It’s not politically correct to question “science,” you either believe science or you think the world is 3,000 years old and people used to ride dinosaurs. I feel like maybe it isn’t quite that black and white, science after all is about asking questions and making observations. Sometimes, when you have observed something happen a particular way enough times you draw a conclusion. At least that is how it supposed to work, I think. I’m not a scientist.
Over the last several years it has felt more and more like rather than present information about observations, science (that big world of studies, some better than others) presents conclusions, prescriptions for how you need to act, and judgment if you have any questions. We have moved into strict camps of question everything or question nothing – neither is a good place to live. There are a lot of studies that may not be quite ready to take on changing the course of human functioning. There is a difference between confidence and hubris.
Two headlines this week caught my eye and made me slump my shoulders with dejection. Not because I didn’t like what they said but because there were absolutely true facts that if you didn’t believe ten years ago would subject you to ridicule for your ignorance, and now as it turns out maybe not so much. We didn’t know what we didn’t know at the time, now we know more and so oops, whatever. It’s okay though, you can still trust absolutely and completely whatever the new study says and you are still an ignorant git if you don’t.
Eggs it turns out might not be the great satan of food that they were proclaimed. Eat them in moderation (duh) and there is an awful lot of good stuff in there that you may benefit from eating. Also butter, maybe don’t eat the entire stick with each sitting but it is totally fine to have butter. Turns out your body is pretty good at processing simpler food compounds, it has a harder time with the manufactured chemical compounds of factory produced oils. Really? Who would have guessed? Oh and breakfast, the most important meal of the day that everyone should always eat no matter what, turns out may not be the most important meal for everyone depending on your personal nutritional needs and body process.
About three months after my daughter was born I was driving home from a meeting listening to the radio. I stopped nursing at about 8 weeks for a variety of reasons and my tiny, perfect baby was now getting formula. The report on the radio was about a longitudinal study of babies who were breastfed for at least six months versus babies given formula. The report concluded that babies on formula had lower IQs, higher rates of obesity, were less likely to attend college, and were more likely to have a variety of physical and emotional ailments throughout their lives. I pulled over to the side of the road because I could not see through my tears, I had already ruined my daughter’s life.
About five years ago I was reading an article about breastfeeding that mentioned the earlier study I had heard on that terrible day when I learned I had condemned my child to ignorance and poverty. The article was about the correlated benefits of breastfeeding but acknowledged that the earlier study had been recanted due to flawed data and conclusions. Turns out the original study did not account for family education, income, or medical history. They failed to control for all of these other factors. That did not make the radio or any newspaper headlines. Anecdotally my daughter just graduated first in her high school class, is headed to an elite college, is tall, athletic and healthy. Thank god I didn’t breastfeed for longer, she would have turned into a superhuman!
I’m not suggesting that we ignore scientific studies, certainly I am not suggesting that we ignore observed evidence of correlated behavior and results. I am suggesting there is room for humility, for logic, and for more questions. There is room for people to say, “it looks like,” or “I think.” We don’t need to be quite so demanding with our conclusions. When I was breastfeeding I was told not to drink alcohol, not to take certain medications because they would pass through me to my baby. So I didn’t, that seemed easy and obvious. When the debate about Rbst in cows first started I bought milk from cows without Rbst. The scientific conclusion was that Rbst was harmless and I was being an ignorant luddite for rejecting scientific progress. I was not supposed to take growth hormones while breastfeeding, why in the world was it okay for a cow? Maybe that does mean I’m not very bright, or I don’t understand science, it just seemed like simple logic.
Progress, learning, better information based on evidence are all good. So is humility and tempering our conclusions to leave room for what we don’t know yet. We know so much more today than we did a hundred years ago, logic would suggest that learning curve will continue, we are not as smart as we are ever going to be. Science has said that quinoa is a super food, that everyone should eat only quinoa, it will save the world and solve all of our problems. I like quinoa, also couscous, but I can’t get that in the store anymore, today there is only room for quinoa. Sigh.