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Saturday, April 13, 2013

Why Trolls Attack!

For many years, I’ve worked as a technical editor and writer. As a result, I’ve had the privilege of proofreading the work of some truly brilliant, highly educated people. I’ve also had to write highly technical material that was then reviewed by experts. The review process is usually cordial and intellectually stimulating. Educated people are generally grateful when you fix their typos and their dangling participles. They tend to be tough but fair when criticizing your writing. They generally stick to a rational discussion of facts. So I was unprepared for the kind of comments I got from the general public after I started blogging. Occasionally, someone would say something like, “Wow, that’s interesting.” But most of the comments are nothing more than poison pen letters: abusive nonsense intended to serve no other purpose than to provoke an emotional response. In short, I often get attacked by Internet trolls.

I have a Web site ( and a blog ( that explain scientific research about human nutrition. Reactions to my Web site and blog are mixed. People who have actually studied nutrition or dietetics in college or graduate school love my work. However, many people who have no training in nutrition or dietetics hate my work, simply because I tell them things that they do not want to hear. They want to hear that fatty foods are good for them. As a result, they worship the self-appointed nutrition gurus who tell them to eat meat and fish instead of potatoes. They heap scorn on me for pointing out that people who eat a diet based on unrefined starches and vegetables are generally slim and have a low risk of chronic degenerative diseases. As a result, I get a lot of hostile comments on my blog and even some hostile e-mail.

I’m disappointed that nobody seems to post serious comments about the scientific issues I discuss. Instead, the feedback is filled with nonsense, insults, and wild accusations from people who are obviously uneducated. Commenters have told me that I don’t know what I’m talking about, that I don’t care about human health, that I’m in league with some organization whose work I actually oppose, or even that I hate women (because one of several persons whose work I criticized was female). Such comments are not only obnoxious, they are stupid.

The troll metaphor is appropriate for two reasons. First, the trolls of mythology were stupid, ugly, and potentially dangerous (though perhaps slow-moving). Second, the trolls of mythology could operate only under the cover of darkness. They turned to stone in the light of day. Likewise, Internet trolls sit alone with their computers, thrilled by the opportunity to annoy people who would never socialize with them in person.

The first rule of Internet etiquette is “Don’t be a troll.” The second is “Don’t feed the trolls.” The Internet creates an environment where bad behavior is often rewarded but never punished. As any dog trainer can tell you, that’s a recipe for disaster. Never reward a dog for doing something that you dislike. Otherwise, you will essentially be training the dog to misbehave. Similarly, if you respond to Internet trolls in any way other than by deleting stupid comments and blocking repeat offenders, you are rewarding them with attention for behavior that should be discouraged.

I usually delete stupid comments from my blog, unless the stupid comment offers a useful “teachable moment.” Likewise, I generally ignore abusive e-mail, unless I want to get a better understanding of troll psychology. Such correspondence has allowed me to test a theory about trolls. Some trolls are just jerks. They just want to annoy other people. However, some trolls genuinely believe that they are participating in genuine intellectual exchange. These sincere trolls think that what they are saying is true and important. They think that they are dazzling you with their brilliance. If you break off the discussion with them, they imagine that they have “won.” They genuinely don’t realize that they are making fools of themselves.

The sincere trolls are suffering from a problem called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger found that people with poor intellectual and social skills typically don’t realize that their skills are poor. Because of their lack of skill, they can’t notice their own mistakes. Nor does anyone in their daily life bring those mistakes to their attention. As a result, people with poor skills end up thinking that their skills are above average. In other words, ignorance and incompetence beget overconfidence. Fortunately, this problem can be solved through training. As the unskilled people’s skills improve, their overconfidence melts away.

There seems to be a distressingly large number of sincere trolls in the United States. I think that the problem stems from failures in our educational system, which I’ve explained in my book Not Trivial: How Studying the Traditional Liberal Arts Can Set You Free ( In the early 20th century, powerful people within our educational establishment decided to promote a method of reading instruction that slows down the rate at which people learn to read and leaves many people functionally illiterate. The rate of learning is so slow that many adults “don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology.” Our educational system also deliberately suppresses the formal teaching of the trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Yet those are the disciplines that you must learn if you want to go on to have real intellectual dialogues with other people, about any subject.

The sincere trolls have never learned how to parse or reason. Thus, they cannot be persuaded by facts. Nor can they recognize the flaws in their own reasoning, even when those flaws are pointed out to them. As a result, they will be unwilling to learn anything until they discover that they have a lot to learn. Yet they will not make that discovery until after they have already learned a lot. So pity the trolls. Just don’t feed them.


  1. Educated non-trollMay 2, 2013 at 6:01 AM

    "I’m disappointed that nobody seems to post serious comments about the scientific issues I discuss."

    I have a serious comment for you. I am very skeptical about the idea that Western levels of animal protein and calcium intake lead to osteoporosis, and was wondering if you'd seen these articles:

    If this was true, why is osteoporosis such a problem in predominately vegetarian India? All official health organisations credit lack of sunshine/vitamin D and exercise for the high rates in developed world. The trend in the paper that you referenced on your other site could just as easily be explained by these factors instead.

  2. India has a low incidence of hip fracture, as one might predict from the fact that their diet is more heavily plant-based.

    1. Educated non-trollMay 5, 2013 at 7:13 PM

      If you look at men instead of women, India falls into the medium category rather than the low category (the same category as Australia & the US). Statistics from developing countries (particularly concerning women) usually suffer from under-reporting. See second point here:

  3. Did you read this:

    1. Educated non-trollMay 7, 2013 at 7:47 PM

      Yes, reading that is what triggered my initial comment. I have heard other people state that animal protein and calcium cause osteoporosis, but I think it is premature to assert it as fact. What might appear to be a clear trend is complicated by other lifestyle factors such as differences in UV intensity, time spend outdoors, and level of physical activity. These factor would have to be properly controlled for to make the evidence more convincing. Correlation does not always equal causation.

    2. Educated non-trollMay 7, 2013 at 9:25 PM

      I think that it is clear that Western diets suffer from too much processed, high energy food and too few vegetables. The articles that you've referenced support this view. They do not however conclusively show that consumption of lean meat and low fat dairy are inherently harmful. Obviously if you're having too many cheese burgers and milkshakes and too few salads, you won't be very healthy. But as with most things, moderation and balance are the key.

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  5. When it comes to lowering cholesterol, moderation kills.

    Epidemiologic research has shown us that adding even small amounts of animal-source food to the diet poses a small yet measurable increase in the risk of death from degenerative disease. There is no need for any of it at all, and even small amounts are harmful. In other words, pursuing "balance" and "moderation" is deadly. You are giving deadly advice. I know that it's the party line promoted by the food industry, but it's still deadly advice.

    "Educated non-troll," you claim to be educated and not a troll. Yet you show no signs of having been educated in either nutrition or epidemiology, which are the subjects of this blog. Nevertheless, you try to present yourself as qualified to debunk the work of the world's most prominent nutritional epidemiologists. That's breath-taking arrogance.

    It's clear to me that you haven't made a serious study of the literature on nutrition and that you have never been trained in epidemiologic methods. You don't give us a link to your CV. You don't even give us your real name, which would enable people to search MEDLINE etc. to see if anything you have written has passed muster at a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Are you afraid that sunlight will turn you to stone?

    1. Educated non-trollMay 10, 2013 at 1:01 AM

      Firstly, we were discussing osteoporosis. And secondly, I was not giving any advice, I was actually summarising the views expressed in some of your references. For example:

      "For bone, the problem may not be too much acid from protein, but too little acid-neutralizing base from those types of plant foods that are rich in base, such as roots, tubers, fruits, and vegetable fruits and leaves. The plant foods that Americans eat most are cereal grains, such as wheat and rice, which are unusual plant foods in that they yield acid, not base. To boot, grains crowd out base-rich plant foods from the diet, helped in that by all those empty-calorie foods Americans eat, such as refined sugars and separated fats. In the acid attack on bone, the beef therefore is not so much with meat, as with grain and empty-calorie foods."

      You misunderstand me if you think I am disagreeing with the journal articles (and by extension the authors) you are referencing. I am simply disagreeing with your interpretation of them. Most of these articles do not support the extreme positions that you assert they do.

      "I’m disappointed that nobody seems to post serious comments about the scientific issues I discuss. Instead, the feedback is filled with nonsense, insults, and wild accusations from people who are obviously uneducated. "

      I have not tried to "present myself as qualified to debunk the work" of anyone. I use the term educated to distinguish myself from the people you were complaining about. I have simply read about this particular topic out of a sense of curiosity. My expertise is in physical chemistry, not nutrition. I do, however, have experience in critically reading journal articles. It's important to distinguish well supported conclusions from conjecture. Scientific authors are usually very careful with their language and it's important to recognise words like "may", "possible", "suggest" and "hypothesis". It's even more important not to extrapolate your own meaning and pretend that it is supported by the sources you reference. Now, "that's breath-taking arrogance". Lastly, you should always check the citing articles and look for opposing views when reviewing the literature on a controversial topic. You have to understand all sides of the argument before you can have an informed opinion.

      I am surprised that you are already resorting to personal attacks rather than addressing my points.

  6. So my conclusion that you have no training in nutrition or epidemiology is correct. How do you think that I could tell that you have no training in either subject? Why are you offended when I point out that I could tell that you have no training in either subject?

    To make sense of the literature on diet and osteoporosis, you have to understand that osteoporosis is the result of a long-term failure of bone remodeling. Bone remodeling is subject to several different kinds of influences, some of which can have different kinds of effects in the short run as opposed to the long run. As a result, you could get discordant reults from studies with different designs. For example, animal products produce a strongly positive potential renal acid load (PRAL). Grains produce a small positive PRAL, while vegetables and fruits produce a slightly negative PRAL. So when you look at the studies of protein intake and calcium excretion, you have to consider the protein source and the PRAL of the overall diet and consider whether the subjects were also taking calcium supplements, which could compensate for the PRAL of the protein source.

    Bone metabolism is also affected by hormonal balance, which can also be influenced by dietary intakes. Dairy foods contain a lot of estrogen. Fatty, low-fiber diets can also affect steroid hormone levels by enhancing enterohepatic recycling. The high-quality protein from animal foods also causes the liver to secrete insulin-like growth factor 1. Both estrogen and IGF-1 can have anabolic effects on bone.

    The decrease in estrogen levels after menopause lead to a decrease in calcium stores in the skeleton. This change may be considered physiologic because the body no longer has to maintain extra calcium stores to prepare for pregnancy and lactation.

    Of course, vitamin D is the most important hormone with regard to calcium balance. Many of the studies that purport to show the effects of protein intake or calcium supplementation are really showing the effects of the vitamin D supplementation in the milk or calcium supplements. So if you want to evaluate the effects of protein on bone, you must take into account the subjects' baseline vitamin D status. Doing so can be tricky. Vitamin D is initially produced in the skin when 7-dehydrocholesterol is converted to cholecalciferol by the action of ultraviolet light. The liver converts cholecalciferol into the storage form, 25-hydroxycholecalciferol (calcidiol). The kidneys then convert calcidiol to 1,25-hydroxycholecalciferol (calcitriol), which is the active form of vitamin D, on an as-needed basis.

    Mark Hegsted suggested many years ago that perpetually high calcium intakes along with high PRAL could eventually lead to impairment of the regulatory mechanism that controls the activation of calcidiol to calcitriol, thus leading to reduced vitamin D activity in the body despite adequate vitamin D stores. He suggested that this eventual dysregultion of vitamin D metabolism could be one of the major reasons why osteoporosis is so common among elderly people in populations with high calcium intakes.

  7. My main complaint about meta-analyses, such as the one you cited, is that they often gloss over serious issues like these. It's as if people are so hypnotized by the fancy math that they forget to think about what those numbers actually represent. This problem is particularly acute in nutrition, where most of the important studies aren't randomized controlled clinical trials and are thus excluded from most meta-analyses.

    In other words, you have to do a LOT of background reading on osteoporosis before you can begin to make sense of the literature. You can't just cherry-pick a few studies that seem to support a particular point of view, especially since much of the literature was specifically designed to produce results that are useful to the dairy industry.

    The point of my post on trolls is that people who have no training in subjects such as nutrition and epidemiology often post comments to suggest that I don't know what I'm talking about. Disappointingly, such posts invariably come from people who know less about the subjects than I do.

  8. Enjoyed this post.
    I do enjoy the ideas you present and then I do further research.

    Thanks so much for your thoughts on Trolls... hope I am never one.

    Ron B

  9. Oh, can I play? ;-)

    After 14 years on a low fat vegan diet I was faced with several health issues, including very low hormone levels and resulting depression, that have been greatly resolved by the addition of much more fat into my diet. So the question "where does a gorilla get enough protein?" is a fairly uninteresting question to me but, "where does a gorilla get enough fat?" Now that is something that piques my interest. In doing a bit of research I ran across your site(s) but a macro breakdown I found on another site for the gorillas diet is this:

    protein = 20.5%
    carbs = 13.1%
    fats = 66.4%

    Most if not all of the fats are short chain fatty acids provided through bacterial fermentation in the gorillas gut.

    So it would appear that a western lowland gorilla eats a high fat, low carb diet. Very interesting, no?

    The author cites this book:
    Popovich DG, et al. The Western Lowland Gorilla Diet Has Implications for the Health of Humans and Other Hominoids. J Nutr 1997; 127: 2000-2005.

    And here is a link to the article:

    You appear to recommend a low fat diet so I wonder if you have any thought on this?

    Not really trolling, just curious.
    thanks, be well.

  10. This blog is not a playground. This blog is about how to prevent, manage, or possibly even cure disabling and potentially deadly illnesses.

    I discussed the Popovich article in detail in November 2009.

    However, you do bring up a point that a lot of people don't understand. For a review of fatty acid chemistry, see my Web site:

    Here's a discussion of how differently the short-chain and long-chain fatty acids are handled in digestion:

    As Popovich explains, the Western Lowland gorilla's food is low in fat and high in fiber. As the fiber is digested, much of it is converted to short-chain fatty acids, which the body can use as an energy substrate. Your liver does not need to produce bile salts for you to digest the short-chain fatty acids. One of the short-chain fatty acids, propionic acid, actually helps to reduce blood cholesterol levels by inhibiting the activity of a key enzyme for cholesterol synthesis (HMG CoA). Thus, propionic acid has activity similar to a statin drug. These facts help to explain why gorillas and people who eat a high-fiber, low-fat diet have amazingly low cholesterol levels.

    There are several common reasons why people could get sick on a vegan diet. The main one is simple starvation. They are simply not eating enough calories. The usual reason for that is that they are not eating enough starchy foods. When human volunteers ate a gorilla-style diet in a nurition study, they found it hard to eat enough food to get enough calories. Humans are starch-eaters. If you are starving, then of course you would feel better if you ate some fat. Fat supplies calories. But it's not the fat, per se, that was beneficial but the calories. You would probably be better off with more starch.

    Another possible reason for starvation on a vegan diet is anorexia. Veganism or any other restrictive diet can serve as camouflage for anorexia.

    A third possibility is an undiagnosed case of celiac disease. If people start eating more wheat products because of giving up other foods, it could cause problems in someone with wheat intolerance. Fortunately, wheat is not the only starch.

    If someone has health problems on a vegan diet, or any potentially diet-related health problem, they should talk to a registered dietitian.

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  12. Mr. Dykes, I deleted your replies, partly because of their inappropriately condescending tone, which I certainly don't want to encourage, but because they were filled with harmful misinformation. For starters, the people with the highest cholesterol DO NOT live the longest, but the explanation is a bit complicated. Epidemiological studies have shown that causes of death tend to fall into two categories: diseases of poverty and diseases of affluence. Poor people die of diarrhea in infancy, or of vaccine-preventable disease against which they were not vaccinated, or of infectious disease that has gone untreated, or of accidents that result from poor safety standards, or from lack of education (e.g., about condoms) or lack of access to medical care. In contrast, rich people generally eat and drink themselves to death. They die of heart disease; diabetes; stroke; cancers of the breast, bowel, prostate, pancreas; liver and kidney failure; etc. Most of these diseases are rare to nonexistent in societies that eat a low-fat, plant-based diet.

    When you examine the populations with a shockingly low life expectancy, you'll see that the population usually does have low cholesterol levels. Sometimes, it's because all they can afford to eat is plant-based foods. In contrast, the Masai in Africa, who eat a diet based on meat, milk, and blood, have amazingly low blood cholesterol levels because they are generally so deficient in vitamin C that their cholesterol metabolism is inhibited. If you give them vitamin C supplements, their cholesterol levels rise dramatically. Poor people die as a result of diarrhea in infancy, measles and malaria in childhood, and AIDS in adulthood. Their risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, etc. is low, even among those who survive to old age.

    The populations with the longest life expectancy are those who have first-world levels of sanitation and education and access to medical care along with a low-fat, high-fiber, plant-based diet.

    Among people who eat a Western diet, low blood cholesterol levels are generally a sign of liver failure. They suggest that the person is going to die soon, either from the liver failure itself or from whatever disease caused the liver to fail. So if you look at the U.S. population, you'll see low life expectancy among people with very low cholesterol levels--but it's because they're already in the process of dying. Low cholesterol levels from a healthy diet are not a threat to health. Quite the opposite.

    I suspect that you got your misinformation about cholesterol from people affiliated with an organization that is marketing meat, butter, eggs, etc. If you want real information about nutrition, I suggest that you enroll in Cornell University's e-Cornell program on plant-based nutrition or at least read a basic introductory textbook on nutrition and another on epidemiology. If you are having a diet-related health problem, you should get dietary advice from a registered dietitian.

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  14. Hi, I just want to say I've just discovered this blog and it's fab! It's technically a nutrition blog which has the sense to promote the vegan diet. I'm currently creating a vegan website and if you don't mind I would certainly like to link back to your blog post, (as I know very little about nutrition)and that way you can educate my readership as well, this is clearly a good source of info!

  15. I also meant to say that you are so right about the trolls, and I am going to have to learn to deal with them in a calm and mature way, - and not feed them as you say. Their comments wind me up when I read them elsewhere, I reckon it's gonna feel worse when they're on my own website. Thanks for this post.

  16. You are welcome! One way to deal with trolls is to ask them if they have read my book Not Trivial: How Studying the Traditional Liberal Arts Can Set You Free. It devotes an entire chapter to proving cause-and-effect in medicine!

  17. Hi Laurie

    First of all I would like to paint a picture of my situation so you can appreciate my frustration.

    I'm a vegan and a keen fitness enthusiast. On the outside I look like a typical fitness freak who trains hard and eats well and wears regular trendy clothing and hairstyles... but when people get to know me they're always surprized to find out that I am what you would describe as an artistic soul and I enjoy what society believes to be alternative methods. (Which in my eyes aren't exactly alternative) If I had a buck every time somebody asked me how I maintain muscle mass on a vegan diet I'd be a billionaire!!
    Currently I'm a Homoeopathic medicine student in South Africa and I have an undying passion for preventing disease and creating wellness. My career and my hobby go hand in hand. If I'm not in class and I'm not lifting weights or running I do research.
    Being involved in the fitness industry and having a sister who is a keen fitness competitor, I am bombarded by what I would call regurgitated hogwash on a daily basis. The current situation of this 'fitness' industry is so alarming to me that I feel like it is my duty to set it right. I think anybody that is active on social networks and aware of current media will agree that this fitness inspired high protein and animal product diet is showing no signs of slowing down. People are so brainwashed that you can't even convince them with scientific facts about physiology I study at varsity that what they are doing is wrong!! (I have this debate with my sister every day... bless her... I love her too bits... BUT....)
    In my pursuit of knowledge I am finding contradictory information everywhere....

    And now I finally found a blog that I can read and not feel confused about. Thank you!!!

    I think a lot of my frustration when doing research is due to the Dunning-Kruger effect that you mentioned. I have lately been giving this issue the name of "the sheep effect" where uneducated people (like these gym bunnies) like to just follow the masses and regurgitate any information that they have read.

    What I have resorted to now is silence.... When I find myself in a situation where people are saying "baaaah" I bite my tongue because I just know that I am going to waste my energy.


    Lately I've been feeling bad about it...
    The reason why I'm studying to become a doctor is because I want to help people and how am I helping by letting them kill themselves?

    So thank you for giving me new inspiration to preach what I practise.
    I love your blog and hope that we can share knowledge form this moment forth.


    Christe Kotze

  18. Laurie,
    I just found your blog. It's very informative and well written, I'm glad I found it!
    In defense of the trolls, your blog is based on a firm opinion on a complex issue. I agree with you and accept that the vast majority of the evidence supports a plant based diet etc. However, would you post a report on a quality study that did not support your position? Are you willing to change your ideas based on the preponderance of the evidence? Are you free of bias and hubris?

    1. Yes, of course I would. Discordant results are interesting.

  19. I also show my work to genuine experts in the relevant field, and I generally make the corrections that they suggest.