The Theme of Outsiders in The Undoing Project and The Case Against Sugar

I hope this is the first of many posts I do where I talk about themes that emerge between various books I am reading. Today I want to talk about being an outsider and how it relates to higher education.

One strong theme in The Undoing Project, the Michael Lewis book about the pioneers of the filed of Behavioral Economics Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, is that their ability to disrupt an entire field of academia (economics) came out of their non-traditional education at Hebrew University. At a time before the university even had a psychology department, these two were cobbling together their own degree programs. It was perhaps this lack of traditional education and not learning the “standard” way of seeing things that they were able to see obvious flaws in economics that those who had a more traditional education could not.

The same is certainly true in the history of nutrition science. In Gary Taubes’ latest book, The Case Against Sugar, he again finds himself at odds with the nutrition science world in his insistence that it is sugar and excessive carbohydrates in the diet than have caused the explosion in Western diseases like metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and even cancer. Many people criticize Taubes’ position on carbohydrate and the role of insulin¬†because he is NOT an academic. I think it is because he is a science writer that he can see what academics cannot see. It’s got to be very difficult to go through many years of schooling and working in your field under one set of rules and assumptions and have someone from outside come in and challenge everything you’ve done. The easiest way to dismiss them is to point out their lack of credentials.

Imagine an academic world in which there was a recognized benefit from having outsiders or non-traditionally educated experts involved in the field. Their role would be not just generating new ideas and ways of thinking about things, but to be a BS filter and prevent group think among people with shared assumptions and frameworks.

As I was writing this I realize that this happens all the time in blended families and I can tell you from experience that it sucks. Step-parents can see things that mom and dad and the kids can’t. That outside perspective can be very useful but it’s so damn hard to hear it because: they just don’t get it, they don’t have the right motivations, they think they have a better understanding than the people who have been living it for years. Those criticisms are sometimes true, but that does not make their observations false. It’s the same for outsiders everywhere and they play a vital role in the health of all systems, from a family unit to an academic area of study to government.