Someone who studies the effects of different diets comes up with evidence that consuming more salt causes high blood pressure and associated medical risks and concludes that people should eat less of it. Another researcher repeats the study looking at mortality from all causes and finds that people who eat more than the average amount of salt are no more likely to die early than people who do not.
Arguably you not only should not be surprised at the result
, you should expect it. We have, after all, been "as if designed" by evolution for reproductive success. Dying, whether from high blood pressure or some other cause, makes it difficult to either help rear your existing children or produce more. Our bodies have built into them a sophisticated chemical factory for converting what we eat into what our body requires; reducing the amount of salt absorbed and excreting the excess should not be beyond its capabilities. If the body instead absorbs all the salt consumed, that suggests that the disadvantages of higher blood pressure are on average balanced by other advantages.
That is one example of a more general point, suggested by my rather vague memories of what I have read about the effects of salt consumption and a comment someone made on an earlier post. For another, and this time entirely imaginary, example of the same point, suppose you discover that increasing the size of your car's tires improves its gas mileage. Before concluding that bigger tires are a good idea, it would be prudent to look at other consequences of the change—because you will probably discover that some of them are negative.
The logic is the same as in my previous example, although this time the design is by engineers rather than by evolution. People who design automobiles would like them to use less gas. If bigger wheels achieved that objective and had no disadvantages, someone in the past century would have discovered the fact. The current size of wheels is not an accident. It is the best solution engineers could come up with to the problem of optimal design.
The argument does not apply to everything; there is no reason to assume that either the climate or the population of the earth is optimal. But it does apply to anything that has already been optimized for some purpose, whether by human design or some natural mechanism. Any change from the present design that produces a benefit probably also produces a cost. That is why it is not already in the design.
Of course, even if something has been optimized, it may have been optimized for a purpose other than yours. Evolution designs organisms, including me, to do the best possible job of passing their genes down to later generations. That is its objective but not mine. Birth control is one of the ways in which humans subvert the objectives of the genes in order to better achieve their own objectives.
For another example, consider trade barriers such as tariffs. There are good economic arguments to show that we would be better off if we went to complete free trade. That seems puzzling—if we would be, why don't we?
The answer is provided by public choice theory, the branch of economics that deals with the workings of the political market. A tariff makes the inhabitants of the country that imposes it worse off but the politicians who pass the tariff better off, since it benefits a concentrated interest group at the cost of dispersed interest groups. More concentrated interest groups are better able to pay politicians to do things for them.Trade policy is optimized, but for the wrong objective.
Another exception to the general rule occurs where optimization is slow and constraints have recently changed. Through most of the history of our species it made sense to get fat if you could in order to increase your odds of surviving the next famine. Now that famines are vanishingly rare, the same hardwired tastes produce less optimal behavior. Similarly, if gas prices have recently gone up a lot, existing car designs may weight fuel efficiency less heavily than they now should.
Improving things is not always impossible. But it is often harder than it seems.