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Truth, Foxes and Hedgehogs

Don’t you hate it when you hear experts contradicting each other? How do you decide what is true for your health? Here are a few thoughts:

Ideas vs experiments

Facts matter and facts are not ideas. Much of what we hear about in terms of health recommendations are ideas. Whenever you hear conflicting recommendations, look to see if one is based on an idea and the other on a fact. Once you see this you can ignore the idea.

Imagine that one friend told you he found a shortcut to the airport. He studied the map and saw that highway 101 connected to Highway 202. It made perfect sense to him that you should then go to Highway 303 because it was the next step numerically.

Now imagine that another friend said he disagreed because he just polled 50 cab drivers who made the trip in the last week and they all said a completely different way was better.

Which route would you take if you were afraid of missing a plane?

We all see how ideas can make sense but still not be right. We all trust evidence over ideas when both collide.

Fox vs hedgehog

Why do ideas go viral? There is an old concept of thinking like a fox or like a hedgehog. Hedgehog thinking is based on simple rules and absolutes. Fat is bad. Humans were not designed to eat grains. These ideas are simple and easy to become emotionally tied to. Our brains hate any ambiguity. We love simple answers and bad guys in black hats that we can easily identify.

Fox thinking is based on numbers and tested data. It is nuanced, qualified, and subject to change. It resists soundbites and lacks the inherent viral nature of hedgehog ideas.

The types of ideas we gravitate towards are those that can be neatly summed up and easy to apply to a variety of situations. Unfortunately, these types of ideas are also most apt to be wrong.

These modes of thinking have been analyzed first in economics and then in political predictions. When it comes to your health, the same concepts likely apply. Look for information that is

  • Qualified – it doesn’t apply to all people in all situations. Trust advice more when it is wrapped up in particulars.
  • Partial – it doesn’t claim to be the final truth. The best advice always leaves room for new information or refinement.
  • Fact-based – it forms conclusions off of experimental evidence, not off of broad rules or concepts. Concepts can be useful to explain why the evidence came out the way it did, but are not enough to go on by themselves.

To your health,

Dr. C