Whitehead on truth-seeking and specialization

by Russ Roberts on October 18, 2011

in Truth-seeking & ideology

I’m reading Gary Taubes book Good Calories, Bad Calories, preparing for a podcast we are trying to schedule. One of the themes in the book is confirmation bias among scholars who ignore research and data that conflicts with their established view. Taubes also argues that specialization has a cost and quotes Alfred North Whitehead:

Each science confines itself to a fragment of the evidence and weaves its theories in terms of notions suggested by that fragment. Such a procedure is necessary by reason of the limitations of human ability. But its dangers should always be kept in mind.

A friend of mine has a son who is majoring in environmental studies. When asked about evidence that suggests that climate change might be more complicated than the consensus that it is a crisis and one that is caused by humans, his son said that the skeptics on climate change are often physicists rather than those who specialize in climate change. Shouldn’t the specialists know more than the dilettantes? Yes and no. They should know more about some things. But on the flip side there is group think and confirmation bias.


Be Sociable, Share!



44 comments    Share Share    Print    Email


Don Boudreaux October 18, 2011 at 12:29 pm

“Shouldn’t the specialists know more than the dilettantes? Yes and no. They should know more about some things. But on the flip side there is group think and confirmation bias.”

And there’s also the unavoidable effect of blinders. When it comes to the environment we see the downside of such blinders frequently. Whether or not the earth’s climate is changing is purely a question of science. Whether or not this climate change is caused by human activity is also purely a question of science. But (1) whether or not this climate change will harm humans (and, if so, by how much)? And (2) what, if anything, should be done to slow or prevent further climate change are NOT questions of science. These are chiefly questions of economics – which is to say also very much questions of subjective human evaluations (including that of the benefits and costs of assuming different degrees of risks).

yet another Dave October 18, 2011 at 1:10 pm

It seems to me the additional question of CAN anything be done to slow or prevent further climate change is a question of both science and economics – it must be both physically and economically possible for the answer to be yes.

vikingvista October 18, 2011 at 2:39 pm

Well said.

The Other Tim October 18, 2011 at 5:33 pm

It is rather unfortunate that the choices presented to the public are basically “It’s happening, it’s bad, and we need to use public policy to fight it,” and “It’s not happening.”

Darren October 18, 2011 at 5:45 pm

And there’s also the unavoidable effect of blinders.

Specialists tend to see problems in the context of their specialty. Nail to a hammer.

Lerxst von Syrinx October 18, 2011 at 7:46 pm

That sounds similar to what I say whenever someone asks me if I believe in Global Warming. My answer is, “Al Gore qualifies you as a denier if you don’t believe 1) that the planet is warming, 2) mankind’s activities are a major contributor to that warming, 3) the damage caused by the warming will outweigh the benefits of a warmer environment, and 4) the costs of adjusting to the warmer environment will outweigh the costs of preventing its continued rise. Call me an infidel, but I have my doubts that the science is settled on all those points.”

Jim October 20, 2011 at 3:13 pm

I believe we are still stuck on number 1.

Krishnan October 18, 2011 at 8:38 pm

Bjorn Lomborg attempted to do an economic analysis in “Cool It” – While Lomborg is convinced that “Global Warming” is real and all that – His analysis concludes that there are far better ways to spend our money – amazing what a “few” billion can do to a number of human conditions around the world while not making a dent in CO2 levels.

What he writes about the effect of increasing temperature is really fascinating – Even IF all those nasty things that may come from increased summer temperatures because of CO2 is true – the net effect is to REDUCE human suffering even more because the Winters will be less cool – Far more people die of cold than heat every year around the world – and so (he concludes) that “Global Warming” will have a net positive effect on human lives

(You do not have to be a physicist to be a skeptic – all you need to see if the behavior of those “scientists” … take a look at this piece by Ridley about a new book

Matt October 18, 2011 at 1:09 pm

Russ – Great news, can’t wait for the Taubes podcast. I read his most recent book, “Why We Get Fat” and it inspired me to change my diet. I lost 25 lbs and have never felt better.

Mark Bahner October 20, 2011 at 12:29 pm

“I read his most recent book, “Why We Get Fat” and it inspired me to change my diet. I lost 25 lbs and have never felt better.”

While I don’t doubt that refined carbohydrates (especially sugar) are bad for one’s health, I think it’s useful to look at what some critics of Taubes have written (add the http www):


See in particular, “Extremely misleading. Not a panacea for Western diseases.”

Also see (add http www):


rhhardin October 18, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Physicists know that you can’t shortcut the Navier Stokes equations. Climate scientists don’t.

Fearsome Tycoon October 18, 2011 at 5:03 pm

And engineers know you *technically* can’t, but the throw in a safety factor, and you should be OK and actually get the product out the door.

Krishnan October 18, 2011 at 8:39 pm

Climate scientists may not even know about the difference between water and water vapor – Forget Navier Stokes OR Reynolds OR Fick OR any such …

gamut October 19, 2011 at 1:33 am

Although I don’t know this to be certain, I have to admit that finding out that physicists tend to question the science of climate is probably the most convincing evidence I’ve heard on the subject. Physicists have a great ability, using pens and napkins, to quickly identify bullshit solutions. What this suggests to me is that the conclusions probably don’t pass that critical napkin test.

Thank god we don’t build particle accelerators the way we build climate models.

Fearsome Tycoon October 19, 2011 at 8:39 am

As someone who’s doing graduate work in fluid dynamics, no, climate models don’t pass the pen-and-napkin test. At least not the way the model the fluid component of the system, anyway.

Mark Rossow October 19, 2011 at 12:06 pm

Even physicists don’t always behave scientifically. See Taubes’ book Nobel Dreams (1987), for a disillusioning look at what goes on in high-profile physics research. Skepticism is warranted whenever any scientist’s claims cannot be verified by honest and competent opponents of the scientist’s views.

Jim October 18, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Russ, I’m delighted to hear you are going to do a podcast with Gary Taubes. I surely hope the topic of the economic implications of his work comes up. Presuming his thesis about diet is correct (and I believe it is), imagine the untold billions / trillions of dollars that have been wasted making the American people sicker and fatter for the last 40 years. How much different would our health care “crisis” be if the government had not spent so much of our money since the early 1970s telling is to eat in a way that has exacerbated diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, etc.

kyle8 October 18, 2011 at 5:25 pm

Although I mostly agree with you I just want to caution you not to fall into the trap of saying that a persons poor health habits will cause some sort of undue economic burden upon society or society’s health system.

(1) everyone who lives eventually dies, therefore will probably use some health care.
(2) The longer one lives the more likely they will use health care, and the more likely they will use very expensive life sustaining health care.
(3) The longer one lives the more they will consume in pensions, usually past their time of contributing to society in the form of work.

Therefore, contrary to public health advocates, it is actually better for society(cost wise only) if you die shortly before or after retirement.

Of course there is also the libertarian argument that even if there are costs, it is nobody else’s goddamn business how you live your life.

Andrew_M_Garland October 18, 2011 at 2:07 pm

Global Warming and carbon reduction is becoming the support for every regulation, restriction, and tax. Government types have jumped on the bandwagon to gain more power “for the good of us all”. They are a self interested group, they reject skepticism, and so reject true science.

Claim after claim of evidence for global warming has been challenged and found to be based on bad models and manipulated data. Global warming is supported by the naked self-interest of its proponents.

Dispelling the Global Warming Myth
Many studies show no global warming from human activity. They do show that the Earth warms up when the Sun shines more brightly.

Global Warming Caused by Humans is a Scam
( easyopinions.blogspot.com/2008/12/global-warming-caused-by-humans-is-scam.html )

The famous Hockey Stick graph showing global warming is based on bad data, political motivation, and an overt attempt to exclude a detailed review and alternate explanations.

Martin Brock October 18, 2011 at 3:52 pm

“Global Warming” and “Climate Change” have become general purpose bugaboos, but “Global Warming Caused by Humans is a Scam” is the sort of generalization that plays into the hands of alarmists who want to dismiss you as a “denier” and then to generalize their accusation to everyone questioning their frightful prognostications.

An anthropogenic increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration is real enough, and climate change is always occurring. Some link between the CO2 increase and recent climate change is a reasonable hypothesis, but predictions of catastrophic warming assume poorly understood feedback effects in a very complex, chaotic system.

yet another Dave October 18, 2011 at 7:07 pm

Playing into the hands of alarmists doesn’t seem to me like a huge problem. Alarmists have a religious devotion to their faith and will not be convinced by any amount of evidence so the issue is how many they will be able to convince by such tactics.

An anthropogenic increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration is real enough, but it’s a very small increase in the trace gas CO2. Some link between the CO2 increase and recent climate change is a reasonable hypothesis, but the evidence indicates climate is not very sensitive to changes in CO2 concentrations so it’s not reasonable to hypothesize a dramatic effect.

Andrew_M_Garland October 18, 2011 at 8:48 pm

To Martin Brock,

The claims for global warming go beyond a scientific debate. The actions of the proponents indicate an intentional plan to hide criticism. That is a scam, not science.

WaPo – George Will – Climate Change Travesty
If the science in favor of global warming is settled, then why did the scientists at the CRU () throw out or lose their original data, () refuse to release the data underlying their results, () refuse to release the computer code producing those results, () refuse to answer criticism outside peer reviewed journals, then () pressure the journals to not publish criticism?

They aren’t acting like scientists, so why believe their results?

From the National Review article – The Dog Ate My Global Warming Data ( nationalreview.com/articles/228291/dog-ate-global-warming/patrick-j-michaels )
=== ===
Phil Jones and Tom Wigley authored the first comprehensive history of surface temperature, in the early 1980′s. They worked at the United Kingdom’s University of East Anglia, Climate Research Unit.

Their paper served as the primary reference for the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) until 2007. It supported the IPCC claim of a “discernible human influence on global climate”, a warming of 0.6° ± 0.2°C in the 20th century.

Jones and Wigley used data from ground weather stations not designed to monitor long term trends. Many stations were placed near trees, in parking lots, and near heat vents. Changing urban settings surely biased readings. They modified the temperature data before using it in climate models. But, Jones and Wigley did not report their original data or how thay had modified it.

The Australian scientist Warwick Hughes wondered where the error estimate of “± 0.2°” came from. He wrote Phil Jones in early 2005, politely asking for the original data.

Jones responded “We have 25 years or so invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it?”
=== ===

Alan Mead DDS October 18, 2011 at 2:09 pm

Inevitably two of my favorite blogs are going to offer contradictory information. Earlier this year on Science Based Medicine they debunked the theories that Taubes espouses.


I’d love to hear what you think about it.

Brian October 18, 2011 at 2:24 pm

Thanks for the link. I had not seen that SBM review before. That is a great rebuttal of Taubes’ positions.

Tom of the Missouri October 18, 2011 at 2:55 pm

I have not read SBS’s total rebuttal, but he starts by stating it all about physics, particularly the law of thermodynamics. Taubes’ points out in great detail that this argument is absurd. The idea that the human body (which btw was designed primarily to digest animals and fish – please check on the million year paleolithic era of human evolution) processes, retrieves, uses and disposes of calories from all foodstuffs with the same method and efficiency is simply ludcrious on its face. In addition Taubes’s books point to massive amounts of epidemiological and experimental evidence (i.e., admittedly not proof but great cause for an alternative hypothesis) that this is so – The Pima Indians, the Inuit people, the south pacific islanders, myself, etc. Again, I cannot wait for the discussion and am excited about Russ is about to learn. I am also retiring from commenting until I hear the podcast.

Brian October 18, 2011 at 3:42 pm

In his book, Taubes doesn’t try to say the second law of thermodynamics doesn’t apply to human metabolism–it absolutely does apply and he makes no bones about it.

Instead, Taubes makes the argument that people who have a tendency to become obese eat more because 1) eating excess carbohydrates has caused their bodies to be bathed in insulin which has 2) resulted in derangement of their fat tissue which then 3) sucks in more calories than it should. Thus, he contends that the body demands more calories to feed it’s deranged fat tissue rather than creating an excess of fat tissue through calorie surplus.

His theory is based on flawed research from the early part of the 20th century that has been disproved multiple times by now. It simply isn’t correct.

Low carb works great for some people. But all likelihood is that it works because for those people because they eat fewer calories when they avoid carbohydrates. Its not that it doesn’t work, its just that it doesn’t work the way Taubes says it does.

Tony M October 18, 2011 at 3:58 pm

“His theory is based on flawed research from the early part of the 20th century”

You clearly have not read Good Calories Bad Calories, and you are clearly unaware of the current and ongoing research he references in the book and the less detailed How We Get Fat. Go to the link below and scan the research referenced. (Better yet, get the book and examine the sources.)


It is amazing how often people who dismiss Taubes typcially reveal very quickly that they have not actually read him

Brian October 18, 2011 at 4:29 pm


I did read Good Calories, Bad Calories. Very carefully. Twice. I bought an extra copy so that I could loan one out. And I did a personal experiment with low-carb that was very successful. I was convinced.

[I mention this not because I think personal anecdotes are useful, but simply so that you know I'm not dismissing him in a knee-jerk way.]

As I became more and more interested in the topic, and began to research it more I began to change my mind about the evidence and how it does or does not support Taube’s conclusions.

If you take a look at the notes pages from the link that you put up you’ll see that Taubes draws heavily on studies from the 1940s up to the 1960s. Part of his whole premise is that the science somehow got off track round about this time because of “politics” in the the nutritional sciences.

However, it appears that ongoing studies continue to refute these earlier hypotheses. The weight of evidence is piling up and it isn’t on the side of Taubes’ carbohydrate hypothesis.

I put up a couple of links that are awaiting moderation. Maybe Russ will get them up at some point.

No disrespect meant by any of these comments. As I said, I don’t dispute that low-carb approaches work for some people (myself included). I’m just interested in the actual mechanisms that make them work when they do. And I don’t think that Taubes’ hypotheses are supported by the evidence.

kyle8 October 18, 2011 at 5:30 pm

One thing low carb diets do however is help prevent you from becoming diabetic.

Tom of the Missouri October 18, 2011 at 2:25 pm

All I can say is: One of my favorite website authors is finally doing a piece on Taubes! At last! At last! Russ, you can now stop worrying about exercising more and stop using the fat and exercising metaphors in so many of your post here on Cafe Hayek. Thank Got, at last!

BTW after discovering Taubes and many like him a few years ago, I dropped about 40 lbs, have never gained it back, eat all the fat and meat I want, am never hungry or tired and feel better than I have in years. I also somehow lost my allergies and what I thought was my unavoidable age related beginning arthritis and joint pain. I am 56. Sometimes I do strength training to maintain strength in my aging body, but not to lose weight. Hint: exercising does not work for weight loss. It is like the macro econ arguments. It is all about the science, or more accurately, the lack of science. It does seem confirmation bias is present in medicine and health, but it is actually worse than that, it is political.

Kevin L October 18, 2011 at 2:26 pm

I would also consider that environmental study became a thing only around the time that people started being concerned about pollution. So the whole structure of environmentalism as science and ideology is based on finding something wrong with carbon outputs. Changing temperatures and any correlations of said changes with carbon dioxide levels make for good narrative about why fossil fuels are bad. But as you and the other commenters have pointed out, whether carbon dioxide levels are controllable by humans and whether they are driving catastrophic change are controvertible. Consider, on the first point, that during the 1930′s, production dropped tremendously yet CO2 levels continued rising along the same trend as before and after. To the latter point, there are also signs that temperature change is more heliogenic than it is anthropogenic.

Fearsome Tycoon October 18, 2011 at 5:09 pm

The answer is physicists *are* specialists. The climatologists are the dilettantes–they’ve got to use some math, some computer science, some physics, some biology, some chemistry, some statistics, and even some economics to construct their models. So when a physicist says, “No, you can’t handwave this complicated phenomenon with a scalar ‘adjustment factor’,” or “you can’t just linearize all your PDEs like that and expect any long-term accuracy in your projections,” he’s more likely to know what he’s talking about than the climatologist.

Henri Hein October 18, 2011 at 8:13 pm

Hmm, rings a bell. Sounds like we need some physicists in economics.

Skinny Dave October 18, 2011 at 8:29 pm

I read that book and tried Taubes’ “Mr. Meat” diet and dropped a bunch of weight. Of course, my cholesterol went through the roof, so now I’m “Mr. Tuna.”

On the other side of this, it seems that the hard sciences often have trouble with their statistics and their treatment of uncertainty. So it goes.

Curmudgeon Geographer October 18, 2011 at 8:53 pm

What are you afraid of cholesterol for?

Skinny Dave October 18, 2011 at 11:01 pm

Yah, I know where you are going with this. Indeed, I talked to my doctor about this and surprisingly she said that it isn’t clear that it increases my heart disease risk in any substantial way. On the other hand, I have a family history of heart disease, so am willing to play it a little safe rather than standing pat with a cholesterol readings of 300.

jorod October 18, 2011 at 8:41 pm

I think it’s more than confirmation bias. It’s a willingness to manipulate the facts for the sake of ideology. These people know their statistics are flawed. They don’t care. They are waging war on capitalism. How else can you explain their completely ignoring the environmental damage caused by socialism and socialist states? The environmental damage caused by the old Soviet Union will take centuries to correct. Only pluralistic democracy allows for interest groups to develop to lobby for pollution control. Only capitalism provides enough wealth to pay for it.

Invisible Backhand October 18, 2011 at 9:23 pm

Too many forget that some argue in bad faith.

Or as Milton Friedman said to Adam Smith when they were in university together, “Some people are just lying.”

brotio October 18, 2011 at 11:01 pm


I am Cardinal Yasafi Torquemuirduck: Grand Inquisitor for The Church of Anthropogenic Climate Change (formerly known as The Church of Anthropogenic Global Warming – which is led by His Holiness: The Divine Prophet Algore I.

Any questioning of Church doctrine will be met with severe reprisals! Humans are destroying Mother Gaia, and the only way to salvage Her is to return to the farming practices, and world population of 1776! Billions of people MUST be removed from Mother Gaia soon, or we will all perish! Until we complete the ovens, it is imperative that you non-believers cease all spewing of CO2, so that we Believers can continue to spew all the CO2 we want while living the lavish lifestyle afforded to us by reaping obscene profits in health care, and spreading the Gospel of The Church!

Andrew_M_Garland October 19, 2011 at 12:53 am

There is also the part about turning over to the state all of the carbon based wealth earned by the peasants in their ignorance.

Greg Webb October 19, 2011 at 1:02 am


Daniel Kuehn October 19, 2011 at 8:24 am

re: “his son said that the skeptics on climate change are often physicists rather than those who specialize in climate change. Shouldn’t the specialists know more than the dilettantes?”

Physicists are a surprisingly brazen bunch when it comes to other sciences.

The other day someone passed a paper to me by a physicist about economics. The criticism was that mechanical comparative statics is a bad way of thinking about the economy, you need dynamic equilibria, and preferably economics ought to incorporate things like Markov chains, etc.

I was dumbfounded. It was like the guy picked up a Principles textbook and stopped there. He had no concept that all of the stuff he was suggesting is the bread and butter of economic analysis.

I’d personally trust a climatologist over a physicist any day. Interdisciplinary insights are good at providing a fresh take on things, but it’s much rarer that they can play the role of referee.

Buddy October 20, 2011 at 12:36 am

I can’t wait – Taubes is always an interesting interview.

I read good calories bad calories a year or two back. In fact, I found it googling around after listening to Russ interview Arthur De Vany. After much research I have since come to disagree with many of the nutritional theories in the book, but it is still an amazing book and required reading for his coverage of the history of nutritional research. He lays out a perfect case study on how politics and bias can distort mainstream ideas and even generate complete fallacies (like saturated fat is bad for your heart).

I highly recommend the book, Just take some of his conclusions (The “insulin theory” of obesity for example) with a grain of salt.

James October 20, 2011 at 3:36 pm

I believe many specialized studies, including psychology and economics, is really the study of complexity. In fact, it is possible to map the vocabulary of various disciplines onto the vocabulary of complexity. Mr. Kling’s PSST postulation could as easily be a topic of complexity as of economics.

IOW, we are learning the same thing from various perspectives. In researching this phenomenon, I gained a better understanding of organizational structure and effectiveness, including why some of my ideas to optimize firm profitability have worked much better than others.

Previous post:

Next post: