The State of the Paleosphere

For those who aren’t as attached to their computers and the goings-on in the Paleoverse, Sean Croxton of Underground Wellness recently held an online Paleo Summit with presentations from various characters and experts in the Paleo community. If you missed it, I highly recommend purchasing access to all the materials. It saved me hours of reading and lots of money on hardbacks and e-books. I found the information much easier to absorb than from reading it in a book. If you’re not familiar with Sean’s work, he’s a tireless and enthusiastic health and wellness seeker who does damn good work.

But enough plugging. What’s been on my mind for over a week now is the fallout from the Summit.

Once the presentations started rolling out, blogs and discussion boards started lighting up with reactions, some positive, some negative. This is nothing new, it happens anytime there’s a ripple in the Paleo pond, whether it’s Kurt Harris’s Archevore announcement (my take here), Don Matesz’s goodbye to Paleo (my take here), or the post-Ancestral Health Symposium fallout of 2011 (my take on the Guyenet-Taubes brouhaha here).

But lately, the tone has been getting shrill out there.

Before I get started, I’d like to disclose. I am not affiliated with anybody. I’m not a doctor, researcher, or scientist, and while I am of above-average intelligence, hard science is difficult for me. I’m not mad at anybody. My goal here is to discuss what I see from an outsider’s perspective.

There is a lot of clique-making and I’m-taking-my-toys-and-going-home going on. I’ve been amazed at how some of the folks who are doctors or researchers can devolve into personal barbs, and quick. Aren’t they the ones who are supposed to understand how to disagree respectfully with evidence? To say, “That’s an interesting observation, but my research shows…” instead of accusations? Or, “I’ve read that study you cited there, and I can’t find that reference.” And then us amateurs get in there without understanding the whole picture, and the whole thing gets all mucked up. I’m irritated with one in particular who has gone AWOL and only pops up on comment boards when he’s feeling feisty enough to napalm everybody. I say be the change you wish to see, be respectful, or shut up.

Some of what’s troubling me about all this:

  • The woo van.

    Paleo Woo is a term being thrown around to identify someone as falling outside the main boundaries of accepted Paleo dogma (NEWSFLASH! To the rest of ‘Merica, we’re all woo.). It’s used derogatorily as a means of discrediting someone without meeting them as an equal with sound evidence. Now, I’m not saying that some of the recipients haven’t deserved it. In fact, when I first signed onto Paleo, the woo troubled me immensely and still does. For example, I think that many alternative health practitioners have been ahead of the masses on this nutrition-as-medicine bit, but then there’s a tipping point where I just can’t sign off on it anymore. And yet, I must remind myself that a mere 15 months ago, I thought gluten-free folks were just attention-seeking gut-mongerers. And now I’m one of them.

  • Do you have a license for that comment? There are lots of smart folks in the Paleosphere. But the intellectualism can be smothering. I’ve seen comments about how someone “doesn’t have the credentials” to be speaking on some of these topics. This reminds me of the historical tension between engineers and inventors, with engineers being studied/educated and inventors arising naturally from a need. Engineers deride inventors for being stupid and inventors deride engineers for being out of touch. I was once asked at a party if I had a nutrition degree, as though I wasn’t qualified to be speaking on it without a string of letters after my name. I would argue that having those credentials may actually put one at a disadvantage, making it harder to think outside the box. For example, where the hell are all the endocrinologists in this great obesity problem of ours? Nowhere to be found. The way I look at it is, we’re all seeking answers and we have to make space for other people’s answers that don’t line up perfectly with our own, whether they are qualified or not. Asking for credentials is insulting to a large number of folks in this community and is a strawman as far as I’m concerned. Meet them on the level of the science and evidence.
  • Will the real Paleo please stand up? Lots of discussion about who belongs or not in the Paleo movement. Let’s be clear here: Nobody owns it. It’s an amorphous polyglot of unknown. We’re in a time of flux and everyone’s excited by new ideas. I’m not worried because as Denise Minger put it in her Paleo Summit talk, Paleo is pretty self-regulating. Where we get into trouble—and I’ve seen people say things to this effect—is when people get fed up (with featured presenters at conferences, with the attention some folks are getting, etc.) and decide to give up or not participate anymore. I say feel free to call them out, but use evidence. We need to keep the intelligent discussions going! Ask questions. Be humble. But remember that the crazy person may well turn out to be right about something.
  • All I know is I do not know. I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it. We know far less about nutrition than we don’t know. If it was known, nobody would be sick or obese. This is not easy, perfect, or a simple matter of applying an equation. The minute you get locked down is the minute the truth will pass you and keep going for the horizon.

I'll be right there, but someone's wrong on the internet!

I’m attending the Paleo F/X conference in Austin, TX next week, and I’m feeling a little gun-shy here. I’m about to meet these folks for the first time ever, and everyone’s all pissed off at each other! I’m guessing that a lot of this is due to the fact that it takes place on the interwebs behind anonymous computer screens instead of face-to-face.

So now what? Where do we go from here?

Just eat real food. At the end of the day, you can try to interpret what’s on the other end of that microscope or you can relax and realize that by eating real food, you’ve won most of the battle. Sure, if you have more complex issues that need to be resolved, by all means, get microscopic if it serves you. But when we sit down to dinner, it’s not a ratio of macronutrients or a “Safe Starch” on our plate, it’s food. And as powerful as food can be, clearly its power over us is far greater than it should be when it becomes a land mine in no man’s land.

Mmm…sacred cows sure are tasty.


29 Responses to “The State of the Paleosphere”

  1. this is awesome!! i wish it could be front page news on a paleo newspaper that shows up on the stoop’s of everyone’s caves this morning!!

  2. LOVE THIS POST. I have been having many of the same feelings that you expressed. Especially about valorizing scientific evidence and credentials.

    Its remarkable how quickly many groups have a primal need to define themselves by rigid norms. There is a such a stultifying pressure to conform. It seems like the more insecure a group is, and the more there is a need to harshly include and exclude, and to control its members’ behavior and speech. I like the idea of a big tent with lots of freedom to explore, experiment, express and find your niche.

    Recently someone said to me that they felt like beliefs about nutrition were very similar to beliefs about religion. The adherents feel very passionately about their particular system, but you can find believers who have diametrically opposed belief systems as well as the studies to back them up.

    I especially resonate with your sentiment that there is far less that we KNOW about nutrition than what we do not begin to understand, and therefore it makes sense to be very very open minded.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Judy!

      I’ve used the food/religion parallel before and someone once thought I was crazy because in their mind, food wasn’t nearly as divisive. I beg to differ. :)

      Funny you mention the primal need to define boundaries. I was just thinking along those lines this morning. It becomes quite territorial.

      And as far as knowing little about this stuff, I’m curious why folks don’t think they’re committing the same sins of which we’re all being so critical?

  3. I like your post. It sums up what I’ve been thinking about all this paleo conflict. Just eat real food. Concentrate on eating well and quit fighting about what makes it work. I’ll be in Austin too and like you I’m wondering what it will be like to meet other paleo people.

    • My intuition tells me that everything will be hunky-dory in Austin, as though no dust has been kicked up at all. That’s how it is when everyone has to get along with each other in the same room. :)

      If you run into me, be sure to say hi!

  4. Thanks for writing this and couldn’t agree more. I’m slightly removed from the paleosphere thunderclouds going on as I’m down in Australia but the dogmatic bickering is all too apparent. For mere mortals it’s confusing and conflicting and just damn touring trying to keep up! Sound advice there to just stop the agonizing over the minor details and get on with eating real food. Also, a few stones in the water can spark great ideas, but really, the minority (sadly) just can’t afford divide… Surely bickering over a bit of white rice or whatever is pretty trivial in the scheme of things when the vast majority of the developed world are not even eating remotely paleo in any shape or form.

  5. Karen, thank you so much! I too have lamented the judgmental attitude that has cropped up in the Paleosphere lately and I think it is doing more harm than good. Can we agree to disagree on some things and yet still embrace the overall goal of the ancestral movement? If we do, then we won’t be able to contain the power this unity will provide. I look forward to meeting you in person at PaleoFX next week…been a long time coming. :D

    • You’re welcome, Mr. Paleo-Lightning-Rod! ;) I’ll see you next week.

    • Judgmental attitude…Like judging an entire macro-nutrient as defacto bad?

      • Not sure exactly what you’re getting at here…I realize the Paleosphere is kinda splitting down the middle on this one, but I say I’ma eat what I want to (see today’s recipe for example). There’s a lot of noise out there about all sorts of things, and at the end of the day, we all have to decide what’s best for us to put on our plates.

  6. Thanks for your post Karen…it’s important and I’ve been waiting to see something like this.

    The Paleo movement as a whole has the potential to wield incredible power for good. We could be at the forefront of real change when it comes to increasing the demand for a better quality food supply, for improving our health as a culture and our world for the better. It would be a shame if this mud-slinging carb debate pounded a stake into the heart of the greater and nobler movement barely underway.

  7. Thank you! Yes, the dustup’s have been troubling at times. This fight for the paleo crown has been nasty the past few weeks. Who deserves the crown? I think it is narrowing down to a fight between some who academically “know too much” and those with more “school of hard knocks” perspective, who have lived long enough to notice that all we know may not be so.

  8. Amen, sister!

  9. When you get to FX, I think you’ll find a lot of E.L.E. Everybody Loves Everybody.

    Being that diet is like religion, everybody interprets other’s printed words however they see fit. When they meet that person in real life, out comes the “This person really isn’t an a-hole after all.”

    You’ll have fun :)

  10. Well written, kudos!

  11. “For example, where the hell are all the endocrinologists in this great obesity problem of ours? Nowhere to be found”

    Sure you can find them–they’re all in seminars learning how to continue to push drugs and the conventional wisdom diet, despite the fact that NONE of their patients are doing well on it.

  12. First of all, great blogpost.

    Let me just say, I started out on the Paleosphere as a doctor with nothing but total excitement and awe at all the great ideas out there, basically for free! It was amazing. I have learned so so much, and am continuing to learn and share what I learn because to me this is really important stuff.

    I am a doctor and as I see it, the system is not only going broke because we are feeding it with drugs, processed food, and bad information, but its destroying our health. So the Paleosphere was a welcome discovery–in my mind, a revolutionary way to connect.

    But I got into it around the time of ‘safe starches’ and I saw it kind of spiral into a lot of different factions. This bothered me a lot because it seemed kind of to be defeating the whole thing.

    I realized one important thing, though. Actually two. (1) Food is unique. It is totally interwoven with culture, and thus religion and politics, and science isn’t always going to be present, even when it is. (2) A lot of people use ‘science’ to justify their jealously and hatred, well, because they aren’t effective communicators of ideas, or people don’t read their blogs, or they feel like they are right and because they are right, they demand to be listened to without question.

    It’s funny though because isn’t that mindset kind of what got us here, though?

    Ultimately, I think we need to be creative here to get a solution, which I think ultimately is openness and understanding. That takes a lot of patience. And frankly, I’ll be the first to admit that I lose it myself at times.

    Perhaps people think Sean is BS, or whoever is BS, and is in it for the money, and whatever, and that dilutes his message, which is pseudoscience, or whatever people may think. That’s fine. You may be right. You also may be jealous that no one reads or understands your blog, too.

    I think personally Sean is being creative and innovative, and doing the best he can to get his message out. You can choose to listen to his message or not, and you can use your brain or not.

    You can also choose to create something that is creative and brilliantly written (a la Denise Minger’s refutation of the China Study, for instance).

    I guess, you can also choose to be mean-spirited and critical, too.

    We certainly have a list of choices. I hate to see the last one be dominant, though.

    • I’m curious. As a doctor, aren’t you used to this kind of in-bickering? My husband is a doctor and this sort of stuff doesn’t even phase him. :) But even when folks pull out the dreaded, “Where did you go to med school?” insult, I don’t think it devolves into this kind of nastiness unless a lawsuit is involved.

      So who’s Sean?

      • To answer your question, Sean Croxton.

        Yeah, I guess maybe as doctors we are used to bickering. It’s part of the process I guess.

        The nastiness concerns me, though. I don’t know. It’s probably part of the game, but if you have the talent to connect with people and spread a good message, being a jerk seems so dumb and petty, and just showcases your jealousy and lack of creativity.

        It’s okay to be wrong, but if you have a chance to be inform and promote understanding, it seem more wrong to miss out on that chance instead of being mean-spirited, etc.

      • Ah yes! Sorry, forgot about the guy I mentioned in my own post. :) Yes, I’ve been a bit flummoxed by some of the comments about him and the summit he put on. I thought it was great.

        I appreciate your feelings about the nastiness, obviously I agree. I’m surprised at some of the attention this post is getting and apparently there’s a lot of folks who aren’t as bothered by the slings and arrows. I guess I’ll just go back to my introvert cave. :)

  13. “I’m irritated with one in particular who has gone AWOL and only pops up on comment boards when he’s feeling feisty enough to napalm everybody. ”

    Great post. This in particularl made me laugh. I’m feeling the burn today ;).

  14. Great post!

    But I do take a little exception at the statement “We know far less about nutrition than we don’t know. If it was known, nobody would be sick or obese.” I think if it was know that far fewer people would be sick or obese; sickness would be a function of of pathogens not immune impairment and obesity would be a function of incredibly bad genes or impaired mobility… but people would still sometimes be sick and/or obese.

    • Yes, thank you! Of course we’d still be susceptible to being a human on earth, which includes all sorts of fun things like illness and parasites etc. Didn’t intend to give into the Naturalistic Fallacy there.

  15. What a great post!
    I am very new to Paleo and Primal, but have started a tiny blog (mostly so my mom can find the recipes that I’ve made) and I have noticed some of the things you are mentioning also.
    I try to turn away from the bickering that I have found and instead embrace what has changed my life also…eat real food.
    I was always confused about what was right to eat, and after reading Robb Wolf’s book and Mark Sisson’s books…well…how could we all be so blind?
    I fed my kids poptarts and Captain Crunch for years and thought nothing of it.
    Now with this exciting new lease on life, like you, I read everything I can about how to be an even better me. So I will keep turning away from the bickering and instead search out information from others who are just as excited as I am.
    Thanks for the time you put into an excellent blog.

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