05 December 2009

The problem with science.

Well, OK, it's not really a problem with *science*, so much as it is a problem with people.

A few days ago, I was going through all of my cookbooks, looking for interesting new things to do with vegetables; if we're to try going entirely grain and legume free for a while as Rod wants to do, we are going to have to be a lot more creative with vegetables or I am going to go out of my mind with boredom. Our family has traditionally focused our culinary efforts on our grains and served a few very favorite preparations of meats and vegetables along side.

As I was reading my 1896 Boston Cooking School Fanny Farmer cookbook, I came across this statement:

"Vegetables include, commonly though not botanically speaking, all plants used for food except grains and fruits. With the exception of beans, peas, and lentils, whichj contain a large amount of (protein), they are chiefly valuable for their potash salts and should form a part of each day's dietary."

To put that into perspective, 50 pages are dedicated to vegetables, potatoes, and salads (not all of which contain vegetables). On the other hand, 129 pages are dedicated to desserts of various kinds, and 100 pages are deciated to the preparation of meats, suggesting that Miss Farmer considered plant foods of lesser importance than just about any other element of diet.

This was, of course, the scientific and hygenic view of the day. By that time, sience had established the need for the three major elements of a healthy diet: carbohydrate, proteins, and fats. Since vegetables weren't strong providers of any of those things, and with vitamins and minerals measurable by the science of the day only as "potash salts", it was evident to the educated man and woman that while they are a delicious addition to the dinner table, and some amount were necessary to optimal health, they were not very important.

We do that, people do.

We forget that science, as valuable as it is, is limited by what it can measure. Even the things that are now undeniably there -- things like vitamins, amino acid, and other phytonutrients -- have not always been measurable by the best of science. That, of course, doesn't mean they weren't there before, or that they were less important to health than they are now that we know they're there. And we forget to concern ourselves with what might be there that we don't suspect and don't yet know how to measure.

This isn't limited to dietary science, of course. Heliocentrists and flat-earthers at one time based their beliefs on the best science of their times, too. In their day, antibiotics and scrupulous hygiene were going to conquer illness forever! Then we discovered super-bugs and the ill effects of too little stimulation of the immune system. It's just that dietary science effects all of us so intimately and by extension, it deeply influences our cultures, as food always has.

Science is very important and I am grateful for all the ways that science has made our lives better! I follow new developments with great interest! I do think, though, that it's wise, when considering scientific discoveries, to consider what they really mean. I don't think that we can safely rely on media interpretations for that -- scientists understand the limitations of science and are far less likely to fall afoul of the "now we know the real truth" fallacy than are journalists hunting for a compelling headline. It from this fallacy that we get the stomach-wrenching swings from "miracle food" to "fatal" we have seem so much of in the last 50 years. Then again, often the language of science is so precise as to be unintelligible to the average reader.

So what do we do, if we want to stay informed? Well, I guess the best we can do is look at developments with a wait and see attitude and a whole lot of common sense. Read the reports with an understanding that there is a core of truth there, but it's very possible that the journalist has misinterpreted what it means. Understand that each new development is just that, a deepened understanding of how our world works and not a final answer wrapped in a bright red bow.

My own solution is to examine new nutritional understanding in light of millions of years of evolution.

Some of my personal conclusions:

* We didn't evolve to thrive on processed foods, we evolved to thrive on the very same foods that spoil -- they spoil because they're chock full of nutrients and we're not the only ones who thrive on them. If the food is "shelf-stable", we have to ask ourselves why. Is it because there's no food value left to attract our competitors? Or is it because ut has chemicals in it to "retard spoilage"? We didn't evolve to eat poisons, either...

* We didn't evolve to thrive on large amounts of grain -- we didn't get the hang of those until a little over 5 thousand years ago. That doesn't mean that they're bad for us per se...but perhaps overreliance on them is one reason for the huge explosion of ill health we've seen of late. Maybe. When we saw the HUGE difference going wheat free made in Rod's health, we started to consider how other grains fit into our basic view of health and nutrition. Rod started considering whether we might feel even better if we eliminated grains for a while, and allowed our bodies to really heal, then add them back in better balance to how we evolved to be nourished. Not being a huge fan of deprivation, I have been working on expanding our grain-free alternatives and we plan to move in the grain free direction slowly as we find ways to replace those foods.

So the problem with science...it's not a problem with science at all. Just a problem with how we interpret what we're learning.
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