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Art, Science, Philosophy, & Tradition

Is nutrition a science or an art ? What does philosophy have to do with it ? Why is tradition the key to everything ? In this short series I want to address these questions with a view to establishing some conceptual clarity. The hope is that this will assist the debate by avoiding talking at cross purposes or confusing different types of argument.

Mainstream nutrition makes the claim to be grounded in science, it is ‘evidence-based’. When we examine the quality of this science, however, it makes for a very poor impression. Epidemiology in particular is something of a laughing stock, with its constant stream of studies saying the exact opposite of one another. Not only that, but it turns out that central planks within its world view are made up by articles of faith, off limits to scientific scrutiny, such as the ‘diet-heart hypothesis’ (see here).

In spite of this, the claim to a firm grounding in the best available science is absolutely essential for the mainstream. This is because it is its ONLY foundation. Modern nutrition has its origin in a break with tradition, a belief that it can do BETTER than our ancestors by employing the power of rationality, it can improve both on the past, and even on nature itself (see here). Science can tell us what we should and shouldn’t eat, what will make us sick and what will prevent disease, it can provide us with dietary guidelines infinitely superior to any traditional ethnic cuisine, just as the processed food industry can supply us with infinitely superior sources of nutrients, and of taste.

The test of this approach to nutrition lies in the recommended diet itself. Does it work ? Does it deliver on its promise ? The experience of the last forty years would say not, we are fatter and sicker than ever before, probably in the worst shape of any generation in human history, barring those struck by plagues. Underlying this failure, however, is a deeper question – is this really the correct role of science, to tell us what to eat, is it possible to come up with ANY dietary guidelines on a scientific basis that would achieve the nutrition establishment’s objective of improving on the past and on nature ? Or is this idea based on a MISUNDERSTANDING of what science is actually for, its real function in the nutritional space ?

This is an important question, because many opponents of the nutrition mainstream still hold on to a conception of science that is essentially the same – they just believe they have a better version, which may well be true in the case of keto/LCHF advocates. But is this the point ? Do we really want our way of eating to be determined scientifically ? I say no, this is a misguided project.

As I will argue, the problem is not poor science, it is science itself, its very limitations which we ignore at our peril. The scientific method stumbles in the face of complexity, it fails when confronted with unique sets of circumstances driving unpredictable outcomes, where results are not repeated, where causality is untraceable. Under these conditions, what is required is not a rigorous scientific method, but an ART. This is something quite different.

If nutrition is an art not a science, this does not mean scientific inquiry has no part to play. What it does mean is that its purpose is NOT to develop a new and improved set of dietary recommendations. As I shall explain, its function is something else altogether.

What about philosophy ? Where does that enter the picture ? Philosophical reflection is essential because when it comes down to it, the debate over nutrition is an ETHICAL one, it is about our conception of the good life, what it is to eat well, to live well, about our VALUES. Philosophy is the seat of ethics, the place where the many options open to us are discussed, clarified, fought over, and chosen over one another. They are then tested out in practice, as living traditions, ways of eating and ways of living adopted by communities, peoples, located in a particular time and place. It is only at this stage that we are able to truly understand their implications, their reality, and form a proper judgment as to their worth.

When we look at the state of the current debate taking place, what we find is a constant interweaving of arguments and claims that move between science, art, philosophy, and tradition, without any genuine conceptual clarity as to which is which, where each belong, and in what their merit may consist of. It is to help reduce some of this confusion that I am writing these brief articles. That is my aim at least, we’ll see how it goes.

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