Eating in Echo Chambers

One thing is for sure: echoes make for a pernicious diet. There is greater opportunity for us all in the lasting, less aggressive truths that ride the prevailing winds, whispering beneath all of our competing noise. There are better meals out there, too.
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In Going to Extremes, Cass Sunstein explores and characterizes the process that can lead to religious fundamentalism, internecine hatreds, jihad, and suicide terrorism. The essential ingredient is an echo chamber, a place where the opinion to which you are natively inclined, for whatever reasons, is reflected back at you by others who share it.

The potential distortion of an echo chamber is, presumably, self-evident. The rising din of repetition can make any nonsense sound like unassailable truth, since nothing else can be heard above its reverberating roar. Yet, all of that noise may issue from a fringe group, from a drastically blinkered view of the wide world, and/or from a population that seems large only to those housed within it, but actually represents a rounding error when viewed from any altitude.

Such echo chambers were more than problematic enough, if only as evidenced by all the mayhem in the name of competing versions of god, when they were confined to actual space- like the real estate used for terrorist training. But they are no longer so limited, having found ideal terrain in all the nooks and crannies of cyberspace. Issue an opinion into that infinite ether, and you will surely find someone who shares it. As you retweet one another, those others who already believed as you do will join the jamboree, further validating the proposition. Those with opposing views will never join the party in the first place, or be deflected at the door by the group's ire if they do turn up. Welcome to an Internet echo chamber.

These prevail, as anyone who spends any time with social media likely knows. They translate the consequences of Sunstein's "extremes" from their customary geopolitical and religious context, to settings as homely as the dinner table. We are, these days, increasingly prone to eat our food, and our food for thought, in echo chambers. Common understanding and public health, to say nothing of civility and the art of dialogue, are the poorer for it. I have long argued for a separation of church and plate, but if anything, the latter is ever more full of the zealotry historically associated only with the former.

In this context, I am pleased to highlight several commendable, recent efforts to knock down the walls of echo chambers in which so many of us these days break our bread (or renounce it).

The first of these is a well-reasoned rebuttal in New York Magazine to the Grain Brain allegation that grains are the root (not to mention stem, leaf, and seed) of all dietary evil. The Grain Brain platform is an echo chamber by design, built upon the reliable road-to-riches strategy of citing literature selectively and ignoring valid counterarguments, however voluminous they may be. I have participated personally in exposing just such fallacies before.

The second is a very thoughtful, balanced commentary in the Lancet on the contentious topics of saturated fat, starches, and sugar by Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, Dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts University. What makes Dr. Mozaffarian's commentary, in which he debunks much of the reciprocating hype about saturated fat, particularly compelling is that many of the popular claims on that topic trace their origins back to his own research.

The third, a New York Times OpEd by the author of a provocative, meticulously researched book on the origins of autoimmune disease, robustly challenges the currently fashionable notion that gluten is intrinsically toxic. Moises Velasquez-Manoff reveals important fallacies in prevailing arguments, spanning everything from changes in gluten concentrations, to the timeline of evolutionary adaptation.

In each instance, these perspectives offer us a glimpse of truths a bit too big for the confinement of the customary chambers, a bit too nuanced for the standard exchange of simplistic echoes. In so doing, they do not terminate discussion or further inquiry, but rather encourage it.

For instance, Dr. Mozaffarian contends that butter is neutral, and by so doing belies the claim, predicated in part on distortions of his own work, that we should eat more butter for better health as misguided, and dubiously motivated. But for those willing to probe beyond proximal real estate, Mozaffarian's assertion answers one question but begs another: neutral relative to what? Butter in the diet is, ipso facto, neutral relative to foods that are neutral relative to it; a breakfast cereal combining some whole grain with considerable doses of sugar and salt comes to mind. But butter is decisively better than foods that are worse (e.g., trans fat laden stick margarine) and decisively worse than foods that are better (e.g., almonds, walnuts, avocado). Even as we exit one echo chamber, we must beware the predilection to trip into another. The relative contributions of any food to diet quality, and health, depend on the context accorded by the dietary pattern.

In general, a failure to see beyond our own private patch of ideology forecloses on the promises of common cause and common ground, as surely in epidemiology as in theology. A failure to hear above the parochial reverberations of opinions we already own deafens us to common truths. Had we defended competing echoes about how to find the moon just so, we would surely never have risen together to plant our footprints there.

Gluten is no more universal nemesis than grains are a universal panacea. Butter is neutral, worse, or better, relative to what one eats instead.

One thing is for sure: echoes make for a pernicious diet. There is greater opportunity for us all in the lasting, less aggressive truths that ride the prevailing winds, whispering beneath all of our competing noise. There are better meals out there, too.


David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP is pretty confident in his opinion about opinions, especially his own. But he is willing to listen to other opinions on the subject. More or less...

Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital

Editor-in-Chief, Childhood Obesity