Mainstream thinkers, and some in the HBD-sphere, are fascinated and confounded by the persistent variation in health and lifespan of different peoples around the world. This has given rise to ideas like the “French Paradox,” the “Hispanic Paradox,” the “Stroke Belt,” etc. These are ongoing “mysteries” that are most confusing when you approach the situation from the paradigm that we know exactly what leads to health and long life (usually along the lines of “eating right” – whatever that happens to be at the moment – “exercise”, avoiding smoking and excessive drinking, keeping thin, etc.). These “paradoxes” arise when incongruities to this wisdom are found in the world – and there are many. Instead of doing what researchers like say, Greg Cochran and Henry Harpending, would do when you come across these mysteries – that is, at least recognize that your paradigm is faulty – what do they do? Throw their hands up in confusion and/or ignore the offending facts altogether. The latter makes it so much easier to continue as if your standard paradigm was correct.
This was recently illustrated with a rather poignant example. As many of you know, Gary Taubes recently wrote an article for the New York Times explaining why we are so ass backwards when it comes to health and nutrition. There’s not much new there. Basically he said what he, and I, have been saying for some time now – that medicine suffers from an over reliance on methodologically unsound research – especially observational studies – to derive understanding of health and the roots of human disease. While the reasons for this are somewhat understandable, fundamentally, this is no excuse if the goal is understanding human health and how to potentially help people. Much of what Taubes pointed out was affirmed in lengthy commentary by James Thompson.
Despite all this, Dr. David L. Katz, (“Director, Yale Prevention Research Center; Principal Inventor, NuVal; Editor-in-Chief, Childhood Obesity“) wrote a rebuttal to Taubes’s piece in which he dismissed the key bits of Taubes’s criticism about the methodological shortcomings of the current research, and cited the same faulty observational studies and randomized controlled trials with tiny samples to support his case for the conventional wisdom!
As disappointing as this is, this is not very surprising, unfortunately. I actually have quite a bit of experience with that, as my Twitter followers would know from my various debates with the true believers out there. (And if you’re one of them, note that I’m not trying to be mean; I am mere challenging you to think critically about your faith in the conventional wisdom). Indeed, quite timely, there was a recent article about “non-financial” conflicts of interest in academia, which noted, basically, that “people involved in a field for a long time will have established views that they will not give up easily.” Dr. Katz seems to fit the bill of this type of researcher, among numerous others. Scientists often have much more to lose than money by challenging their established view, especially if they built their career on some line of thinking.
Fortunately, you have people like me to act as a foil for this thinking.
In that, I wanted to look at those “mysteries” that befuddle mainstream researchers. One of them is the geography of life expectancy across America (from here; note that the color scales are different in each map):
These are not separated by race. But I wanted to dig into the very basic confusions that exist on this topic.
So hmmm, where have we seen these before? Oh, I know!
It is clear that something’s up in the Old South (that is, Colin Woodard‘s Greater Appalachia and the Tidewater/Deep South). By contrast, certain northern nations, particularly Yankeedom, the Left Coast, and parts of the Far West seem to live long and prosper. But why? Along the Tidewater/Deep South, it is clear that the relatively shorter lives of Blacks are involved. But Appalachia shows that it isn’t just a race issue. Some Whites live longer than other Whites. Woodard and David Hackett Fischer illustrated that intra-White regional differences are at the core of a great many things across the North American continent. One of these is health.
Let me show you something else:
This is the “Stroke Belt,” a region of America (also, interestingly, in Dixie) with an anomalously high rate of stroke deaths.
For this, while Blacks are clearly part of the equation for the heightened stroke deaths across the Deep South/Tidewater (indeed, there is some evidence that infections make Blacks more vulnerable to strokes), it isn’t just Blacks. Here are stroke deaths for Whites only (from the CDC):
But note where life expectancy is particularly good and stroke risk is particularly low: El Norte. Which brings me to the “Hispanic Paradox.”
Anatoly Karlin recently commented on this. That is, Hispanics tend to live longer than you would “expect” given their socioeconomic status and conditions like obesity and the classic “health markers” and such:
Now you know I’ve had a few things to say about that (for which those who are familiar with this might know where I’m going with this).
Henry Harpending once posted on the apparent longevity of U.S. Hispanics. Lets look at something else:
These are maps of life expectancy at birth across Europe, in 2004 (males top, females bottom, from here). As we’ve seen before, there is a distinct southwest to northeast gradient in life expectancy, following the rate of cardiovascular mortality on the continent (of course, we know, thanks to NBC’s Dr. Nancy Snyderman, that this is due to the Slavs’ poor diets).
As we can see, some countries have significant regional variation. Oddly enough, it is all the usual suspects (the U.K., France, Germany, and to a lesser extent, Spain and Portugal). A key part of the “Hispanic paradox” may be the somewhat long-lived Iberian component.
Of course, this would predict that life expectancies in Latin America would be on the high side. Are they?
This is life expectancy across the world, 2003 (from the WHO). Life expectancy is highish in Latin America by global standards. The connection is especially evident in the more Iberian countries (e.g., Chile, Uruguay) vs. the more Indigenous ones (e.g., Bolivia). I suppose if I were more inclined, I could look up life expectancy with homicide and accidents removed (which is likely suppressing these numbers here).
Looking at life expectancies across the U.S., one can see that the life expectancy of each region is related to the predominant ethnic group that resides in them. Most striking is Greater Appalachia. As with the Celtic fringes of Britain, life expectancy is notably lower among the American Scotch-Irish.
That’s not the only problem that seems to plague the Borderlanders. They seem to be particularly prone to addiction, as seen by smoking:
Alcoholism, at least by remaining dry counties (blue = wet; red = dry; yellow = mix):
Indeed, as we saw in my earlier post A Fat World – With a Fat Secret?, obesity clusters by ethnicity. Americans are not anomalously fat by global standards, at least not when you consider race and the other Anglo nations – contrary to what the popular press would lead you to believe.
Indeed, the clustering of health and physiological features like fatness by ethnicity should not be surprising when you consider the heritable component to these things. But since conventional wisdom, even in the HBD-sphere, likes to blame health outcomes on lifestyle-only, some may be shocked by these patterns.
Now, while my discussion on the matter may give the impression that I believe diet and lifestyle plays no role in health outcomes, the reality is that this is not the case. I will concede that likely it does have some effect. It’s just that the evidence for lifestyle being the panacea it is commonly believed to be is lacking. One possible example of the role of lifestyle is the island of Okinawa. Okinawans, famous for their longevity, have been taking a hit lately, apparently due to the adoption of a Western diet. It is worth noting that some groups, especially those adapted to highly specialized diets, might be adversely affected by the shift to “Western” diets. This doesn’t appear to be a major problem for Japan in general (but may be true in China). Further research is needed.
And this brings me to my final point, and why the diet and lifestyle issue has been a real bugger for me: as with HBD-denial in general, the thing that pisses me off most is not the implications of the denial, which are rather significant to be sure. It is that it holds back the science. Imagine how far we could have gotten by now if we didn’t go the route that Gary Taubes laments (reliance on observational studies) and particularly, didn’t discount heredity and the fact that people are not interchangeable. I’d imagine we could have gotten a great deal further. Cochran and Harpending both lament the broad uselessness of both most scientists and modern journalists. Indeed, much of what I have discussed in this blog post is pretty low-hanging fruit, and could easily have been examined if someone bothered to look. Oh well, for now, at least, that’s why people like me are here.
Please see my earlier post about the new funding drive I’m running. Fortunately I have been able to make do with access to some of the computers I have to make this post. But I still need your help. Please, if you can and would like to help, donate. Thank you!