1. Nutrition Is An Art Not A Science
Good nutrition, eating well, is an art not a science. Why is this ? Think plateaux, most of us have experienced these. Plateaux are useful for our discussion because they are a good example of the limits to a scientific approach.
Everyone who’s been in the fitness or weight loss game any length of time has gone through the frustration of hitting a plateau. Let’s break down what is going on in such cases, usually something like this -
we try something new, lets say it works
we keep trying it, it works for a while
we try it some more, it stops working
we try it some more still, it starts working again
we try it once more six months later, it doesn’t work
The point is – there is no predictability. We seem to be on the right track, but then we’re not, even though we haven’t changed anything. Later still, we get back on track, and then we don’t.
Predictability lies at the very foundation of the scientific method, and of technology. Certain inputs lead to certain outputs, we isolate them, we can trace the causality, most of all – we can REPEAT the result, either under experimental or real life conditions. It is this repeatability that gives science its usefulness, it gives us a measure of control, if we seek a desirable output we only have to supply the correct input.
At their heart, neither science nor technology are anything scientific or technical. This is Heidegger’s insight. What they are is a certain relationship to time and to place. They OVERCOME temporality and spatiality by discovering laws or inventing processes that are REPEATABLE, across time and across space. This is why they are best captured in language, and above all the abstract language of mathematics, because repeatability, or ‘iterability’ in Derrida’s version, is also the essence of language – the ability to transmit meaning over time and over distance through words and sentences.
It is for this reason Modern science has a tendency to be over-analytical, reductionist, and to always seek mechanical relationships – think ‘Calories In, Calories Out’ (CICO), or the ‘Germ Theory of Disease’. This is because over-simplifications like these allow causality to become traceable – this input leads to that output – in PREDICTABLE ways. This microbe will give you that disease, if you eat too much you’ll get fat. There is an element of truth to these statements, and on one level they are undeniable, they have a degree of certainty. This is what makes them attractive, we KNOW the Second Law of Thermodynamics is correct, so CICO must be too.
The problem is, CICO is wrong. Does this invalidate the most basic of all scientific laws, Isaac Newton’s great contribution to the Modern world ? No, the great alchemist can rest easy in his grave. The difficulty lies elsewhere, it arises out of the nature of COMPLEXITY.
The problem of complexity
The human body is a highly complex system. This undermines the principle of causality – the same inputs do not lead to the same outputs, consistently. Instead, the relationship between cause and effect becomes NON-LINEAR, this means minor changes in a system’s initial state can generate massive differences in outcome, in ways that are impossible to predict mathematically, no matter how much computing power is applied. It also means that much of what is going on is INVISIBLE, even when a system IS behaving in a stable manner. The stability is an illusion, the chaos is simply hidden under the surface. This is not a new idea, in the area of complex technical systems this has been recognised for decades (see Charles Perrow’s work on ‘Normal Accidents’). I have expertise in this field myself, having looked at organisational systems in military operations, drawing on the same literature. In one case study I have examined in depth, a friendly fire incident, the key actors followed the same processes and procedures they did on every other day, and yet, the end result was catastrophic, 23 died. This took place on day 1109 of the Operation, after 1108 days without any previous lapse in control.
This is why we hit plateaux, and how to understand them. There are things going on inside the body that we have no idea about, or even if we have some awareness, we are completely unable to predict their effect. This is why they can be so frustrating – we were doing everything right, it was working, and then it wasn’t.
What do we want from nutrition ?
This is one limitation of science and technology. A second lies in what it is that we are trying to achieve – science has nothing positive to say on this subject, it can only deal with the negative. The problem here lies in the assumption that control is desirable in and of itself. In reality, this only applies when it comes to bad stuff, killer diseases, debilitating illnesses, ugly deformations. The trouble is, there are limited occasions when it is black and white as to what is good and what is bad. When it comes to the classic illnesses like smallpox, or cholera, this would seem unproblematic, but even here we soon end up in difficulty. Salmonella was considered therapeutic for hundreds of years as a cleanser of toxins, the measles virus is now being used in some cancer treatments. We might succeed in overcoming a cholera outbreak, but we do so in such a way that leaves our cities even more crowded, with more people drawn into an industrial hell similar to 19th century England, leading to more epidemics with an even greater death toll.
What is it we want from nutrition ? Science can not help us answer this question, because it involves a choice on our part, as to what kind of people we want to be, what we value in life. This is why a critique of the mainstream that rests only on a scientific foundation ultimately fails – ‘so what if our current diet makes us sick, the food tastes nice, we enjoy it, and in any case there are drugs and treatments we can turn to if needed’. For those who think this way, and they are many, the present dietary recommendations are fine, there is nothing wrong with them, even for diabetics, even for the morbidly obese. They accurately reflect our Modern way of life, its values, and its priorities.
Nutrition is an art because it belongs in the space of ETHICS, our conception of the good life. It is this that determines what we want from our diet, what we are trying to achieve when we eat, what we understand by the term ‘health’. This is unique to us, it defines us, here and now, and it is also why repeatability is of no interest to us, because it is not only the ‘it’ that stops working when we hit an annoying plateau, just as often it is US that stop ‘working’ in the sense that our motivation shifts, we revise our objectives, we reset our priorities. We no longer want to repeat what we did yesterday, we no longer consider that to be a good result, we have moved on to a different idea of what it is to eat well. Tomorrow we may well do the same again.
So if nutrition is an art, then what is the role of science ? I will address this in Part 2.
For the introduction to this series see here
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