Tuesday, May 19, 2015

More Persistent Myths

I have written before about how long myths may persist1, even when evidence exists to disprove them, or even when -- as is the case with "Roman Hopscotch" (in full kit no less) and Bush calling the Constitution a "damn piece of paper" in front of political opponents -- they don't even make sense. Well, I came across another one today. Not that it was new to me, but it is one I had learned was a lie way back in the pre-internet days and had forgotten all about until I happened upon a citation today, and, being reminded of this absurd claim, I decided to write about it.

One thing that always strikes me when debunking myths is how many people can be quite sane and reasonable in debunking one myth, then fall into the same errors when it comes to something they find more appealing. I have often pointed this out when writing, for instance, about conservatives who think the government can run nothing without making a mess of it, yet still support, say, the federal reserve, or public education, or the advocates of free trade, who would remove all government intrusions into commerce within a nation, who then advocate for trade barriers, protective tariffs and the Import-Export Bank. It seems people just have a natural ability to turn a blind eye to the failings in the arguments for a position of which they approve, even when they can clearly point out those failings in similar arguments by other people. (In many ways, this follows the thought processes I describe in "The Path of Least Resistance", it is often easiest to simply adopt beliefs that reinforce what you already feel to be true.)

I mention this because one of the best sources of evidence for the argument I am about to discuss makes a very clear and reasonable case, presents good refutations of shaky evidence, points out how dietary fads influenced the support for this case, and then, in the last few paragraphs makes all the same errors in support of an argument almost indistinguishable from the one they destroyed, the only difference being support for a different dietary fad, and a different world view. In short, they accept junk arguments they should know to be such, only because they like the conclusions2. But, we shall discuss that in a bit more detail later. First, let me stop speaking in generalities and discuss the case at hand, that being the supposedly "Healthy Hunza".

The Hunza, also Hunzakut or Burusho, are a people inhabiting a narrow, mountainous valley in the far north of modern Pakistan. They were observed by various writers at various times, from the coming of the first British military expeditions in the early 1870s to the present. However, the reason they arouse our curiosity is primarily due to two works written in the early 1960s3 (with a slightly earlier work coming in the mid 1940s, focused mostly on the value of Hunza composting practices), which described the Hunza as a sort of ideal. Much like Margaret Meade's description of the sexually liberated, free and happy Somoans, the Hunza were described as being free of violence, with no government, police, or greed. They were supposedly largely or entirely vegetarian, with a system of composting and recycling, and other eco-friendly practices. And finally, the big payoff, it was claimed that these poster children for the zeitgeist of the 1960s not only lived to incredibly old ages, sometimes a century and a half, but they were physically (and sexually) active the whole time! In short, they were living proof that counter culture, eco-friendly, vegetarian, anarchist philosophies were not just theoretically and ethically "right", they also had a real world payoff.

The problem for these arguments is, quite simply, the evidence is not so good. For example, there is the first hand account of John Clark who did medical work among the Hunza, who described many deaths due to famine, a multitude of diseases, a repressive regime run by a hereditary "Mir" who had not only something very much like a police force and a prison, but also a personal armed guard, a social order where no one outside of the immediate family was trusted, and, most damning of all, at least for the claims of longevity, the statement that Hunza often measured age based on wisdom rather than actual life span, meaning those 120 year old men may have been, by crude western objective standards, little more than 40 or 504. (I would also add that both those who push the peaceful line and those who do not often provide pictures of the Mir's offical residence, a well fortified structure atop a high peak. The question that such pictures immediately brought to my mind was, if there is no violence, why build a fortress? And if it is to fend off foreign aggressors, then who mans this fort if they have no police, military or government? Would not such a structureless, undefended mob have been conquered long ago if they lived somewhere where such fortresses are necessary?)

Of course, for anyone who truly wanted to look, not even Clark's work was needed, the simple facts spoke for themselves. For example, the Hunza are ruled by a hereditary mir, this is well documented in many early works. So how are they simultaneously the anarchist darlings so often portrayed by the Hunza boosters? You cannot be both.

Similarly, many early records talk of their bad reputation among neighbors, given their proclivities for theft, raiding, plunder and other miscellaneous trouble making. Given that these complaints are from tribes living in an area where banditry was a way of life in the 19th century (and long before, and for many after as well) -- the area making up modern Punjab, Kashmir, Afghanistan and so on -- it seems the Hunza must have been especially active in their thieving to gain a bad reputation. To be known as thieves in that part of the world is akin to being called dishonest by Bill Clinton5. Or, if you prefer a non-political analogy, being called a heavy drinker by Richard Harris.

However, if these Hunza were the cutthroat, rapacious predators of the historical record, then how were they also the loving, peaceful, flower children of the popular narrative? Again, the story being presented simply fails to match up with the popular tale.

Then there is the supposed optimal diet. Even ignoring the fact that starvation was a frequent problem, and that the actual diet (largely made up of grain, supplemented with raw fruits and vegetables in the summer and fall, dried fruits and vegetables supplemented with dairy products and meat in the winter and spring), had little in common with the supposed "Hunza diets" being promoted to the vegetarian, weight-loss and longevity communities from the 1960s to the present, there is the problem that (1) it is not vegetarian, (2) it differs little from the diet of many pastoral communities in soil (and fuel) poor regions, and (3) there is no evidence that these other communities enjoyed any longevity benefits form similar or identical diets. Again, the evidence, much readily available, or obvious to anyone who applied a bit of thought, simply could not support the popular claims.

And the list goes on and on. Despite DNA evidence they are not Macedonian, despite obvious linguistic evidence their tongue has no ties to Macedonian, Greek or any other languages Alexander spoke, despite a total absence of proof for longevity, despite a mountain of evidence of ill health, malnutrition and starvation, and despite plentiful evidence of past and present violence, distrust, greed and deception, we continue to hear about the descendants of Alexander's armies, who found a mountain paradise and, thanks to a hearty vegetarian diet now live into their 100s or more. (As the years have separated us from the 1960s and all that era entailed, the focus on their peaceful, egalitarian ways has diminished, being replaced by the health and diet focus -- along with the eco-composting angle -- more suitable for modern sensibilities6. So at least some of the myths do seem to be ever so slowly disappearing, but not from the evidence proving them wrong, just because they no longer interest modern audiences.)

Then again, perhaps I should not be so surprised that nonsense can persist for such a long time, after all, the stories do tend to support ideas those espousing them, or just passing them along, find pleasing. Just as those seeking a little mystery in the world accept completely absurd claims about the "Bermuda Triangle"7, or those who feel powerless, or who don't understand the world around them find solace in conspiracy theories8, the Hunza story appeals to the vegetarians who know they are right9, the composters who are sure they are doing a good thing, the social justice advocates who are sure somewhere in the world their theories have been tried and succeeded, and so on. In short, the tale of Hunza offers a wide range of people proof that what they already feel to be true is supported by some sort of evidence. Nor is that all. The tale has a much broader appeal. Being set in a far away land, offering up an alien lifestyle lived by strange people, it has an appeal to the sort who enjoy "mondo" style tales, or "news of the weird", or simply those who wonder what else might exist in the world. It also offers hope to those who fear death, who think the present estimate of the years allotted to them is far too stingy. And, finally, it offers the possibility of a (loosely defined) better way of life to those who have a vague, but strongly felt, dissatisfaction with their current state. And so, for these and more, the story has enough appeal to make the question of evidence of little importance10.

And, as if to prove my belief, the very site which had proved itself such a great source of materials refuting the many claims about the Hunza, a terribly level headed and reasonable source of counter arguments and proof, managed, before wrapping up the argument, to make the very same mistakes it had denounced, all in an effort to promote its own theories of longevity, its own fad diets and its own vision of what constitutes the proper way of life for mankind.

You see, throughout the essay, there were a few small hints. A constant harping on excess carbohydrates, an obsession with the harms of honey, a fascination with fat content, and a subtle, but still visible, disdain for vegetarians. And sure enough, as the essay began to wind down, it all was made clear. If there is one group more promoted as long-lived and healthy than the Hunza, it is the Georgians. Why, the US largely accepted the introduction of yogurt thanks to claims that yogurt eating Georgians lived into their 100s11. And, sure enough, the site in question started presenting these same Georgians as its own proof of what leads to long life, making a case for the now-trendy "Atkins diet", made up of few carbohydrates, but a healthy, some would say excessive, dose of proteins, along with a large dose of fat. Not only that, but they also found in the behavior of the Georgians arguments for prolonged breast feeding, a meat and dairy centered diet, and a few others.

What struck me the moment I saw this was that the evidence upon which the writer based his arguments was every bit as insubstantial as the case for the Hunza. The supposedly incredible ages of the many Georgians were not better attested than those of the Hunza12, and, even if they lived longer than most, there is no reason to assume that the absurdly reductionist argument that their diet made them live that long. But, as was clear from reading the essay, the writer strongly believed in man as the steward of the earth, with dominion over beasts, and believed that a meat-centric, dairy-centric diet was beneficial. And so, just as the Hunza boosters were willing to overlook the weakness of the proof, even outright contradictions, the writer managed to ignore the fact he was making errors he had just finished denouncing, and accepted blindly what he found most pleasing.

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1. See "The Power of Myth on the Internet", "Mystery Quotes", "Wikipedia Absurdities", "Roman Legions, Hopscotch, Killer Gays, 'Got AIDS Yet', WMDs and a 'Damn Piece of Paper'", "Amusing 'Truths'", "A Mystery Quote, Several Dubious Quotes, More Boring Quotes, and One Very Bad Conclusion", "A Request for Rush Fans" and "Please Get Your Facts Straight".

2. If we are entirely accurate, the site also makes a few common errors in describing the history of the Hunza people as well, accepting assertions that more scientific studies have proved absolutely without foundation. But as they are largely irrelevant when it comes to the central point of the argument, it is not worth going into too much detail concerning the Hunza's supposed origin in fugitive generals and their followers from the army of Alexander the Great. Let us just state that the supposed linguisitic evidence linking "Ancient Macedonian" and "Hellenistic Persian" to the Burushaski language are non-existent, especially given that, unlike the language of Alexander, Burushaski is not an Indo-European language. Similarly, genetic tests show absolutely no connection between the Hunza/Hunzakut people and those of Macedon. In short, they are unlikely to have any connection to the armies of Alexander. (Though they do provide a good answer to "Where did they get all the ideas for 'The Man Who Would Be King'. Between the history of Josaiah Harlan and this nonsense, it is easy to see where it originated. (I am skeptical of Wikipedia's claim that James Brooke was also an inspiration. Maybe in a very loose way, or as an inspiration to Harlan, but other than making himself lord over a less developed land and becoming a benevolent tyrant, he shared few details. We might as well say Emperor Maxmillian of Mexico inspired it as well. Or, more seriously, it would be more plausible to mention, say James Nicholson, who was reputedly actually worshipped in parts of the Punjab into modern times, though there is some dispute about this. But then again, my complaints about Wikipedia are hardly hidden - cf "The Tragedy of the Creative Commons", "Ideological Entanglement", "The Taxonomy of Trivia", "Wikipedia, Beggars, Stray Dogs and Prostitutes", "Why I Won't Be Contributing to Wikipedia" and "A Near Perfect Definition".)

3. Actually, the reputation of a peaceful, egalitarian, vegetarian, long lived people went back well before the 1960's, with westerners hearing reports of the same from sources as early as the first British expeditions. However, most modern works that mention the Hunza tend to cite either Banik or Taylor, or an older work from the 1940s by Tompkins and Boyd. And cited they are, even today. I found mention of them in such oddities as the "Humanure Handbook", a work on using human excrement in household composting, which  offered the supposed health and longevity of the Hunza as an argument in favor of the book's thesis. (I will say, the fact that cite an invalid support does not, in itself, argue against their position. In fact, if one ignores the many sixties-isms -- such as "ego vs eco" and the like -- and somewhat sketchy socio-economic philosophies, the rest of the work is rather interesting.)

4. There is a lot more to these arguments than I care to expand upon here.  For those who are curious, please check out this site, though also read my discussion later in this essay about the shortcomings of the site.

5. I admit this is a cheap shot, and I usually avoid such easy prey as the Clintons. But I was looking for a paragon of dishonesty and he was the only name that came to mind.

6. It is interesting how our modern focus has changed from the ill-focused "spirituality" of the 1960s to our health-obsession and worry over ecological disaster. Where the eco-faddists of the 1960s were largely motivated by "circle of life" and "mother earth" arguments, it seems the moderns are much more motivated by fear of an impending eco-catastrophe. In a way, it matches well with a line George Carlin once offered to explain how the 60s became the 80s: "We lost the soul, so we'll save the body." The only objection I have to Carlin's description is, while he largely ascribed health faddism to the right, it seems to me the left is far more involved in forcing health and dietary fads on the general public than the right. (Not that the right is not involved, many are as bad as any leftist. For a few general thoughts see "Missionary Zeal and Human Discord", "De Gustibus Non Disputandum Est", "Another Look At Exploitation", "For Your Own Good -- The Problem with Subjective Rights", "The Life Coach Culture", "The Great 'What If?' - Advertising, Gullibility, Education, Capitalism and Socialism" and "Smoking Versus Sex -- Want and Need Take Two".)

7. I find, surprisingly, for all my love of disproving absurd claims, I have not written on the absurdity that is the Bermuda Triangle, the tendency to ascribe to it events anywhere in the globe, to ascribe events that never happened, to move its borders to include any interesting happening and so on. So, as I cannot provide any links to past essays, I will simply make a promise to correct this oversight in the near future.

8. See "The Appeal of Conspiracy Theories", "All Conspiracies Great and Small", "Mumia, the DaVinci Code, Full Body Scans, and Loose Change - How Conspiracy Theories Arise", "Conspiracy Theory Enters the Mainstream", "Conspiracy Theories", "Self-Sustaining Beliefs", "Backwards Logic", "Ritual Abuse, Backwards Logic and Conspiracy Theories", "Backwards Thinking and the Number of the Beast", "A Shortcoming of Conspiracy Theories", "Conspiracies Vs. Conspiracy Theories" and "Dismissing Conspiracy Theories".

9. For the record, I am a vegetarian, a vegan in fact, eating no meat, fish, milk, eggs, and so on. Currently this is quite beneficial as an excess of protein tends to trigger my intermittent porphyria, but I had adopted this diet a long time ago, for reasons not worth discussing at this time. I mention all this to head off any complaints that I am being unfair to vegetarians. I am not. What I do want to point out is that many vegetarians do seem to be uncertain of their own beliefs, feeling threatened by those who think they are odd, or unhealthy or whatnot, and seek to find ever more proof of the benefits of their diet. Most claim they do it to educate others, but as so few who make that claim actually try to proselytize for their dietary practices, it seems they have other motives. (By the way, as my mention of being a vegan is followed by mention of an uncommon ailment often favored by quacks and hypochondriacs, let me add real doctors, ones associated with legit hospitals have identified extensive nerve damage in my extremities, and a hematologist and his lab confirmed I do suffer from some variety of intermittent porphyria. As they forgot to freeze a fraction of my urine sample -- and after six years of tests trying to determine my ailment I no longer cared enough to worry which specific variety it was -- I do not know exactly which variation I have. I am made quit ill by protein, stimulants, a number of medications, strong sunlight exposure, and somewhat larger quantities of alcohol or nicotine. I used to not blister in sunlight, but recently I have started finding small round -- but mostly painless -- blisters on my arms when I go outside for any length of time. I will spare you the rest of the details -- read "Morbus non Gratus" if you want details from an earlier time -- just wanted to make clear, I am not a hypochondriac or nut... Well, at least I am not a nut when it comes to my health, you can judge my sanity as it concerns other matters.)

10. In this case, belief in the claims is made easier by the fact that the supposed evidence for the extreme claims is recent, being written in the 1960s, with little earlier than the 1940s, while most of the contrary evidence is from the 1800s. In addition, the claims for longevity, health and so on are written to prove exactly that, with a clear audience in mind, while most of the refutations come from letters home, military dispatches and the like, where the counter-evidence is simply an aside, or an offhand comment, which makes it much harder to assemble and much less impressive. In short, the age of the evidence, and the fact it was not written specifically to make an argument (with one exception) makes it hard to offer counter arguments. And given that any firsthand evidence is quite some distance away for almost anyone discussing the topic, it is easy to believe whatever one finds most pleasing.

11. I admit, I was kind of young when the first real yogurt craze came about in the 1980s, but my parents were pretty current on food fads (we were the first people I knew to eat chili made from soy protein -- came in a box from GNC in the Harundale Mall). And though yogurt certainly existed prior to the early-ish 1980s, it was not something common to the tables of middle class WASPy families that I knew. It was only when we began to hear about those incredibly old Georgians who survived on nothing but yogurt that I began to see yogurt on more and more shopping lists. It also helps that this corresponded with the 80s exercise fad (we were early members of the Holiday Spa, though I only went there to use the pool), as embodied by Olivia Newton John's "Physical", shows like "The 20 Minute Workout" (of pervy camera-man fame), and the fascination with leg warmers and sweat bands. Obviously there was a bit more to the fascination with yogurt than simply the tale of elderly Georgians, but they definitely did play their part, being portrayed in commercials, discussed in print, offered as proof in support of every imaginable dietary fad, and so on.

12. Some suggest the Soviets "have records" of long lived Georgians. However, since such claims were first made for 100-120 year olds in the 1980s, this would mean that the Georgians in question were born in 1860, and that such records survived intact through the Russian Revolution, the Soviet occupation of 1921, many conflicts with the Ottoman Empire to regain parts of Georgia, and two World Wars, along with many local disturbances, disasters, floods, fires and the like. Not only that, but we must assume that such records clearly and unequivocally identify the person, using something definite such as fingerprints (not popular in the 1860s if I recall). In addition, since only those who were of a similar age could conclusive identify someone, it relies upon either the memory of the 100 year old individual himself, or of others equally old, to identify the person and attest they are the age they claim, and are the person listed in records. (After all, someone merely 60 could only say that a person -- who was 50 or 60 years old when he was 10 -- claimed to have a certain name, or to be a certain age, that is hardly conclusive proof.) Finally, it assumes the Soviets, quite fond of publicity stunts throughout the existence of the USSR, but especially in the 70s and 80s, could be trusted to present evidence accurately and without any effort to make the USSR appear superior to the west. Those are just a few of the hurdles I find it impossible to overcome.

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