2. Nutrition - Where Does Science Fit In ?
If science isn’t there to tell us what to eat, then what is its function in nutrition ? It is to demolish the mainstream position. Why ? Because the nutrition establishment rests on its claim to a scientific foundation, to being ‘evidence-based’, but on closer examination the quality of this science turns out to be terrible. It is this contradiction that will be its downfall.
Our current diet is grounded in the promise of Modernity. This is the belief that we can improve on tradition, and even on nature, through the application of Reason and technology. Crisco remains the icon of this project, and a testimony to its reality (see here). All processed foods are the children of Crisco, as are the official dietary guidelines, even those that recommend avoiding trans-fats, they are all products of the same premise – ‘we know better’. How do we know better ? ‘Science’.
Today, there is some good science being done. The infamous ‘diet-heart hypothesis’ is under siege (see here), low carb is making headway in the treatment of diabetes, butter, eggs are being rehabilitated. Our understanding of why vegetable seed oils are so harmful is improving, of the critical role played by chronic inflammation, of the mechanisms underlying many diseases. Every one of these advances is a nail in the coffin of the nutrition establishment, it is why these efforts are so worthwhile.
In the larger scheme of things, however, scientific progress plays only a minor role. Of the four areas I am discussing in this series, science is the least important. Art, philosophy, and tradition tower over it in significance.
Modern science is the creation of a nihilistic age. As such, its essential purpose is a negative one – it is to free us from the constraints of nature. Our physical form, our bodies, our place on this earth, these are all seen as obstacles to be overcome along a path of emancipation. This is why the final goal is a transhumanist one, the final act of liberation, immortality, immateriality. It is why space travel is the ultimate fantasy.
It is for this reason that Modern medicine has only a negative definition of health, as the absence of disease (see here). It is why all the nutritional recommendations exclusively address sources of harm – deficiencies, imbalances, excesses, boredom – while having nothing to say about what it actually means to ‘eat well’. This applies even if we rephrase the same elements as ‘adequacy’, ‘balance’, ‘moderation’, ‘variety’, they still lack any positive content, and their entire motivation is to avoid undesirable outcomes. The RDIs for vitamins are a good example, all of them are calculated on the requirements for avoiding known conditions such as beri-beri, how much we should actually be eating for health no one has any idea (see here).
Guidelines of this nature have their uses. However, it is important to place these in their proper context. When we look at the progress Modern science has been able to make over the past two hundred years, in the great majority of cases it has been to solve problems of its own making. Tuberculosis is one example, as Weston A Price discovered (see here). This becomes clearer when we consider how science is able in practice to overcome the limitations of complexity discussed previously (see Part One). It does so by creating conditions that are so off track from a normal, healthy condition that a straight forward mechanical solution will do. The germ theory of disease is one such case – its success lay in the fact that it was developed under conditions of battlefield surgery, where infection followed horrendous trauma, either from wounds or from surgical intervention. Chemical disinfection of exposed tissue is effective in these circumstances, and the theory provides an adequate explanation of why it does so. The same goes for treating scurvy with citrus fruit, after months of malnourishment on long sea voyages a simple cause and effect could be traced without difficulty. Likewise the discovery of vector borne illnesses that followed the tens of thousands of deaths from malaria during the construction of the Panama Canal through mosquito infested jungle.
All of these examples have something in common – they arose out of a drive to smash through barriers, to overcome limitations. The problem is not that they often fail, it is the opposite – that they often succeed, and Modernity’s push to override natural constraints proceeds even further. Never it is considered that disease or illness actually serve a purpose, to provide us an indication of where we should and shouldn’t go, of where we actually belong and how we should be living. Perhaps we were not meant to be out at sea for long periods, or on a gravity free space station, where our physical condition deteriorates rapidly. Perhaps we were not meant to live in dirty, overcrowded cities, where cholera or ebola could knock us down in vast numbers. Perhaps as Europeans we were not designed to eat exotic plants like cane sugar, imported from the other side of the world after being harvested by African slaves. Perhaps constructing an artificial waterway between two oceans is not such a good idea, that distance is something to be respected, because it also provides space for what does belong somewhere to be left alone, to be itself.
Modern science has mitigated some of the impacts resulting from its own impulse. The solution, however, is worse than the problem, with every advance it leads us further astray. Imagine what a colony on Mars would look like – would it not be something like a cross between a shopping mall and a luxury resort, with perhaps a mine site next door ? Sterile, comfortable, no bad weather, no nasty microbes – is this not the same project being put forward for our world here ? Is it not the reality taking shape all around us ? Would our Mars base not have a supermarket with 30,000 items manufactured all over the globe to be safe, tasty, and ‘healthy’ (low fat of course) ? And next door a medical centre to make sure diabetics get their meds ?
'negation of the negation'
Science does have a role to play in nutrition, but it is a negative one. To borrow Hegel’s phrase, its function is as the ‘negation of the negation’, it is to dynamite the scientific foundations of the current nutrition establishment by exposing the appallingly poor quality of their science, using better science as our weapon. The end result, however, is not to replace one set of ‘evidence-based’ dietary guidelines with another, more genuinely scientific, set of recommendations. Instead it is to reveal the whole thing for the sham that it is. For in reality, science does not drive our current way of eating, the promise of Modernity was abandoned long ago. The diet-heart hypothesis did not triumph over its rivals because it represented the best scientific opinion of its day, it did so because of the single handed thirst for power and prestige on the part of one man, Ancel Keys, who had the talent to pull his ambitions off. Today, the mainstream position is upheld because it suits the predominant economic, political, institutional, and ideological interests of our time, this is the source of its power, not ‘the evidence’. For us, opponents of this way of eating, we need to take note, for if we are to succeed then ultimately we need an alternative vision that reaches into all of these dimensions.
Science has no real part to play in that process, in developing a real alternative. For that we must turn first to philosophy, and then give whatever emerges material shape in the form of tradition. Let’s shift our focus then to philosophy, and explore its place in the nutrition debate.
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