Hippocrates of Kos, who is considered the father of modern medicine, wrote “to eat when you are sick, is to feed your illness.” Plutarch thought well of fasting too as he wrote “instead of using medicine, better fast today”. Not to mention Plato and Aristotle, who practiced it regularly.
Humankind has been practicing intermittent fasting for thousands of years across all cultures, countries and religions as it helps us heal naturally. Have you never observed that when we’re sick, our body tells us to eat less in order to heal faster and better?
Think about the last time you had a huge family meal. How did it feel? Your stomach hurts, you’re exhausted, not alert anymore -physically and mentally. Not exactly great, right?
We just seem to have forgotten for a while about this ancient practice and don’t listen to our instincts anymore. But things are changing as many people re-discover intermittent fasting and spread the word, forcing us to take a closer look at it.
But how and why did we realize all of that recently after we forgot about it for hundreds of years? Let’s try to see how it all happened 🧐
turning a bad experience into a weapon
How did you like my introduction? Do you agree with my « needless to say » observations? Do I look smart and wise as I quoted ancient Greeks?
Now would you be a little upset if you realized everything I just said was nothing more than hot air? What if I wasn’t on a mission to provide you with valuable information, but rather to make you believe in something I need you to believe in for purposes I don’t want you to be aware of?
I found myself in this exact situation recently. It wasn’t the first time of course, it surely happens at times to all of us.
But for some reason, this time, I didn’t just forget about it 5 minutes after pinky swearing to myself I’ll be more careful next time.
This time, it appeared to me that I had been making quick fixes on something that actually needed to be renewed -my « crap-o-meter ».
How do you change a « crap-o-meter », you’re going to ask?
I thought a good way to start would be to see the problem with a different angle. After trying different ones, I came with an exciting one -a GAME. A real-life role-play persuasion game.
Put that way, I had just lost a round, mostly because I wasn’t paying attention, which is exactly what players from the other team take advantage of, and so far I had played a passive defensive strategy while others were playing an attacking one.
Here’s how I’d pitch the game.
There’s two teams.
One is made of well-trained persuasion experts, the other is huge but most players don’t know they’re part of if. It’s me, probably you, and a few billions of others.
Every time they manage to make one of us believe in something inaccurate, whatever that is, +1 for them, -1 for the player that has been fooled. When one of us manages to see one of those attempts for what they are, +1 for him/her, -1 for the player whose attempt has been foiled.
The duration of the game is unlimited and nobody can leave the game.
Our team starts with a few disadvantages. We haven’t been told we’re playing nor given instructions on how to play. Consequently, when we become aware of the fact that we’ve been playing for a while but weren’t aware of that, we usually start with a terrible score.
💪 warm-up 💪
Now we have a clearer view of what’s going on, it’s time to chose a strategy
I suggest we abide by one of the recommendations Sun Tzu’s gives us in The Art Of War. Know your enemy. In order to do so, he said « you must become your enemy ».
So we’ll try to understand they strategy and tools first. Keep in mind that persuasion isn’t good or bad. It’s just a tool. Just like a knife can cut a throat or an apple, it all depends on how it’s used.
Now say you‘re attending the first lecture of the little known Persuasion & Manipulation Masters Program.
I’ll play the coach and you’ll be the enthusiastic students. Here is your first exercise.
1. Read the introduction again more thoroughly than the first time.
2. Focus on what’s wrong. I don’t mean a little imprecise, I mean PROVE ME WRONG. Factually or logically.
3. When it’s clear enough for you so you could argue it on a stage with 1000 people watching, or you could explain it simply, say, to your 6 years-old cousin
4. When you’re ready, move on to lesson 1
You can also skip the exercise and keep reading of course, but your adversaries took their training very seriously and wouldn’t do that. And remember they’re ahead of us at the moment.
lesson n.1 - complexity and confusion
Our goal here is for people to conclude that if they fast, they’ll be healthier.
But we don’t have scientific grounds or specific knowledge about the subject, so how are we going to do that?
Did someone say use observation or common sense? Good!
Hence our premise -or argument- « when you have too much food » (P), your body hurts… »(Q), that we want to relate to the conclusion that we’ll feel better and be healthier if we fast (C).
It might work -and it will, but we’ll have to overcome 2 problems first.
1- The demonstration we use to go from P -> Q to C has a big flaw. We’ll have to take the inverse statement of P -> Q, which is far from proving anything. In other words, we can’t win if we fight on a rational field. Let’s see why with a simple example.
In this example, it’s easy to see that if you’ll wash the car for sure when the weather is nice, it doesn’t prove you won’t also wash the car when the weather isn’t nice, right?
2- Even if it was true, the inverse of (P) « having too much food » is rather (~P) « having a light meal » than (Z) « fasting for 16 or more hours ».
That’s why we’ll use an enthymeme. Enthy….what?
It’s just a technical name to say we’ll omit part of the demonstration. In our case, we’ll skip the part of the demonstration that would prove us wrong.
And it will work just fine for the following reasons.
1- Our premise is true and they know it because they’ve experienced it
2- They’re likely to accept the conclusion because they already believe in it (more about confirmation bias and the consistency principle another day)
3- The reasoning part we skip requires a bit of knowledge in logics to be defeated, and we added a bit of complexity with replacing ~P with Z, making it harder for them to deconstruct
4- One of today’s most important lessons- our brain constantly needs shortcuts and simplifications (more about that there). Between unproven hypotheses and no clue, it’d rather chose option 1. If it seems hard for you to believe, think about all the times you tried to figure out how Santa Klaus could technically deal with Christmas Eve deliveries. Every time you found an inconsistency, did you stay with no clue or stayed with the unproven hypothesis that it’s the magic of Christmas?
But we’re not talking about 6 years-old kids here, we aren’t so naive, are we?
Excellent! Indeed, they might not trust us so easily. That’s why we need lesson 2.
lesson n.2 - inappropriate authority
Using an authority argument is referring to the work of a trustworthy, knowledgeable person or organization to support your point.
It allows us to achieve several goals at once: first, build credibility, and support our so-called demonstration with a proof that seems rock-solid, leaving no space for doubt or debate.
Again, it has everything to do with some of our spontaneous mental mechanisms. When people associate you with another person that has credibility in their opinion, they mentally transfer part of the other person’s credibility to you. And credibility encourages trust.
Now remember you’re in a situation where you can’t have a fair use of authority. Otherwise it’ll contradict your view. So here comes our strategy.
Your authority will belong to a different domain, but happened to have something to say about your current topic. See how we did that with ancient Greeks.
They are valid and famous authority figures in philosophy. However, they’re far from being authority figures in biology -there’s no blood in our brain according to Aristotle for instance. But it turns out that part of their work in biology suits our view pretty well, so we’ll refer to it.
By the way, Aristotle isn’t quite a good reference in physics neither (see this article). He’s actually a sort of running gag for some scientists because he was very assertive about some of his conclusions while his demonstrations were flawed.
But few people will notice and bother double-checking.
Cherry on the cake: the more elusive you are about our authority figure, the more you show them you consider them smart enough to know exactly what you refer to. Have you noticed how receptive we are to people who know how to flatter our ego? Now let’s see another situation where enthymemes can be really handy.
lesson n.3 - modified causality chains
Did you know that in the US, between 2000 and 2009, (A) the number of people who starved to death and (B) the per capita consumption of margarine in pounds are 96,7% correlated (cf graph below)? How would you explain that?
In this example, it’s absolutely correct to say A and B are positively correlated over this period of time. What would be hard to demonstrate, however, is that there’s a direct causality link. Just because it probably isn’t true. A causality link needs to be demonstrated, and occurs under given circumstances that’s the key word of this lesson.
Here, we want people to think that when we’re sick and eat less, we heal faster, so eating less is healing -even when we’re not sick.
To make sure we all understand why it’s wrong, for example, it’s a little like telling insulin injections are vital when in fact, if you get rid of the circumstances -having type 1 or type 2 diabetes- that make this conclusion true, the whole demonstration falls apart and the conclusion isn’t true anymore.
In our case, here are the initial circumstances. Our immune system notices an external threat or internal dysfunction. It first responds with a local inflammation. Then if it isn’t sufficient, a global immune response will be triggered. Part of this immune response consists in telling our hypothalamus to lower our feeling of hunger -the more accepted hypothesis is that is allows our energy resources to be fully allocated to our immune response instead of digestion.
Hence, eating less helps our healing process.
But if we explain this causality chain to make our point, we’ll have two problems.
1- If we change the circumstances (being « sick ») that triggered the whole chain, our demonstration falls apart
2- We’re comparing eating less in response to a body signal with fasting regardless of our hunger body signals. So the « it’s a natural thing » argument would also fall apart.
Crap! How are we going to achieve that?
Any volunteers? Enthy…Yes? Enthymeme? PRECISELY!
We’ll be very evasive about how we demonstrate our point. The reasons why it works perfectly are similar to lesson 1. However, it’s not that the logic behind the scenes is a little far-fetched here -it’s just causality. It’s rather that we count on 2 hypotheses. First, they don’t really know how immune responses work. Second, if we applied lesson 2 thoroughly, they won’t double-check.
And…that’s it for today!
Congratulations, you just invested a little more in yourself and have far better chances to score!
We don’t naturally have good defenses against misinformation
Know your enemy, study his strategies and moves is crucial to stop being fooled
When authority, common sense and elusive arguments REPLACE a demonstration, that’s a warning
It takes regular practice to master those lessons. Go ahead and train on a hot topic, a politician speech or someone you know who tends to use these techniques and let me know how it went!
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Aristotle and physics / https://www.wired.com/story/aristotle-was-wrong-very-wrong-but-people-still-love-him/
Unlikely, absurd and hilarious correlations / http://tylervigen.com/spurious-correlations
Detailed article about our understanding of inflammatory mechanisms / https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1074343/
State of the art of our sequential immune responses / https://www.karger.com/Article/Fulltext/380910
Inflammation and feeling of hunger / English version – Longer French report https://insb.cnrs.fr/fr/cnrsinfo/perte-de-poids-et-maladie-comment-le-cerveau-reduit-il-lappetit-et-le-stockage-energetique (Google Translate might work just fine!)
The crucial and complex role of cytokines in global immune responses / https://www.news-medical.net/health/What-are-Cytokines.aspx
1 – Unsplash – Lucian Alexe
2 – Tenor GIF x2
3 – Makeameme.org – Sarcastic Willy Wonka
5 – Memegenerator.net