You want to win, but you want to get it right

I like Al Lewis, the bomb-throwing wellness-industry analyst, but it’s hard to know which obscures the other, his brilliance or the chip on his shoulder. I’ve interviewed him, and we’ve corresponded from time to time. He’s engaging, informed, and a dogged polemicist whom I would not want on my trail.

But his style of argument — ironic, not sarcastic, he says — has a recurrent flaw. Twice, I’ve pointed out illogic/polemical overreach in his generally terrific posts via his comments section, and both times he has graciously acknowledged them.

But in this piece, he had three more of them, in successive paragraphs!, which I found worthy of posting myself.

"Ron [Goetzel] says 'A large proportion of the diseases we suffer from are preventable.' Actually, excluding smoking-related illness (where there has never been disagreement), 'preventable' events consume far fewer employer dollars than birth events, musculoskeletal issues, and general 'worried well' medical concerns."

Anyone else puzzled by what "general 'worried well' medical concerns" are? Anyway, the stumble here is going from "diseases" to "events." Heaven help those who would class birth events as disease (and besides, aren't birth events preventable)? It's fine to choose which comments one will respond to, but commenting on something not said is not responding at all. Next paragraph:

"So Ron’s premise is utterly false. Let me put it another way: have you ever had a medical event that could have been prevented by completing a health risk assessment or eating more broccoli?"

It is technically accurate to say that one can’t avoid a medical event simply by eating broccoli, but it is inescapable that eating a healthy diet promotes health. Besides, do we want to strive to avoid medical events, or to live richly in health? “We are what we eat” is so hoary a cliche that it is universally dismissed or disdained (as Lewis does), but no other factor contributes more to physical health. And then, his third paragraph:

"At this point his strategy emerges: argument-by-cliche. 'Most diseases are preventable,' is his favorite. That would mean health-conscious folks would be blessed with eternal life."

No, Al, it wouldn’t mean that at all. First of all, your opponent says “most,” you hear “all,” and then take that to its illogical extreme — eternal life. Virtually no one else would hear that statement and interpret its having any connection to eternal life.

OK, so “most diseases are preventable” is inarticulate, but Goetzel's obvious contention is that some of the most common diseases — atherosclerosis, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and diseases associated with smoking and alcohol and drug abuse — are heavily influenced by choices we make, instead of bugs we catch. Here's the lead paragraph from a 2014 NIH publication:

Each year, nearly 900,000 Americans die prematurely from the five leading causes of death – yet 20 percent to 40 percent of the deaths from each cause could be prevented, according to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sharp-eyed readers — including Lewis, no doubt — will note that I gave Goetzel a pass on what I call inarticulation, but I'm pummeling Lewis for his word choices. Yes, but no. In the long-developing "conversation" between Lewis and Goetzel, Lewis has always been the aggressor. That's OK — Lewis has raised lots of valid points! — but if you're going to claim (read: repeatedly crow) about winning, then you warrant being held to your statements. 'Least, that's what I think. I'm not crowing about anything, but I'll surely be held to scrutiny of what I've said.

A polemicist "always" goes to “always” (and “never” and “eternal”) — it's easier to knock down arguments that way! I do it too, even if I “always” label it as the “absurd extreme” designed to illustrate a point. But absurd overstatement can’t help but sully good, defensible arguments.

[Note: I shared this with Lewis, to see if he wanted to comment pre-publication; he said he was fine to have it run as written. "You should add that most of those diseases don’t create cost (meaning events) until after retirement," he said.]

Author and wellness innovator Michael Prager helps smart companies
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