I’ve long thought the critical thinking skills of the majority of Americans have been decaying over time. More and more people seem to accept whatever they hear from a television commentator or a newspaper reporter without ever considering that whatever they’re hearing may be incorrect. In many ways we’ve become a nation of sheep, and kind of stupid sheep, at that. When I ponder on this, I always think of my favorite George Carlin quote:
Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.
Forget for a minute the notion of overall intelligence and think of nutritional intelligence only, then apply Carlin’s reasoning. Think of someone you know who has what you would consider an average amount of nutritional knowledge, then realize that half of the US population has less nutritional knowledge than that. And they don’t care.
Whenever I think about George Carlin and my favorite quote of his, I’m always reminded of my next favorite quote:
I do this real moron thing, it’s called thinking, and I’m not a very good American because I like to form my own opinions.
Sadly, in our culture, thinking is becoming more and more of a moron thing.
A reader sent me an opinion piece on the state of American intelligence and critical thinking that I want to share. There are a couple of paragraphs in this essay that I especially thought hit the mark.
We live in two Americas. One America, now the minority, functions in a print-based, literate world. It can cope with complexity and has the intellectual tools to separate illusion from truth. The other America, which constitutes the majority, exists in a non-reality-based belief system. This America, dependent on skillfully manipulated images for information, has severed itself from the literate, print-based culture. It cannot differentiate between lies and truth. It is informed by simplistic, childish narratives and clichés. It is thrown into confusion by ambiguity, nuance and self-reflection. This divide, more than race, class or gender, more than rural or urban, believer or nonbeliever, red state or blue state, has split the country into radically distinct, unbridgeable and antagonistic entities
The core values of our open society, the ability to think for oneself, to draw independent conclusions, to express dissent when judgment and common sense indicate something is wrong, to be self-critical, to challenge authority, to understand historical facts, to separate truth from lies, to advocate for change and to acknowledge that there are other views, different ways of being, that are morally and socially acceptable, are dying.
I had never been on the website where this piece appeared, so I had no preconceived notions of what the article was going to be about when I started reading it. As I read it, however, I started suspecting that the writer was from the far right, then I started thinking he was maybe a libertarian. After reading the piece, I checked the guy out only to discover that he is an avowed socialist. Who would’ve thought it? At any rate, whatever his own political views, I think he hits pretty close to home with his essay. The vast majority of people don’t want to think for themselves – they want to be told what to do. And what they want more than anything is to be entertained. And the more passive the entertainment the better. How many Americans do you know that, given the choice, wouldn’t rather veg in front of the TV than read a book? Even an easy, fun-to-read book? It’s just too much work. Why learn when it’s so much less difficult and so much more fun to be passively entertained. It’s so much easier to sit in a comfy chair and let the talking heads do your critical thinking for you. It is a sad, sad state of affairs.
But, there is hope. At least among the tribe of low-carb dieters there are some readers. A lot of readers, in fact. And most people who do read develop better critical thinking skills than those who don’t.
Before I get to how I know low-carbers are readers, at least as compared to low-fatters, let me digress a little to discuss bestseller lists, a subject near and dear to my heart. (Especially since, with your help, I hope to be back on one again soon.)
There are countless bestseller lists. Practically each newspaper has it’s own. If you make it on to the bestseller list of some rinky dink local paper, you are a bestseller. I’m not kidding. When you see the term ‘bestseller’ or bestselling’ applied to an author – as in ‘Bestselling author Dr. Michael Eades’ or ‘the bestselling book Protein Power’ you can figure that Dr. Michael Eades’ book Protein Power made it onto the bestseller list of some small, regional newspaper. If a book makes it on to the bestseller list of a larger newspaper, one that has a bit of national circulation, then that book is said to be a ‘national bestseller,’ a term frequently used. I don’t know what makes a paper fall into the ‘national’ category, but they all know in the publishing biz. The Denver paper, for example, is considered a national paper, so if your book makes it onto the Denver Post, then you are not just a bestseller, you are a national bestseller.
The Big Daddy of all the bestseller lists (at least in the US) is the New York Times bestseller list. Every author wants to figure a way to weasel onto this list. Why? Because all the book stores key off the NY Times list, especially the big chain bookstores. All the books on the NY Times list get moved to the front of the store and discounted. Which, of course, increases their visibility and sales. Which tends to keep them on the list even longer, perpetuating the cycle. Which is why everyone – including yours truly – wants to make it onto the NY Times bestseller list. Once there, you stay for a while. And once there, for ever after your are a New York Times bestselling author. Not just a bestselling author or a national bestselling author, but a by God New York Times bestselling author.
With all the folderol that goes with the New York Times bestseller list, you would think that it would at least semi-accurately be a measure of how many books of any title are actually sold, but it’s not. For that you have to go to the USA Today list. A less prestigious list in terms of what you can say about yourself, but vastly more important in terms of tracking book sales. Here’s why.
The New York Times list is divided into multiple categories by type of book (fiction vs nonfiction) and by cover (hardcover vs softcover). Even the softcover category is divided into trade paperback and mass market paperback sections. (Trade paperbacks are those that are the same size as a hardcover book; mass market paperbacks are the small ones you find on racks that you think of as paperback books.) The number of categories of books has expanded with the whining of authors wanting to get on the list. It used to be that there were fiction and nonfiction lists. All the self-styled ‘serious’ nonfiction authors had to compete with diet book authors (God forbid) and other lesser authors of how-to and self-help books and usually came up short. The Times caved and started a new category called Advice, How-To and Miscellaneous so that these serious nonfiction authors wouldn’t have to mingle with (or, more importantly for them, compete with) us more low-brow types in the self-help section. Since there are multiple categories of NY Times bestseller lists, all you can really do is compare books within a given list. There may be 20 times more of the #4 book in the Advice, How-To and Miscellaneous list sold than the book that is #1 on the nonfiction list, but there is no way to know this. But you can find this out from the USA Today list.
The USA Today bestseller list published every Thursday lists the top 50 bestselling books based on sales irrespective of category. If your book is #1 on the USA Today list, that means more copies were sold than any other book. You want to be on the NY Times list for the prestige but you want to be on the USA Today list because it means you’re selling a whole lot of books.
Last week USA Today published a list of the top selling 150 books of the past 15 years. Considering that there are several thousand new book titles published each year, the USA Today list represents the bestselling books out of some 50,000 to 75,000 titles published over the past decade and a half. That’s thousands of different titles. Some of these titles had small print runs of only a thousand or so copies while others – The Da Vinci Code and the Harry Potter books, for example – had print runs in the millions, making this list represent millions and millions of books sold.
Taking a quick look at the list is enlightening. Of the 150 bestsellers over the past 15 years, nine of them are diet/nutrition books or six percent. When you take a look at these specific diet/nutrition titles, a trend emerges.
#87 You: On a Diet
#121 Sugar Busters!
#130 Protein Power
#143 The Zone
As you can see from this list, seven out of the nine books are low-carb (or semi-low-carb) books. The two that aren’t (#87 & #129) were by celebrity authors who were given their starts and shamelessly promoted by Oprah. (Also, as an aside, if you take the time to pull down the Amazon pages of all these books, note which one has the highest star rating. )
The other books on the list had to make it their on their own without Oprah’s help. And, in fact, with Oprah openly saying that low-carb diets are bad. I think the fact that there are so many of these books on this list says a lot about low-carb aficionados. At the very least, it says that low-carbers buy books and they read. Where are all the low-fat books on this list? There were a gazillion published over the past 15 years. Some made the NY Times list. But where are they now? Where are Ornish’s ultra-low-fat books? Not a single mention. Yet you see him all over the place in the media. I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions about what all this means. But remember, low-carb books outsold The Da Vinci Code and a bunch of the Harry Potter books, all of which were quite the bestsellers. If you add up all the low-carb books and counted them as one, that book would have been #1 on the list. Quite an accomplishment for a discredited diet theory, I would say.
Think about all the negative press reports low-carb diets and meat-based diets get, and yet people continue to buy and read low-carb books. My take is that there are still some thinkers out there who don’t let the media lead them by the nose and who want to take responsibility for their own health and well being. And I consider it a good sign. At least when the revolution comes, it will be lead by those who follow low-carb diets because they may be the only thinkers left.
A bit of housekeeping. MD and I are in the midst of three major projects right now, requiring travel all over the place, and time is at a premium. I just looked and there are almost a hundred comments undealt with in the queue right now. I’m going to make my way through them, so don’t despair if you’ve been waiting. But for the next bit – at least until we get through this crunch time – I’m simply going to post any future comments as they come in. I don’t have time to answer them individually. When the time frees up, I’ll probably start back. But until then, don’t feel slighted if your question just gets posted as it comes in.
(Hat tip to Dave Dixon for the essay at the start of this post)