for a bracing dose of truth, and the freedom that comes with it?
Then join us. Put your name and preferred contact information in the comments here, or send them to me privately at email@example.com. When I have a tally of our strength, I will report back.
We are imprisoned by cultural inanities that favor sales over sense, profits over the promise of adding years to life, and life to years. But we can free ourselves, with the simple, solid, reliable fundamentals that make up ... the truth.