The internet is full of absurd theories, but recently, reading a few sites about "green" issues, as well as a few on the "paleo diet", I have come across a handful that truly leave my head spinning.
First, there is a claim often made on "diet advice" sites, as well as a few about cosmetics. This is the theory that "if you can't pronounce it, you shouldn't eat it|wear it|whatever". Now, at first glance, this seems to say that dim witted people are at much more risk than others. Since I can say "propylene glycol" it is safe for me, but not for someone with a lesser reading competency?
Of course, that is not the intent. The idea is that "what you can't pronounce" is "too chemical" or "too artificial", but that is simply nonsense. If I package water as "dihydrogen monoxide" does it suddenly become a greater danger? Sorry, but many of those unpronounceable chemicals are not terribly far removed from raw ingredients. So, the pronouncability of a word is not exactly a good measure of how "artificial" it is.
Of course, then again, the idea that something is bad because it is "processed" is total nonsense as well*, as I pointed out hemlock is perfectly natural, but I am not about to knock back a nice hemlock tea. Many things are natural. Black mamba toxin, poison ivy, hemlock, belladonna, arsenic and so on. Does that make them safe or healthy? Of course not. Nor is "artificial" (whatever that means) or "processed" inherently dangerous.It is a myth of the "greens" and those who worship primitivism** that makes us believe these words are meaningful.
The next bit of nonsense comes from a paleo diet site. Now, there are many forms of paleo diet, and each of them contains its own particular brand of madness. Some go in for the raw foods fads, many seem to go for the anti-gluten/anti-grain and low-carb fads, and a few argue for not even combining foodstuffs, but simply consuming each individually and raw. Whatever the particular version, though, all of them seem to suffer from some general omissions. For example, evidence suggests grains were a part of our diet much earlier than the "paleo" crowd would accept, making it pretty absurd to avoid grain. Next, it also appears cooking was a significant part of food preparation for a very long time, arguing against the raw food paleos. And then there is the fact paleos largely avoid the rats, mice, lizards, insects and grubs that probably formed a significant part of hunter gatherers in primitive times. Not to mention that the amount of meat they include is absurdly overestimated based on the diet of modern hunter gatherers. But I suppose all that pales in comparison to the simple fact that, based on all evidence, as well as modern experience with primitive societies, developed man lives longer, and in better health, than primitive man. So why would we want to use primitive man as a model for a good diet?
But this is not supposed to be a critique of paleo diet nonsense in general, I am criticizing specific nonsense, so let us move ahead tot he specific concept. And this one comes from supporters of a somewhat paleo diet. In deciding what to eat or not, these people do not advocate avoiding cooking, or mixing ingredients, they simply argue (much like the "if you can't pronounce it" crowd) that you should pick food that has ingredients "your grandmother would recognize" and "not more than five ingredients". No paella for them!
Well, the first half is pretty suspect for the same reason as the "if you can't pronounce it" crowd. if they saw what my grandmother cooked (bacon fat in everything!) they might reconsider. Then again, considering they worship at the Atkins altar, maybe not. But that does not eliminate the problem that "could grandma recognize it" is both a nonsensical standard, and one that is hard to apply universally. I get that the idea is to avoid "artificial" and "unnatural" ingredients (again, whatever that means), but it is just a stupid way to do so.
But the bigger problem I have is the "five ingredients" cap. Do there people -- and the even more absurd ones who advocate not mixing anything -- think there are stomach compartments which open up when you start eating one substance, then seal when you are done, so the food is never combined? I will tell them what my grandmother said whenever I worried about food touching on my plate.... "It all ends up in the same place." They can say all they like about insulin levels and other pseudo-scientific nonsense they take largely on faith, but the truth is, eat them one at a time, or mixed together, when you finish eating, they all form a slurry in your stomach. (And if they don't, you need to learn to chew better.)
I know I am probably wasting my time criticizing such quotes, as those who believe in them will do so regardless of evidence, and those who know them to be wrong cannot imagine how anyone could ever believe them, so arguing against them is a waste of time. On the other hand, the very fact that nonsense such as this can pass as "conventional wisdom" among a relatively numerous group of individuals on the internet is truly troubling. Have we lost sight of reason and science so much that this sort of absurd gibberish can gain such a strong foothold***? If so, we really need to look at how we are educating ourselves and our children and make some serious changes.
* See "In Defense of White Bread", "The High Cost of Not Wasting Food", "GMO Revisited - As Well as Hormones, Soy, Phytoestrogens, and a Host of Other Food Scares", "Food Paranoia", "A Bit of Support from the Skeptics" and "Organic Nonsense: Natural Versus Artificial".
** See "The Dishonesty of Avatar", "Rousseau's Foolish Legacy", "Happiness", "Opinion Masquerading as Fact", "A Western Evil?", "A Great Quote".
*** Some "skeptic" types would suggest I am no better in remaining unconvinced by the AGW faction, but I offer a rebuttal of such claims in "Dismissive Skeptics".