Magical Thinking

Karl Denniger is a good example of the wacky thinking we see in discussions about health and fitness in modern times. Denninger has posted at length about his conversion from fat out of shape guy to skinny less out of shape guy. He is a true believer when it comes to diet and exercise. He is also convinced the medical business is out to get him. He spends a lot of time railing about the corruption of the medical business. He makes good points about the financial aspects of the health system, but he tends toward the conspiratorial.

Regardless, the basis of the American health care system is that health outcomes are tied to morality. That is, you can control your health outcomes if you do the “right” things, which generally means aping the personal habits of our betters. Self-denial is a big part of the regime, so you need to suffer in the gym and avoid eating food you like. Being thin is better than being fat, because being thin is hard and often unpleasant. The “science” backing these claims is mostly just wishful thinking tarted up with factoids and assertions.

The truth is, genetics control most of your health outcomes. This fantastic blog entry by JayMan is a great example. Yes, smart people can improve the utility of their intelligence through education. Fast guys can get faster with training. Ussein Bolt spends a lot of time working on various aspects of his sprinting. He maintains a special diet and works his muscles in specific ways. None of it makes him a world class sprinter. He was born with it. His training and diet allow him to move from 1% to .0001% in the 100 meters.

For the rest of us, diet and exercise is not going to significantly alter your health. Yet, “medical science” insists having an egg for breakfast or a cheeseburger for lunch is going to kill you. They insist we go in for regular physicals, despite no evidence that prevention does a damned thing. Supplements are a billion dollar industry, even though 90% are nothing more than pica. Outside of the extremes, like drug taking and dangerous activities, behavior is not going to make much difference in your healthy and life span.

On the other hand, exercise and diet can mitigate some genetic issues. Avoiding tobacco, for example, is not going to lesson your odds of getting Alzheimer’s Disease if that runs in your family. It will lesson your odds of getting lung cancer, even if it runs in your family, but only by a very little. Just as physical training and education can only enhance (slightly) what your genetics afford, a healthy lifestyle can (slightly) benefit you over time. Again, it’s mostly about risk avoidance, rather than health promotion. Avoid danger is a good rule.

The question, of course, is the trade offs. If you like to get face down drunk once in a while, that’s fine as long as you do it in a safe place and avoid doing it every day. On the other hand, if you like wine with dinner, you’re not altering you health outcome one way or the other, so enjoy your wine and your dinner. Life is for living. You don’t get to start over if you sacrifice your enjoyment in this life. Even if you believe in the after life, no religion assumes God will judge you based on whether you denied yourself good food.

That’s probably why magical thinking about food is so pervasive. This natural urge used to be channeled into conventional religion. As Christianity has receded, people have found other ways to satisfy their need to belief in the magical. Instead of thinking a Christian life will lead to salvation, people now think hours at the gym will bring grace.Of course, magical thinking about food is as old as human civilization. It’s why Bronze Age cults like Judaism came equipped with an approved diet. People have always sacralized their food.