So here I am, knee-deep in a recently published reader on food and sociology and I’m just reading along, minding my own business until I come to a chapter midway through the book. Well, slightly prior to midway. It’s written by what I can assume is a well-respected and well-researched author. However, I’m about a third of the way through the chapter and I’ve noticed that so far, up to this point, the author has almost entirely failed to elaborate on the thesis of the paper — which I have so far unsuccessfully ascertained — and to convey their own original thoughts. How can I be so sure of this?

In one and a half paragraphs, there are seventeen different citations. In a rough total of twenty sentences, excluding a lengthy quoted piece, there are seventeen citation. I’ve also read the phrase “in this paper”, “this paper”, “the paper”, or “the emphasis of this paper” about a dozen times as well. And I still have another 15 or so pages to slog through.

This means I have, so far, read more of other authors’ thoughts on the subject of this particular paper than the original author’s own. I fully expect something like this from an undergrad like myself or a grad student, just looking to stuff citations to meet a requirement but a paper by someone at the top of their field? That’s not writing, that’s cobbling together a lot of research notes and formatting them nicely. I’ve read biology articles in journals with fewer total citations in the whole thing than I have in just these twenty or so sentences…this year. I have heard that this kind of stuffing has become more popular in recent years, wherein authors basically round-robin references to each other to increase visibility in journals and scholarly search engines which can equal higher standing in one’s department and/or research niche.

But this? This isn’t even academic writing.

PS – I realize it’s been what, six months since the last post? Yeah. I’m not good at writing about life, I’m better at experiencing it.

Came across this today, which has me even more geeked up about going to the unveiling of STS-135 Atlantis’ permanent exhibit at Kennedy Space Center at the end of the month. It’s a hands-on demonstration of the thermal tiles used on Atlantis in order to protect it from the extreme heats of space flight.

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot more articles by detractors of different realms, such as paleo/primal and why everyone is wrong and a lot on politics and movements. On the surface, neither seem to be terribly interrelated but once you involve “science”, many problems people see with either one get equated to basically the same things:

* I’m right, you’re wrong
* I’m right, you’re wrong because you’re stupid and/or I refuse to listen to another opinion
* Because you didn’t scrutinize every last detail to the Nth degree, you didn’t do enough research and are therefore, utterly wrong
* You’re different and I don’t like different/change/etc

Every one of those applies to politics and political science in almost every arena, argument, debate, and TV show, almost all simultaneously, every time as well. But I’m not here to talk about politics, it just makes me angry(ier). I actually want to discuss science, food science, how paleo is “wrong”, and how people are just unbelievably stupid.

Preface: I am not a scientist by degree (yet) nor by trade, but I have Google and like everyone else, that makes me an expert at everything, always.

There are tons of people who write daily about how any type of diet is wrong, bad for you, will probably kill you, can give you every disease known to man, and so forth. Some of these people are scientists, some are nutritionists or dietitians, but most are regular Joes like me. But unlike most of those regular Joes, I do have a training background in science, how to read scientific articles and journals, and how to interpret results, whether they apply to plant sterols or indigenous populations of people in the backwoods of Guinea. I may not always understand the content but I can sure as hell read it, but a lot of people can’t or don’t. They will either rely solely on interpretations of others or read abstracts of papers, which give the most minute indication of what a paper is about and what its outcome was. Both are very prevalent but they make people feel like they know what they’re talking about, which is not necessarily a bad thing but it is once it dupes people into believing they know what they are talking about, in exquisite detail, although they don’t really know any of the science behind it. And this is where “bad and incomplete” science comes into play. People decry studies like those conducted by Dr. Lustig about the extreme dangers of greatly increased sugar intake and its detrimental effects on the body by calling his science “bad”. I don’t even have to really explain this, you can just read all the comments over at Project Syndicate where people are decrying his findings — which are vetted by others in academic journals, meaning they reviewed the material themselves and evaluated it to be true or not — because they think he’s full of it. Sure, he’s overblown on the sugar fear-factor scale a bit but he’s not wrong, overdosing on sugar is going to screw you up, just look at the majority of people who routinely consume soft drinks and look at their body composition, they’re generally fat. By “routinely”, I mean a few times a day, and I certainly understand that there are far more confounding factors at play than simply soda intake. Things like HFCS are slipped into most processed foods produced in America and our bodies have not yet evolved a mechanism to metabolise fake sugar as efficiently as it has regular ol’ fructose , glucose, and galactose found in naturally sweet things like fruit. But there are long standing links, anecdotal and scientific, showing that increased sugar intake screws you up. Just look at American Indian skulls before and after the introduction of Maize into their societies, the amount of dental carries and dental disease skyrockets afterwards.

So, because people have a strong affinity for sweets and love consuming them, all the while being told by the companies like the Corn Refiners Association that “sugar by another name is still sugar”, they just don’t like being told they’re wrong. And because they just love munching on candy, drinking sugar from cans, and eating donuts by the handful, they deem the science “bad”.

This also translates over to the whole paleo movement, which people are bowling each other over to say is based on “bad and incomplete” science. Well, I have a huge but obscenely non-obvious statement for all of you:

Over time, ALL science is incomplete, is potentially bad, and that is the exact NATURE of scientific examination. Deal with it.

This takes literally no amount of thought or rationality to understand, it’s just how it works. Remember when smart people jailed Galileo for hypothesizing and then proving heliocentrism was indeed correct whereas geocentrism wasn’t? Yeah, that’s because the science was incomplete until he proved otherwise. Or that people thought the Earth was flat? Just how many pre-Enlightenment explorers proved that one wrong simply by sailing around the world and living to tell people about it? Even then, the scientific knowledge of the world was grossly incorrect and incomplete. What about something more recent? OK, in September 2011, some scientists from CERN said that some neutrinos could travel faster than the speed of light, thus proving that Einstein’s special theory of relativity was wrong. They even backed it up with reams of documentation and actual experiments! Well, turns out they were wrong and Einstein was not. In fact, their science has been overturned a number of times since September 2011. And remember, these people are smart as hell, smarter than you and me combined.

…How does this relate to diets? It’s the exact same thing, just replace all of that stuff with food, or carbs, or sugar, or macronutrients, or whatever. You can literally substitute anything in there. People are tearing down Lustig for his sugar-scare theory, Taubes for his work on carbohydrates, Jimmy Moore for airing podcasts about nutrition for the last 5+ years that have helped thousands of people lose weight, how the China Study was right and everyone else is wrong, etc., etc. Some commentators argue that the science is “bad and incomplete” based on what others are telling them or they have read from others’ interpretations without consulting the source material themselves — after all, they can’t be blamed for that, everyone does it — and it generally lands on the side of arguing semantics about something, see points #2 and #3 I made at the beginning. Some people argue the science behind it and when they do so, it’s incredibly compelling and interesting to understand how they tested a hypothesis, interpreted the data, or otherwise came to that different conclusion. But the first set of people? They just ramble on, like I’m doing, and assume they are right and justify it by calling the science (and scientist) names. They do this because they’re typically over their heads.

I’m not going to provide links because I have no want to drive any traffic their way but these sites can be found easily by Googling up things about Dr. Jack Kruse, Gary Taubes, et al. But here’s where the complainers are wrong: sometimes science is incomplete but it works without fail. Einstein’s theories only hypothesized that black holes existed but then we built telescopes powerful enough to prove him right. So what about paleo/primal, eating clean, LC, and all the other new fad diets? Well, the proof is in the pudding, as they say.

Richard Nikoley posted this today, where it contains evidence that cutting crap food out of your diet works and works amazingly.

Mark’s Daily Apple, by far the biggest primal blogger there is, has an incredibly long list, complete with pictures and stories about how going primal and cutting out the crap has worked for so many people — a list updated monthly as well. Not only does this prove paleo and primal work, the constant updates proves that it’s continuing to work for a lot of people.

Then there’s this TV show, Biggest Loser, I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it. It’s about to start its fourteenth season, which they’re currently filming parts of now. They have taken hundreds of participants and stuck them on diets at the BL Ranch that are almost always very low carb and low fake sugar, and then proceed to beat the snot out of people with workouts and foods they’re not used to. And guess what? It works incredibly well. In recent seasons, Bob and Jillian have been advocating paleo-style diets while at the Ranch and guess what? It works.

So if all of this paleo business is based on broke, faulty, “bad and incomplete” science, why the hell does it work so effectively? The science behind it may be incomplete — like all scientific studies are, at one point or another — but the results speak for themselves and that’s the most important part of the entire thing.

There has been a recent furor in the paleontology and anthropology circles this month, which was really started last spring. In the latest edition of Science (behind a paywall, sorry! Students you can probably access it via your school’s library), five reports have been published on fossil remains discovered last April in South Africa that purport to be humanity’s current “missing link”. I emphasize current for a reason which I will return to later, it is a prescient point. But let us discover this new ancestor!

New data has been published (2011) about (2011) Australopithecus sediba (2010). These two new fossils of a female and a juvenile australopith have now pushed back the ape-human common ancestor by about one to two million years. This is simply fantastic news because it gives us a better look at and understanding of just how we humans evolved from quadrupeds to bipeds with radically different-but-similar morphologies and what that really means historically. The remains are described as having extremely well understood Australopithecine skeletal types while somehow having radically “modern” features in bone formation. Both skulls are very much ape-like but also contain evolving plates and structures to support changing musculature and organs; the brows are very prominent like those of other australopithecines and early Homo species, the orbits (eye sockets) are still very large, the zygomatic process (cheek bones where mandibular muscles and ligaments attach) lies closer to the supraorbital ridge (brow), more convex maxilla (upper jaw plates), low sloping frontal plate, while the parietal (top) and occipital (rear) skull plates are clearly becoming enlarged to support a growing brain case and weight. The foot of Au. sediba is described by Lee Berger, discoverer of the remains, as “a heel bone that’s as primitive as a chimpanzee, attached to the ankle bone that’s as evolved as ours is.” Just taking the evolved ankle and skull plates as evidence, the fossils clearly demonstrate an evolution in typical ape locomotion from quadrupedal 99% of the time to splitting movement between upright and knuckle-walking. I remember reading about the discovery of Au. sediba last year and was utterly entranced by what was purported to be found: a better missing link than Lucy! There is little doubt that in the next few years, our ancestral tree will undergo another rewriting to add this newest member and hundreds of thousands of words will be used to elucidate us as to how these australopithecines lived. I am very anxious to get my hands on those newly published papers, this stuff is absolutely fascinating.

But this all leads to one problem, the issue of the newly termed current missing link. Before I even begin to rant, I will preface it all with this:

I understand the sole usage of terminology such as missing link. It is needed to garner enough attention to this information, both in academia and the general public at large, it serves no other purpose than to generate headlines. What’s more interesting to read, “newly discovered ape-human ancestor” or “newly discovered remains may be missing link to apes”? Yeah, it is not the first choice.

The phrase “missing link” itself is a Victorian holdover when the theory of evolution was new and fresh and barely fleshed out. Everyone, self-respecting scientist or not, figured there were definitive intermediate functionary forms for everything: fish, plants, humans, horses, whales, you name it. Whenever something was found to resemble one species and another, it was deemed to be the “missing link” between species A and species B since it would contain shared morphologies. The etymology of the phrase itself is worthy of a book, but suffice it to say it is simply a linguistic shortcut to mean “new discovery that fills in the gaps between A and B”. You can look at any biological niche and find claims of missing links being discovered every so often and this is where science has to take a backseat to public interest. Good paleontologists and anthropologists know that there is no such thing as a missing link but the public at large, being uneducated and not a scientist, does not understand this concept for the most part. Thanks to less-than-adequate education on evolution and how it occurs is the main contributor to this, sprinkle in social mores about how being a scientist (of nearly any kind) is simply “uncool”.

There are two camps in social science about using the phrase “missing link” in regards to evolution: nothing is missing, we just have not found it yet, and everything is a missing link because of evolution. The great thing is both say the exact same thing with different words, but the perception of what is said is the most important thing. Let’s tackle each one.

Nothing is missing, it just has not been found yet

Most of the anthropologists that I know and follow fall into this camp and it is the one I most identify with because, to me, it makes the most logical sense. However, it is also the viewpoint that can attract the most negative commentary because of fallibility and the unknown. If we haven’t found it, how do we know it is not missing? And this is where understanding evolution comes into play as we as scientists can see and express changes that occurred over hundreds of generations and thousands of years to take an organism from point A to point B. In the case of human evolution, scientists have constructed a cogent ancestral history dating back to 7 million years ago starting with S. tchadensis all the way through H. sapiens sapiens (us!). This history shows the gradual development from mainly quadrupedal locomotion to solely bipedal locomotion and relocation of the foramen magnum from the rear quarter of the skull to its current position under the medial base of the skull, and all the changes in between. This is all demonstrable through biological morphology comparisons of structures. Hell, we can even illustrate the similarities of the whale wrist — did you know whales even had wrists?! — and the human wrist, it’s incredible.

Thanks to evolution, everything is a missing link!

By looking at each human ancestor as a single entity between apes and modern humans, we can identify each one as a missing link. This is because scientists can point to various changes that began to emerge via evolution in ancestors as peak or emergence events. For example, fossils show the evolution of locomotion by pointing to the foramen magnum. As we began to walk upright more and more, the foramen magnum proceeded to move from a distal position to its current medial position. This can be seen as the link between how humans can habitually move around bipedally with the ability to go on all fours, whereas our ape cousins ably do the reverse; this would be a peak event. When you view changes in terms of strict comparison, everything is missing since it’s being purposefully left out but the change from species A to species B can be observed on a one-to-one comparison basis.

The discovery and subsequent analysis of A. sediba is amazing, the more insight on how we evolved gives us a clearer vision of who we are as a species. Now that the first studies of the remains have been published, it will get even more exciting once more anthropologists get their (gloved) hands on the bones or bone molds to conduct things like modality studies and physiological reconstructions. Since one set of remains was what seems to be an adult female, it would be an interesting study to explore sexual dimorphism to hypothesize what an adult male A. sediba would look like! While it is just being called a missing link, these fossils are an important branch of the human family tree that only serves to enrich science’s understanding of ourselves and vertebrates at large.