Science is not always Sensible

It is a very common human tendency to copy whatever is successful and apply it indiscriminately to many different areas of human endeavour. One sees this tendency in the realm of human knowledge, where dominant theories become more and more widely applied, sometimes venturing into realms, such as the use of evolutionary theory to explain the development of human cultures, or economic theory to account for non-economic behaviours, where they have little or no validity. These and other instances of the misapplication of successful models are more likely to mislead practitioners rather than guide them to the truth. Another example of this common tendency is the application of science, or more precisely the scientific method, to the study of as many different areas of human knowledge as possible. This unwavering belief in the superiority of science has gone so far that the pejorative term “unscientific” is often sufficient on its own to discredit a person, theory, opinion, or discipline. Since much traditional knowledge, which, let it be remembered, enabled our ancestors to survive for very long periods of time, is not scientific, it is often rejected out of hand because it has not passed the stringent test of repeated scientific verification. However, the common assumption that a scientific solution, study, practice, or treatment is always better than a traditional or non-scientific one is not always correct.

More generally, the prevalent dominant belief in the virtues of science is not always justified. For applying the scientific method to all areas of human knowledge can lead to misleading or erroneous results, or beget a false sense of certainty regarding results that are not at all certain. This is because science assumes that highly complex things like living organisms, soil fertility, and ecosystems can be broken down and considered simply as the sum of their component parts, whether these parts are atoms, molecules, chemicals, genes, microbes, insects, diseases, nutrients, individual organisms, or species. As Masanobu Fukuoka and others have realized, it is precisely this approach – of artificially and arbitrarily dividing things into parts that, in themselves, have no living or meaningful existence, or have a very different nature, behaviour, or characteristics when considered separately than when they are considered as a whole – that can mislead our fallible species into believing things that are wrong.

The chemistry of some common substances shows the fallacy of this reductionist or isolationist approach. We all know that water is comprised of two very different substances, hydrogen and oxygen, that at normal atmospheric temperatures are gases; in contrast, at those same temperatures, water is either a liquid or a solid. Salt, another common substance, consists of sodium, a relatively soft, silvery metal, and chlorine, a poisonous gas that is used, among other applications, to bleach paper and to prevent microbial growth in drinking water. From a knowledge of only the properties and appearance of the two component parts of water or salt, it is impossible to determine the properties of the resulting combinations H2O and NaCl. The only way to discover the very different properties of these two simple molecules is by observing them and seeing how they behave in different physical conditions and situations.

In the study of medicine and human nutrition, it is assumed, by doctors, nutritionists, and others, that the human body is a biological machine that requires certain inputs, such as carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins, amino acids, drugs, medicines, and so forth, in the right proportions in order to maintain optimal health or to cure it when it is out of order. Moreover, it is widely assumed that consuming a tablet or artificially manufactured food that contains one or more of these things is equivalent to consuming a natural food, whether plant or animal, that contains them. But clearly this assumption is not always valid, for the effect on the human body of consuming the same quantity of any one of these substances in these two very different forms can sometimes be very different.

Thus, we can see that the reductionist assumption of medicine and nutrition, that foods, as well as medicines, can be broken down into their component parts and fed to the living human body to assess their individual effects, is liable to lead us into error. As Michael Pollan has pointed out in his book In Defense of Food, we should remember that, for most of human history, human beings have not eaten carbohydrates, proteins, fats, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals; they have eaten foods that contain these substances, which is not necessarily the same thing. For, according to this isolationist reasoning, one might as well tell a person to consume two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen in order to gain the hydrating effects of water. But we all know that this advice is wrong, for such a person would die of dehydration no matter how much of these two gases one ingests.

Doctors and nutritionists assume that variables such as caloric intake, specific nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and so on, can be considered in isolation in order to determine their effect on a person’s health. But this atomistic approach, which was copied from physics and chemistry, does not always provide the correct understanding when dealing with the operations of extremely complex things like living organisms. A more holistic approach must be taken in order to determine the interplay of many different variables when considering a topic as complex as a person’s health. In the same book, Pollan describes how there are a remarkable variety of traditional diets around the world, some of which are diametrically opposed to each other, such as those that contain almost no plant foods (the Inuit who live near the Arctic), while there are others who consume almost no meat, or contain a very limited variety of foods; and yet, these people enjoy good health while suffering from few nutritional deficiencies.

While they [university medical researchers] could likely reach some pretty good biochemical conclusions about how cells were nourished, and while I or others could probably give them some pretty good ideas about what sorts of diets seemed historically consistent with good health and long life, they were going to run into a huge gap in the middle when they tried to tie together what they had learned about cellular nutrition with actual eating recommendations.

If you took iron as an example, it would prove dauntingly complex to make careful measurements of things like exactly how iron got utilized in the body if the consumer had an excess of iron already in storage. And quantitatively, what would be the effect of consuming an iron-containing food where the iron was bound by other substances in that food, or consuming it at a meal containing some vitamin C that would enhance absorption.

How could all those—and hundreds of other variables involving other biochemicals that just happened to be in the food along with the iron—be measured within some reasonable level of certainty? All those things were unknown, I said, and would probably remain unknown because when the thousands of biochemicals in food interacted, with one another and with the thousands of biochemicals in the human body, there were just too many variables to allow anyone to carry out neat experiments.[1]

I suspect this accounts for the perplexing and sometimes contradictory results that are obtained from purportedly rigorous scientific studies regarding the effects of this or that micronutrient or macronutrient on people’s health. In addition, it probably accounts for the fact that the more artificial foods a person consumes – foods that have been broken down, concentrated, or derived from naturally-occurring foods, whether physically or chemically, and then reassembled into different forms – the more likely one is to suffer from poor health and other physical ailments. Humpty Dumpty has fallen down from the wall of good health and vigour, and not all the food scientists, doctors, and nutritionists will be able to put him back together again. For it is the modern food industry, with its dazzling but highly deceptive cornucopia of artificial abundance, that is largely responsible for his having fallen down in the first place. Both of these industries, whether industrial food production or modern medicine and nutrition, are based on the belief that the isolationist scientific approach to food and human health is the correct approach.

Similar erroneous beliefs and harmful results are increasingly evident in the application of the isolationist scientific approach to farming, which in just a few human generations has produced very serious problems, including massive erosion, soil degradation and deterioration, resistant pests and diseases, water contamination, and the loss of genetic diversity in many of the crops and animals that are grown or raised for human consumption. It is not at all surprising that Fukuoka, who was a scientifically-trained microbiologist and agronomist, was able to develop his natural farming method, which enabled him to grow high yields of rice and tangerines without adding any natural or artificial fertilizers, including compost, or using pesticides, herbicides, or any other commonly-employed industrial farming method, only after he completely rejected the scientific approach to farming, and instead considered all the elements of a cultivated plot of land – the soil, air, sunlight, precipitation, climate, plants, animals, insects, diseases, and so forth – from a holistic, rather than from a scientifically atomistic and isolationist, perspective.

Of course, I am most certainly not saying that science has no validity whatsoever. Science has repeatedly demonstrated its validity, primarily in the realms of physical knowledge about the world we live in. And even in the study of living organisms, the application of the scientific method has yielded many true theories, statements, results, and observations. What I am criticizing is the dogmatic application of science to all areas of our knowledge of living organisms and systems, which are often too complex to be broken down into their component parts and then merely considered as consisting of these parts. For if this were indeed the case, then it would be possible to create life simply by putting together all the atoms or molecules of which a living organism consists and then waiting for them to assemble themselves into that particular living form. But clearly this is not what happens, which means there are things going on in all living organisms and systems that science cannot understand, no matter how much time scientists spend studying them. This is where the analogy between living creatures and all the different man-made machines, processes, and systems breaks down and is liable to lead us astray. For a human-created machine, being a physical rather than a living system or object, is nothing more than the sum total of its separate parts, which can usefully – and sensibly – be considered in isolation from the other parts.

Such a claim will naturally be highly displeasing to scientists and all those who uncritically believe in the scientific method, for it means that there are limits to our much-vaunted human understanding. The Age of Science and Technology has progressed at truly astonishing speeds, while radically transforming the way we live, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse. It is primarily because of science and technology that our species has lost its former humility in the presence of the many astonishing wonders of God’s Creation, which we are in the process of disfiguring and destroying, primarily to satisfy our species’ immature and often unrealistic ambitions and dreams. As a species, we are very far from having attained a state of maturity, as is amply demonstrated by our uncritical faith in the unnatural and frequently highly destructive practices that result from those twin modern human wonders, science and technology.

 

[1] Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life, and Vegetables by Joan Dye Gussow, pp. 192-193. Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont, 2010.

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