Notes on the "Joe Rogan Experience" episode #1393

On being dubitative and inquisitive

I watched with great interest the entirety of the Joe Rogan Experience episode that features James Wilks and Chris Kresser talking about the documentary The Gamechangers. That is episode #1393. In this post I want to share some thoughts and observations with regard to what I feel is an inconclusive debate.

In terms of appearances, James is the clear winner of the debate. He was more prepared, had references for all his arguments and, most importantly, found Chris to be downright wrong on a number of issues.

Chris’ own credibility started to fall apart when he admitted to not know a particular research method: how to read a “forest plot”. This made him look like a charlatan, which allowed James to attack him on a personal level throughout the show.

When it comes to finding the truth though, we are ultimately interested in the objective findings, not whether one side won over another in an argument. Did we get a definitive answer? Or are we still unaware of a host of things that call for further research?

Despite reigning supreme in the debate, James failed to prove the crux of his claim that meat is bad for you. There can be inferences made out of the available evidence, which may allow one to reach tentative conclusions. “Tentative” is the key word. In the face of uncertainty it is irresponsible to claim to know the truth with such unflinching confidence.

The fact that James presents cutting-edge research does not, in and of itself, mean that a definitive answer has been provided. It just proves that we are in a process of searching for the truth; a process that will continue for several years to come; a process that might need to be reviewed in the future just as all such research programmes hitherto have been subject to further evaluation.

The point is to stress the importance of remaining dubitative and inquisitive.

I am yet to be convinced that James’ argument against industry-funded research works in his favour. Yes, the establishment will do whatever it takes to forward its stratagems, making them appear as objective science. But why would this not also apply to the rising vegan industry? Are there no powerful interests there, who have a clear agenda?

It seems to me as a new small-scale, ecosystem-conscious farmer that uses no pesticides and chemicals, and who only employs polyculture and similar nature-aligned techniques, that there are oligopolistic interests on both sides of the argument. Whether we are talking about the omnivore industry or the vegan industry we are dealing with corporations that follow the exact same capitalist principles. Their telos is gigantism in that they all have incentives to maximise profit for shareholders and to dominate their industry in pursuit of that end. None of them has in mind the well-being of local communities or indeed the ecosystem at-large.

Speaking from my experience in the field of economics, specifically with regard to the economic crisis in the euro area, the numerous allusions to authority that James made do not amount to anything more than an appeal to the orthodoxy. Any heterodox view will of course not enjoy the prestige of being represented at head of an Ivy League institution, international organisations, etc. This does not mean that the mainstream is correct just because it has the appeal of being infallible. It just tells us which group is currently more influential for reasons that are external to the theses themselves (social status, exposure, etc.).

As a philosopher, I am concerned by the insistence on the micro scale of nutrients. I find it reductionist, potentially narrowing the scientist’s field of view, the scope of their inquiry. Is a fruit, a vegetable, a piece of meat just the sum of its nutrients? Or are there any emergent phenomena that can only be revealed by the interplay of those micro elements in their specific combinations? Has the relevant science ever considered the possibility that the human organism evolved over the millennia to understand different constitutions of nutrients in their given proportions as carrying a specific meaning which triggers certain chains of events in the body?

What I mean by this speculation is that there may be an emergent reality that goes unnoticed or understudied, due to the focus on the micro foundations. Emergent phenomena cannot be understood by looking at the elements in isolation: you need to check the system they comprise—to study it as such.

My speculation, a hypothesis for further research if you will, basically amounts to this: does the human organism understand meat as meat, vegetables as vegetables, fruits as fruits, etc. and react to them on a case-by-case basis? Furthermore, do such possible triggers adapt to combinations of these categories of food? Because if they do, then the emphasis on nutrients and the concomitant claims of taking supplements or whatever hyper-processed equivalent would seem to not be beneficial for our longer term health. Can we rule out the possibility that nutritionism, the reductionist emphasis on nutrients, favours the vested interests that produce supplements and, by extension, the vegan industry as a whole?

Take the case of fake meat for instance. I am referring to products that vegans consume that are made out of intensively processed soy beans yet are made to taste like meat. Has there been any conclusive research on the way the human organism reacts to the consumption of such products? When eating fake meat, does the body understand it as meat, as soy, or as an unknown? And what would possible misunderstandings or false positives mean for one’s overall health over the longer term? I do not think there can be any definite research on the matter, given the relatively short time span such products have been in circulation. Meaning that any claims on their much-touted benefits are based, at least in part, on nothing but faith.

I do not purport to be an expert. I am just pointing at the fact that James never offered any compelling evidence to support his main thesis that meat is bad for you. He won the debate based on Chris’ evident shortcomings and on the fact that he alluded to authority, conflating the orthodoxy with the objective truth.

What I take from all this is that with all said and done we remain uncertain. Meaning that we need to be calm and not draw far-reaching conclusions based on the imperfect information we currently have at our disposal.

If you want my personal opinion on meat consumption, I as a non-expert who claims no authority, think that it is bad for you for the mere fact that those animals are maltreated and malnourished. The same line of reasoning, however, applies to the vegetables you eat, which are filled with pesticides and chemicals, and which are produced in large monocrops that destroy the ecosystem (e.g. threatening the survival of bees, eroding the soil…). The same goes for the air you breath, especially in the big cities. And so on.

We have piles of evidence on the egregious abuses of capitalist interests in the food industry (capitalist interest in general). The vegan corporations have no plan to upset this order. Their ambition is to just place themselves in charge. Now I understand this is not the topic of the debate, but it is all too convenient to focus on the false narrative of “bad meat industry versus good vegans” while ignoring the social, political, economic factors that contribute to the destruction of nature.