I scream, you scream, we still underrate indexicality

by Suspended Reason

Here’s a tautology we can all sign-off on: Whether a meal is healthy or unhealthy depends on the metabolism of the organism consuming it.” Might as well say The solution to a problem is indexical to the problem it solves.”

This is in theory. In theory we say, The word healthy tracks how a food item contributes to a given organism’s health!” In practice, we go around thinking about food as being generalizably healthy or unhealthy, as in a vacuum, as if it were an inherent or eternal property of the food item itself. I agree—the generalization is a shortcut, heuristic, approximation—it saves you time, it’s often necessary or optimal or rational” or whatever for us to employ these mental shortcuts. But maybe every once in a while there’s alpha in re-grounding ourselves with a more indexical relation to the world.

(We also tend to think of it as a purely biological designation, but it’s not; see below. Is it also true that there’s serious correlation in how a given food item is metabolized across organisms and species, for reasons that are ~obvious given what we know about evolution? Yes—and there’s no contradiction here.)

So is ice cream healthy?

Well, it’s associated with desserts. It has a decent amount of sugar. (So does fruit.) It has a non-trivial amount of fat, but not a massive amount—significantly less than peanut butter. It has a moderate amount of calories but again, not super excessive—a cup of ice cream will run you at about two slices of toast and OJ.

On the other hand, ice cream’s very high in protein, it’s maximally hydrating, and a lot of us could use more protein and fluids. If you’d been fasting in the desert a week, lost some weight, and were severely dehydrated, ice cream would be one of the best things you could eat on that swollen stomach of yours.

Do we eat it as part of our nutritious breakfast? Maybe we should. It’s a nearly identical nutritional profile to yogurt. Some people who feel they get too much sugar, or are hoping to lose weight, might want to moderate their intake. But when we say ice cream is unhealthy” we are really saying something like, ice cream as it is conventionally, socially consumed—that is, as a regular and additional (supplementary) dessert on top of an average diet and lifestyle—is usually detrimental to a person’s health.

I think it’s fair to say this is an obvious point. That at some level no one really believes the non-indexical, non-constructed account of healthy.” And yet, note how weak a statement it is—the number of conditionals tacked. The narrowness of circumstance in which it applies. For instance, if you ate ice cream for breakfast. (That violates the additional/supplementary dessert clause.) But how many of us do eat ice cream for breakfast? And we can all imagine the reactions we’d get if friends or family saw us eating ice cream for breakfast.

This is a playful example, but many of the words we use and depend on have similar levels of indexicality, social construction, and porting problems. We reify their simplifications and end up mistaking recommended rituals for first principles.

A post-script:

Chris Beiser links to an article in The Atlantic that talks about how nutrition science ends up handling a pro-ice cream result. It’s symptomatic to say the least.

As Ardisson Korat spelled out on the day of his defense, his debunking efforts had been largely futile. The ice-cream signal was robust.

This was obviously not what a budding nutrition expert or his super-credentialed committee members were hoping to discover. He and his committee had done, like, every type of analysis—they had thrown every possible test at this finding to try to make it go away. And there was nothing they could do to make it go away.”


The Harvard researchers didn’t like the ice-cream finding: It seemed wrong. But the same paper had given them another result that they liked much better. The team was going all in on yogurt. With a growing reputation as a boon for microbiomes, yogurt was the anti-ice-cream—the healthy person’s dairy treat.