Why Heteconomist Appears to Have Little to Say on Health & Fitness

Most of the time, this blog concerns itself with economics and, more particularly, a theory of money. There is a reason for this, and also a story behind it. Believe it or not (and, of course, you shouldn’t believe it even for a second), in its original concept this blog was to be a self-help website focusing on Personal Health & Fitness. Quite simply, this seemed to be the kind of topic that would drive traffic and rake in the advertising dollars. It was only after this initial plan fell through that a little thinking outside the box became necessary and attention turned to writing about money instead of actually making any. Rather than trace in embarrassing detail how the failure came about, the matter can be explained by way of example. A representative writing sample from the period is reproduced below, but not before a brief recounting of its grueling path to non-publication.

It may come as a surprise, but for a post actually to make it onto the internet, it first has to meet the most rigorous requirements imposed by the editorial team. Not one posting effort actually calculated to make money, rather than merely talk idly about it, has ever made it online via Heteconomist. The only way I was able to slip by the editors the writing sample reproduced below is by wrapping it inside an explanation of why it was ruled unfit for public consumption in the first place.

To be published, a post in the early days was expected to:

1. Say something new about Health & Fitness or at least say it in a novel way;
2. Provide scientific or empirical support for the argument(s) presented;
3. Leave the reader with new knowledge that (s)he could positively use in daily life.

In the original submission entitled, “What Happened When We Quit Coffee for Two Months”, the following supporting statements were provided in relation to the criteria:

1. Novelty. What is said in the post is perhaps nothing new. The way in which it is said, however, is novel. Although, since at least the Greek chorus, the use of first-person plural narration has played a part in our rich literary heritage and continues to evolve to this day in new and interesting ways, the author believes that his submission, if accepted, would be the first post on quitting coffee (and then taking it up again soon after) ever to adopt this narrative technique. He considers this not only a triumph in originality but, in its collectivism, a striking blow for the revolution.

2. Evidence. The author and his friends took matters into their own hands, experiencing life without coffee (temporarily) to accumulate a body of data which, in principle, could be organized in an orderly fashion and analyzed using well known statistical techniques.

3. Practical Advice. The reader will come away empowered by the thought that (s)he too could give up coffee for a period of time and then take it up again. (Or not. It would be entirely up to the reader.)

Unfortunately, the editors felt unconvinced that publishing requirements had been met. On the specific criteria they responded as follows:

1. Novelty. It is highly doubtful that simply employing the first-person plural voice contributes enough by way of novelty. To be honest, it also makes for extremely vague reading material at times. Even if selection of voice was enough, the author provides no evidence in support of his claim that the post is in fact the first of its kind on the proposed topic.

2. Evidence. Simply going without coffee for a while hardly amounts to serious empirical work. What benchmarks did you employ? What were your control variables? How were any effects of the experiment measured? Although you mention the possibility of organizing and analyzing the data (such as it is), you do not actually appear to have done so. Even publications promoting the most alternative of medicines might balk at the science on offer in your study.

3. Practical Advice. When speaking of a positive takeaway a reader might benefit from in real life, the editors have in mind some kind of clear, definitive result with specific, concrete application. This is how you conclude your study: “Sitting once again on a balcony overlooking the city … we felt compelled to admit that our little experiment had proved nothing.” We will admit that this is one of the more honest conclusions we have ever come across, but it will hardly do as useful life advice.

Accordingly, the editors rejected the submission. Although a simple “pass” would have sufficed (I can take a hint), boorish elements within the editing team (including the editor-in-chief, I am led to believe) could not refrain from an unprofessional outburst reminiscent of the one suffered by Simon Grim at the outset of what turned out to be an illustrious writing career:

Dear Mr. Grim:

We here at the magazine consider ourselves open-minded, and consistently print the work of the most brilliant young talent. Every week we are forced to return writing which we cannot publish and include a brief but polite refusal. But this tract you sent us demands a response as violent as the effect your words have had upon us.

Drop dead.

Keep your day job.

Sincerely, the editors.

For good measure, they proceeded to deliver a condescending and wholly unnecessary grammar lesson:

Readers can judge for themselves whether such treatment was justified.

Title of Article: “What Happened When We Quit Coffee for Two Months”
Author(s): One of a group of us sitting on a balcony overlooking a city
Genre:: Health & Fitness
Subgenre:: Effects of giving up coffee (before taking it up again)

Earlier this year while sipping coffee with friends on a balcony overlooking a city filled to the brim with workaholics, alcoholics and other addicts of one kind or another, the topic of dependence arose. Somebody – we no longer remember who – began listing things he or she had come to depend upon. This caused the rest of us to reflect on our own situations.

Dependencies we held in common were various but, to a person, included air, water, food and coffee.

Somewhat defensively, we wondered if dependence was necessarily a negative thing. Perhaps it was not ideal to need air or water, to take two examples, but breathing or drinking them in moderation in uncontaminated forms were probably not overly harmful to our health. The same, perhaps, could be said for various categories of food.

In the case of coffee we discovered that available evidence appeared to be mixed. Continuing to drink it, according to some health studies, might conceivably reduce risk of a selection of cancers and other maladies yet come at the cost, depending on the study and its funding source, of dying younger or perhaps older. Obviously, we had no desire to die at anything other than just the right ages.

So long as we restricted our literature survey to peer-reviewed medical journals, the best guess appeared to be that coffee consumption in moderation was, on balance, perhaps neutral to very mildly non-neutral. Assuming, for simplicity, that health effects were neutral, it seemed a no-brainer to continue drinking our normal, in most cases moderate, amounts of the stuff.

This preliminary assessment was formed, however, before any of us had exposed ourselves to the quite frightening array of freelance health advice presented on YouTube. Repeated warnings of adrenal fatigue, calcified pineal glands and contaminated dream lives plagued by faulty story designs and poor character development (we’d always imagined such dreams to be the norm) were alarming and not necessarily easy to ignore now that YouTube had set autoplay as its default setting, causing a string of related videos to play one after the other without any voluntary input from the viewer.

Even if these concerns could be allayed, and we preferred to believe so, there was still the question of dependence. There was no doubting, based on past experience, that going more than a day without coffee tended to be unpleasant for most of us. True, we’d feel the effects of a lack of oxygen or water much more acutely and in shorter time, but those dependencies seemed unavoidable.

We decided to experiment by going without coffee for a while, mainly to see if we would notice a net health benefit. We figured that any such net benefit would be noticeable after withdrawal symptoms had subsided, assuming we didn’t drop dead first. Results of peer-reviewed medical studies strongly suggested that we would not drop dead. Some of us remained skeptical but were by now too afraid to consult YouTube for a second opinion.

Day 1 without coffee elapsed more or less without incident. This was not actually very surprising. Most of us typically consumed just one or two cups of coffee a day, so a twenty-four hour gap between contiguous cups was not far out of the ordinary. A few of us would drink three or more cups of coffee in a day, but these few were the exception. It was generally expected that the second day would be more difficult.

To some of the more entrepreneurial among us, the idea surfaced that if the withdrawal process proved to be especially trying and protracted, there might be potential for a startup business opportunity. Surveys suggest that nearly ninety percent of Americans – and no doubt many people in other countries – regularly consume caffeine in some form. We realized that if even a tiny fraction of those people happened to be dependent on caffeine and could be persuaded to give it up, we could make a lot of money facilitating their attempts to kick the habit. Counseling, hypnotherapy, patches, gum, electric-caffeinated cigarettes and so on would have a ready market.

But could people be convinced? Could there actually be any decent reason to give up coffee, or caffeinated products in general? Or, at the very least, could we arrive at plausible-sounding reasons why people should give it up, even if those reasons might be easily perceived as invalid on closer inspection, once money had changed hands and our fly-by-night operation had moved on to fresh markets? We were determined to find out.

Day 2 for most of us was somewhat more difficult to endure. A majority of us experienced headaches that came in ominous waves from mild to quite noticeable. Perhaps we could have taken paracetamol or ibuprofen but we didn’t think of it at the time, our judgment possibly impaired by lack of caffeine.

Some people found a few of us to be irritable on day 2, frequently snapping at others. But that is actually quite normal for a few of us.

By day 3, the headaches had mostly subsided, though we had read somewhere that they can last for up to nine days, depending on the extent of a person’s caffeine dependence.

Beyond the headache stage, we found there to be few if any overt withdrawal symptoms worth mentioning. Some became constipated. Others experienced common flu symptoms. Maybe they had caught a cold. A few suffered dizzy spells or blurred vision. One found religion, another denounced it. But none of this lasted very long.

There was, however, rather a hole left in our lives where coffee used to be. We liked its taste. We liked its aroma. We liked its body and texture and social function. We liked pretty much everything about it. Yet, for the time being, it was gone.

It left us to wonder how long it would take before any benefits of giving up coffee would be noticed. A month? A year? A lifetime? We grew impatient.

Ultimately, we settled on two months (admittedly one of those was the short month of February) and in all that time perceived no health benefit of any kind, though arguably our lack of medical training might have played a role here. Nor, it should be added for balance, did we notice any drawback other than a growing awareness of a gentle, nagging feeling that stayed with us by day and by night. To be precise, it was more a question than a feeling – the question of why we were depriving ourselves of something we enjoyed when, as far as could be ascertained, it caused no great harm to others or ourselves? Was it due to a deep-rooted Puritanism that dated back to the early American pilgrims? It seemed unlikely in our cases, being Australian. We suspected that it might be a reaction to our convict past – a behavioral overcorrection of some kind.

Sitting once again on a balcony overlooking the city, about two months later, we felt compelled to admit that our little experiment had proved nothing. For all we knew, significant benefits of a caffeine-free existence might have shown themselves only after months, years or decades – perhaps only in some future lifetime on a faraway planet in a different dimension or even universe entirely. But, at the current impoverished level of human knowledge, such conjectures are without peer-reviewed support in scholarly journals, and YouTube, we had begun to suspect, might not always be an entirely reliable source of information on such matters.

So we returned to our ritual of sipping coffee even if with a small sense of trepidation at the thought of what might be uncovered of its effects in the unforeseeable future. There was nothing to do but publish on the internet another in a long line of utterly unhelpful blog posts on the pros and cons of coffee and the potential benefits and dangers, imagined or otherwise, of caffeine dependence.

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