One dietary fad that never made sense to me was the campaign against the consumption of eggs.
Now call me an old Darwinist, but here we are having spent a few million years evolving into a bald monkey with prehensile thumbs, perfectly optimised as an egg-stealing machine, and yet the digestion of an omelette somehow came as a horrible shock to our cardiovascular system. What next, I wondered. Perhaps they’ll discover that 45 per cent of cows are allergic to grass, or that sharks are largely sea-food intolerant.
And it seems that the opprobrium directed at eggs was mostly wrong. It was based on the assumption that, since some cholesterol is bad, and since eggs contain it, ergo the consumption of every single egg was a stepping-stone to the grave. In fact it seems dietary cholesterol is not the source of bodily cholesterol: many people who increase their egg consumption find their cholesterol levels fall.
Just by way of contrast, grains have been eaten for only 20,000 years and refined sugars for a few hundred. In evolutionary time, they are still an experiment. Eggs are something we evolved to eat.
This distinction is worth considering in the debate about fake news. Lying, after all, is nothing new. Humans have been cheating each other since the Garden of Eden. Chimpanzees deliberately distract each other by looking into the distance pretending to be transfixed by something significant. Your cat pretends to like you in exchange for food.
No, it isn’t lying that is a new addition to our diet of information. What we haven’t evolved to digest is a huge overabundance of facts.
When there are only a few facts available, they may occasionally help us change our minds. ‘Ah, given that new information, I may need to reappraise my position.’ By contrast, an oversupply of facts gives our confirmation bias a free rein to work its magic. Don’t like these facts? Well, not to worry, if you pick the data-points slightly differently, we can make the truth a little more to your liking. From The West Wing: Josh: ‘Did you know that 69 per cent of Americans oppose [cannabis] legalisation? Only 23 per cent support it.’
Dr Griffith: ‘The number gets a lot higher if you ask people under 30.’
Josh: ‘Well, that’s a shock. Did you know that the number gets even higher if you limit the polling sample to Bob Marley and the Wailers?’
One recent effect of ‘too much bloody data’: no one accepts election results as a binding consensus any more. The entire point of universal suffrage is that everyone’s vote counts equally. Now, however, the disgruntled are encouraged to discount a vote on the grounds that many who disagreed with them were old or weren’t A.C. Grayling. I occasionally wind such people up by pointing out that Northern Ireland voted decisively for Brexit. ‘No, the result was 56-44 in favour of Remain,’ they say. ‘Yes,’ I explain, ‘but that’s only if you adopt the newfangled approach of including the votes of women and Catholics.’
But it’s much worse than that. The profusion of data now means that human beings can never again be happy, since every good news ointment can be manipulated so the fly is on top. We may never see any unalloyed good news ever again. In which case why bother doing anything at all?
The great Sir John Cowperthwaite, architect of Hong Kong’s prosperity and subject of a recent biography by Neil Monnery, banned the collection of macro-economic statistics on the grounds that their meaningless fluctuations would only encourage people to meddle. I propose something similar for Britain: we could call it the Freedom of Uninformation Act.
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.