An interview on the book, A Year of Living Biblically

Today I heard a terrific program on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi show. From WAMU’s website:

A.J. Jacobs says he’s officially Jewish, but “in the same way Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant”. But after being raised in a secular New York City household, he decided to live an entire year following the word of the bible– literally. He joins Kojo to discuss the big rules (thou shalt not kill), the obscure ones (no mixed fibers), and his personal adventures with “the Good Book”.

Guests

A. J. Jacobs, Editor-at-Large, Esquire Magazine; and author of “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible” (Simon & Schuster)

 

Jacobs previous book was “Know It All,” based on his life experiment of reading the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica. Kojo interviewed Jacobs today for his new book, which involved another kind of intense research, a year trying to follow every rule that can be found in the bible. Jacobs found over 700, and he spent a year trying to follow every one, from not cutting the corners of his beard (and since he didn’t know where the corners were, he simply didn’t shave) to not sitting anywhere his menstruating wife had sat. He tried to follow all ten commandments and every other rule the bible laid out. He found not lying to be particularly difficult, especially when raising a three-year-old boy. (Who’s not tempted to tell the kid that the candy store is closed?) He started all this off as an agnostic jew, and he ended it all in pretty much the same way. But the experience seemed to make him much more appreciative of ritual, sacredness, and other matters spiritual, most of which this writer has little acquaintance. Still, it’s interesting.

Jacobs seems to have gone into the experience partly to show the folly of taking the bible literally. At the same time he wanted to be open and take seriously the sacred rituals in this book that’s the “best seller of all time.” He says he came out of the experience a “reverent agnostic”: appreciative of the difficulty of some of the rituals (just try to follow the commandment not to covet while working at Esquire and living in NYC) and the mystery of other rules (e.g., stoning adulterers). It’s worth downloading the program just to hear his story about how he did, in fact, stone an adulterer — with some pebbles he had in his pocket just for the occasion.

It seems that he went into the experiment partly in bad faith (bent on showing how it was impossible to take the bible literally) yet at the same time open to what might come of it all.

Someone called in a question along the lines, “people spend more time deciding what kind of car they might buy than what kind of god they should believe in — did this experience help you understand that the Christian god offers a better deal than the Jewish god?” To his credit, Jacobs didn’t take the bait. No, he said, he didn’t become a christian; he became a more respectful agnostic.

I’d love to find time to read this book.

Good Science, Bad Science

I just finished slogging through 460 pages detailing 150 years of research on nutrition, obesity, disease, and weight gain accompanied by 100 pages of documentation: Good Calories, Bad Calories written by Gary Taubes and just published by Alfred A. Knofp. Had I been Gary Taubes’s editor, I would have insisted on putting the conclusions up front. But, no, someone like me didn’t edit this book; so this reader had to read every study, every turn, every machination, every bungle, every fabrication, excuse, rationalization, and machination that led to the current travesty of nutrition science.

The book is brilliant and well-worth the slog. But let me give away the end for those less patient than I am. Without the work of slogging through the studies, the results will be quite shocking. So read the book. In the interim, here is the upshot:

Dietary fat doesn’t make you fat or prone to heart attacks or cancer. In fact, some studies suggest that the less fat you eat, the more likely you are to get cancer.

Carbohydrates—especially refined ones, sucrose, and high-fructose corn syrup—upset the body’s homeostatic mechanisms. They spur insulin secretion. “Insulin is the primary regulator of fat storage. When insulin levels are elevated—either chronically or after a meal—we accumulate fat in our fat tissue. When insulin levels fall, we release fat from our fat tissue and use it for fuel.” (p. 454) These carbohydrates may be the most likely causes of “the diseases of civilization,” including heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s (inadvertently), diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.

To say that obesity is the result of eating too much is like saying that alcoholism is the result of drinking too much. Both are tautologies, and both fail to cover cases where people eat “too much” without getting fat or drink too much without becoming alcoholics. There may well be a link between overeating and obesity (though often that link is missing), but the association tells us nothing about causation. A third factor should be considered. Taubes finds this third factor to be insulin increasing as the result of carbohydrate consumption. The more sugar or insulin floating in the blood stream, the less the body will metabolize and burn fat. (This is my way of putting it, not Taubes’s.)

“Fattening and obesity are caused by an imbalance—a disequilibrium—in the hormonal regulation of adipose tissue and fat metabolism. Fat synthesis and storage exceed the mobilization of fat from the adipose tissue and its subsequent oxidation. We become leaner when the hormonal regulation of the fat tissue reverses this balance.” (p. 454)

The notion that getting fat is a result of eating more calories than one burns off is completely unsubstantiated. Cutting back on calories makes one hungry, makes the metabolism slow down, makes the person less likely to exercise. Exercising more makes one hungry. The best way to control eating is to control hunger, and hunger is an effect of how much insulin is cruising through the system. Carbohydrates spur insulin, inhibit fat mobilization, and make us hungry. The less insulin, the less hungry one is. The more fat we eat without eating carbohydrates, the more satisfied we are.

How can what Taubes be saying be true when we’ve heard everything to the contrary? Taubes makes a compelling case that all we’ve heard has been the result of a bandwagon or (see John Tierney’s terrific article) a cascade effect: one researcher comes up with a theory that fat is linked to heart disease, a theory poorly tested; this theory gets a lot of good press; the next researcher who comes along is sobered by the new conventional wisdom and interprets his results in keeping; others select studies and cases that serve to back up the conventional view; and soon anyone who dares to say anything to the contrary is dubbed a heretic. Or dismissed without comment. This is a book that will interest the philosopher of science as much as the person worried about how to feed her kids.

Taubes’s book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, points the way forward to some good science.

The Congo

There is an epidemic of rape occurring in the Congo.

Jan Goodwin documented this three years ago for The Nation:

Last May, 6-year-old Shashir was playing outside her home near Goma, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), when armed militia appeared. The terrified child was carried kicking and screaming into the bush. There, she was pinned down and gang-raped. Sexually savaged and bleeding from multiple wounds, she lay there after the attack, how long no one knows, but she was close to starving when finally found. Her attackers, who’d disappeared back into the bush, wiped out her village as effectively as a biblical plague of locusts.

Is the epidemic of rape that’s devastating women in the Congo politically motivated? From today’s New York Times article, it seems rather to be an effect of the trauma of the genocide in Rwanda. So many men have become severely damaged, and now women are being brutally and savagely damaged in turn:

BUKAVU, Congo — Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist, cannot bear to listen to the stories his patients tell him anymore.

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Sexual Violence in Eastern CongoPhotographs

Sexual Violence in Eastern Congo

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Times Topics: Congo

The New York Times

Every day, 10 new women and girls who have been raped show up at his hospital. Many have been so sadistically attacked from the inside out, butchered by bayonets and assaulted with chunks of wood, that their reproductive and digestive systems are beyond repair.

“We don’t know why these rapes are happening, but one thing is clear,” said Dr. Mukwege, who works in South Kivu Province, the epicenter of Congo’s rape epidemic. “They are done to destroy women.”

Eastern Congo is going through another one of its convulsions of violence, and this time it seems that women are being systematically attacked on a scale never before seen here. According to the United Nations, 27,000 sexual assaults were reported in 2006 in South Kivu Province alone, and that may be just a fraction of the total number across the country.

“The sexual violence in Congo is the worst in the world,” said John Holmes, the United Nations under secretary general for humanitarian affairs. “The sheer numbers, the wholesale brutality, the culture of impunity — it’s appalling.”

The days of chaos in Congo were supposed to be over. Last year, this country of 66 million people held a historic election that cost $500 million and was intended to end Congo’s various wars and rebellions and its tradition of epically bad government.

Find the NYT article to read more.

Long time, No blog

The summer was really hectic: finished editing a book; hung out with my kids; did lots of good work with the Kettering Foundation; worked on other projects. But not enough — there’s never enough time in a summer. At the end of May, the summer stretches out in all its glory, seemingly ample time to work on so many projects. By July 1 one begins to feel a little antsy. By August 1 one becomes ansious. By September 1 it is all over, and teaching begins anew.

I’m beginning to think that the summer work ideal is really a hoax, at least with children. Who can get work done? It’s the academic year, with its rhythms and expectations and structure that provides space to think about writing projects. At least that’s how it is for me this year. My classes are terrific. There’s nothing better than teaching Phil 100 (and I love being at a place that actually calls it that) along with teaching a graduate seminar.

The book is due out in March.  Stay tuned.