Friday, July 23, 2010

Cognitive Dissonance: Not Just for the Layperson

I must admit, I had not carefully read Dr. Campbell's "last word" from the "discussion" of his reply to Denise Minger. His refusal to engage in discussion told me everything I needed to know. But in spelunking around for something else on that page, I came across this quote:

I had hoped to have had a civil discourse, but this is difficult when the questions come from uncivil people. I also don’t have time to answer superficial questions of others like ‘what is the detailed mechanism of protein induction of high cholesterol levels’ – that easily could become an entire but relatively useless dissertation when the “mechanism” most decidedly is a symphony of mechanisms, as I explained in our book. At this point, the far more important observation is the dramatic increase in serum cholesterol.

Hmmm, I wonder what Campbell's definition of "uncivil" is? Seems to have some conceptual overlap with the second sentence, i.e. those who ask "superficial" questions are being "uncivil". The question in question came from me, and I'm glad to see it had one of the desired effect. My preferred outcome would have been that Dr. Campbell actually answered the question. Then I would have learned something. It is unfortunate that he instead evaded the question as above, because then all we learn is that a) he doesn't have an answer, but b) thinks he does, and is thrown into painful cognitive dissonance when confronted by the truth of his ignorance. The nonsense about there being a "symphony of mechanisms" is, I believe, a subtle trick played on Dr. Campbell by his own mind. There are indeed many possible causes, and may be several interacting processes. But he confuses "I don't know which of the many possibilities contributes to the effect" with "here is what we know, a complex process". Classic mental band-aid for cognitive dissonance.

Anyway, I think my goal has been accomplished. I wanted to know if Dr. Campbell had any relevant information. If not, I wanted him to publicly torpedo his own credibility. Mission accomplished. Next time he wants to show up and bash a low-carb or paleo book an Amazon, you have ample material to demonstrate his irrationality.


Dave, RN said...

...and his website ended up not publishing this comment:

"When I posted this yesterday, I must have goofed since it’s not here, so I’ll repost…
A good friend of my sons dad just had a heart attack last week. He’s a long time vegetarian, and doesn’t eat junk food. His trigs were sky high (450). Sent home on Lipitor, nitro, and a low fat diet. How can he eat any more low fat than he is?
I eat lots of natural animal fats, boatloads of eggs that I get from a farm near my home, chicken with the skin on, real butter, coconut oil etc, and my trigs dropped to 44, and my blood sugar normalized. (I do not consume wheat or other grains or sugar).
Everyone’s studies and interpretations aside, this real-life experience has me convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that we need fat. I guess that’s why human breast milk is something like 40% saturated fat.
What gives? Are we both just outliers, exceptions to the rule, but on opposite sides of the fence?
We are both 50 years old.
Have a good day all, keep seeking the truth."

Maybe they'll get around to it later, as I really would like their honest answer, because if there's something better out there, I want to know about it.

Puck said...

Cognitive dissonance would appear to be the least of the goodly doctor Campbell's legion of problems. I've no idea what he actually eats, but from his strangulated prose and pinch-faced pictures he appears to have never let go of any of it.

praguestepchild said...

Dr Colon is a professor in nutritional biochemistry at Cornell. But I can't seem to find out what his actual education is. I suspect it is in nutrition and not chemistry. It is not necessary to be an 'expert' to analyze data, of course, Denise has demonstrated that quite clearly. But it really does help to have some training in the hard sciences. People who aren't trained in the hard sciences, but have obtained some sort of respectable position are the quickest to resort to this sort of appeal to authority position, 'you don't understand Science with a big S'.

You have what I consider the gold standard in science, a PhD in physics, and yet you don't find it necessary to go around explaining to anyone who disagrees with you that they don't understand Science with a big S. Coincidence? I think not.

The point of the scientific method is to induce humility, to reduce our natural tendency towards dogmatism, to help us stop fooling ourselves. I see plenty of this humility in you, and absolutely none in Dr Colon.

Dave said...


Thank you for the kind words. I don't know about a physics Ph.D. being the gold standard, though. I know more than a few people with physics Ph.D's who sound a lot like Dr. Campbell (seriously). Science makes difficult demands on a person, as it asks you to behave in ways that are "unnatural", in some sense. Dr. Campbell's behavior, while considered less than desirable from the standpoint of science, is all too human.

On another note, I wanted to ask my question about animal protein and cholesterol over at Like 30BaD, you have to register to get access. To their great credit, does not have some bizarro human review process, and I was able to post my comment (they do have a similarly detailed personal questionnaire, not sure if this is coincidence or common amongst vegetarian sites). I hope for a decent answer, though from the comments there I suspect they will assume I'm just trying to cause trouble. It would have been easy to be simply inflammatory, given the content of this site, and I tried to avoid that. Hopefully there's at least one "spark of reason" there.

Sue said...

Vegsource just put up a new post about the Weston Price Foundation.

Pål Jåbekk said...

Correlations have little value without plausible physiological mechanisms. This is a pretty basic principle in health science. On different note, I just realized there are a lot of similarities between string theory and the low fat hypothesis. It seems that physicists have come up with a bunch load of ad hoc hypotheses and additions to try to get strings to fit with observation, gravity and quantum theory. I think this quote from Lee Smolin is illustrative:

“…insist that we should change the rules of science just to save a theory that has failed to fulfill the expectations we originally had for it.”

Thomas Kuhn rightly said that "If any and every failure to fit were ground for theory rejection, all theories ought to be rejected at all times." But it seems that some take this to far and refuse to reject anything and instead ad new hypotheses or dimensions to make a theory fit a bit better.

Dave said...

Quote from

"it is important to have a factual basis for what is intuitively obvious"

I wonder what they would do if the facts violated their intuition?

Dave said...

It doesn't appear likely that I will get an answer to my question over at And if you take a look at the discussion there, I think I did pretty well in predicting the reaction (indeed, that reaction occurred despite the public prediction, which at least some of the commenters seem to have read). I do feel like I failed here to some extent, and let myself get drawn into a discussion of Dr. Campbell etc. I went in with the intent of avoiding that. My bad.

Chris Masterjohn said...

Hi Dave --

Are you the same Dave who keeps recommending Jaynes' Probability Theory book?


Chris Masterjohn said...

Sorry just adding this comment to make sure I"m subscribed to followups :-P

Dave said...

Hi Chris.

"Are you the same Dave who keeps recommending Jaynes' Probability Theory book?"


Chris Masterjohn said...


Great! Ok, so I have a question before I order the book. In your opinion, how much of a background in 1) calculus and 2) statistics does one need to efficiently comprehend the material in this book?


Dave said...

Hey Chris. That's a good question. Jaynes' book contain a lot of pretty hard math, though it also has lots of conceptual discussion. Jaynes' goal here was clearly to create a complete and defensible argument for using Probability Theory as a tool for scientific inference, so it has a lot of proofs etc. building arguments from the ground up. But I remember on first read many years ago I tended to skip a lot of the math and would come back to it as I started doing actual applications. YMMV.

I don't think you really *need* much statistics knowledge, unless you're interested in Jaynes' criticisms of how classical statistics tends to be applied. Jaynes is not building on classical statistics, rather describing an alternative mathematical framework which is better-suited to scientific inference. He also derives many of the results of classical statistics within the Probability Theory framework, but shows the reverse isn't always true. Obviously if you want to understand that you probably need to understand the classical statistics in some detail. But again, you can also probably skip that material and still get the main conceptual thrust.

If you're looking for a lighter weight (literally and figuratively) introduction to the topic, I like "Bayesian Data Analysis" by Sivia and Skilling. It's more application-oriented, and while it doesn't deconstruct the issues for scientific inference is the same detail as Jaynes, it has nice simple counter-examples. If you haven't already, check out the first three chapters of Jaynes online here:

Chris Masterjohn said...

Hey Dave,

Thanks for the comments. I have two grad courses of statistics and am studying it independently. Right now I'm studying "Statistical Methods in Medical Research" by Armitage et al., which has a chapter on probability and a chapter on Bayesian inference. I did very excellently in calculus but it has been years. I think in the next few months I will try to read Jaynes, and probably take your approach of skipping over some of the math in favor of the conceptual stuff for the first read through.


Dave said...

Hi Chris. Feel free to drop me any questions you might have. If I can't answer them, I probably know somebody who can.

Stan (Heretic) said...

Hi Dave,

Let us get real. 8-:)

I just looked at your post at vegsource. I have to say you have wasted an awfull lot of your time by giving too much credibility and too much benefit of a doubt to Dr. T.C. Campbell from Cornell University.

How probable do you think is that a university professor would take a large study, reverse almost all the raw data conclusions upside-down, publish that in a popular book of the same title as the study, and NOBODY from Cornell and NOBODY from Oxford ever noticed that, for years?!

How do you think would that be possible if he just acted alone on a whim of some pro-vegetarian bias? No way! I know how the system works, I used to be a scientist.

In my opinion, chances are, all the circumstantial evidence including his recent discussion-avoidance behaviour, seems to weigh in favor of a fraud perpetuated with an aid or backing of some powerful friends within the American academic establishment.

Stan (Heretic)

Dave said...

Hi Stan. I think you may be giving Dr. Campbell too much credit. Pulling off the sort of fraud you suggest requires the ability to think fairly deeply about cause/effect relationships, etc. (if I say this to these people, they may react thusly, which implies further actions on my part; otherwise I need to do something else). Nothing I've read from Dr. Campbell indicates that he possesses such ability. His "Primer on Statistics" demonstrates this nicely. I really doubt someone trying to pull the scientific wool over our eyes would provide such transparency on their purported methods of reasoning, particular such obvious nonsense. To me, his words there speak much more of "true believer" rather than deliberate deception.

Campbell's true motivations don't really matter anyway. All we needed to establish was whether he had actual evidence to back his conclusions, or was just "reasoning" via a web of ad hoc hypotheses and beliefs. The outcome is pretty clear.

Maybe you knew better scientists than I did. Most of the scientists I knew did exactly the sort of upside-down reasoning you describe. It's just the way they thought, lacking any real education in how to do inference under uncertainty. They just weren't as vocal about it as Campbell.

Anonymous said...

The same thing happened in England between Hannah Sutter and Dr. Wadge, Chief Scientist F.S.A. Hannah wrote a column in the Daily Mail, lots of science, asking the big questions. Interesting article. The response on hie blog, utterly ignored the science. He said that as she was a lawyer and ran a low carb website, she wasn't qualified to comment and should be ignored. Hopeless, Jayne

Stan (Heretic) said...

Hi Dave,

Re: To me, his words there speak much more of "true believer" rather than deliberate deception.

May be but that also would require that his Cornell U. and Oxford U. colleagues are also ... ahem, of the same intellectual stature like Dr. Campbell, sine none of them challenged him! I just can't believe it. I may be wrong but I suspect that a good old fashion conspiracy is more likely. 8-:)

Re: ... All we needed to establish was whether he had actual evidence to back his conclusions,

We already did! All one needs to do is look at the raw China Study data!

My experience with scientists (physicists, 1980-ties), when I was one, was probably different than yours. It was mostly positive. Most of them were very logical, straight and objectively minded people totally unlike our Cornell "scientist", but hopelessly underpaid and totally powerless in the monkey-run academic environment.

Best regards,

Low Carb Master said...

Its funny how at one point I thought Campbell was just a sad old man who fell in love with his theory. I finally realized that he's a lying scum. No worries..........Live and learn....