The Whole30: A quick note on scientific evidence vs. non-scientific arguments.

I like skepticism, as a practice and a way of thinking. I share a lot of the traits and values of people who write skeptically about popular science and popular health and nutrition messages. But I often feel like there is something missing in skeptical conversations, and I hope that, in our discussion of the Whole30, we can try not to miss it.

What’s missing is an acknowledgment that people do things that are not evidence-based, but are often for very good reasons, nevertheless. People make decisions all the time that are not based on scientific evidence or even a factual understanding of how something works, but rather, they make those decisions based on cultural values, or aesthetic preferences, or as a way of expressing and managing the anxieties of being human. Far from being a sign of weakness or irrationality, I think this can make a lot of sense.

Where the skeptical side of me kicks in is when people insist on providing a pseudoscientific rationale for something that is, at core, a non-scientific decision. For example: it is good and honest for someone to choose to exclude pork from their diet based on cultural tradition. That makes perfect sense to me. But if that person turned around and claimed there is a definitive scientific consensus that eating pork causes zinc deficiency, that wouldn’t make sense. It is factually incorrect, and now it also becomes dishonest. Reaching for these kinds of explanations can lead to wildly misconstrued ideas of what science says about an issue, and can mislead other people, sometimes dangerously.

It is okay to make symbolic decisions about the food you eat, as long as you acknowledge making them for symbolic reasons, and as long as you acknowledge that those same decisions don’t necessarily work for other people. It is okay to make aesthetic or moral decisions about the food you eat, but it is not okay to make up out of whole cloth a complicated science-flavoured rationale in order to lend credibility to your choice.

It is very tempting to reach for scientific-sounding explanations, because those explanations are privileged in our culture. They carry a kind of social capital. We all do it sometimes; I see people involved in fat acceptance and Health at Every Size do it fairly often. I try, when I can, to acknowledge that a large part of my perspective about body weight and eating is based on a moral decision I have come to: that it is not acceptable to treat people as less-than based on a physical trait, and that fat people have the moral and legal right to eat normally, without dieting, if they want. There may be some scientific evidence to support the principles of Health at Every Size, but for me, the core of this issue is, and has always been, moral. Science is simply not the appropriate language with which to express moral judgements, because moral judgements are not (may not be?) falsifiable through the scientific method.

That doesn’t mean we can never explore or be critical of those judgements, but it does mean that science-based arguments are probably the wrong tool for the job. It also means that, when you are passionate about a moral or cultural position, you need to be particularly careful about making scientific arguments to complement that position. Because of your personal commitment to the position, you are going to have a harder time being critical of the evidence that seems to support your choice, and being fair to the evidence that doesn’t. And you have to make extra, extra sure that you don’t just…make stuff up. Because then you’re lying.

If you’re making a scientific argument, you open yourself up to having it scrutinized and possibly discredited with arguments based on scientific evidence. But if you make a religious, or symbolic, or aesthetic personal choice, it probably doesn’t make sense to discredit it with scientific reasoning. (“Brad chooses not to eat pork because it is traditional in his culture not to eat pork, and he finds the idea of eating pork disgusting. However, he is WRONG because nutrient analysis shows that pork is a good source of zinc!”)

For what are essentially cultural, religious, or moral arguments, it probably makes more sense to examine them with cultural analysis, a reading of scripture, or moral reasoning and ethical principles. In doing so, however, we are less likely to come to a definitive call of correctness or incorrectness, since all of these things are very subjective and open to multiple valid interpretations — and since, at the end of the day, people have the right to make whatever decisions they want to about their own eating, regardless of how unreasonable we think they are.

What none of us have the right to do, though, is misuse science — whether to defend or to discredit a fundamentally non-scientific argument. It can be very difficult to avoid doing that, but let’s try.


Or maybe I don’t even know what I’m talking about, in comments.






39 responses to “The Whole30: A quick note on scientific evidence vs. non-scientific arguments.”

  1. Lea Avatar

    “It is okay to make aesthetic or moral decisions about the food you eat, but it is not okay to make up out of whole cloth a complicated science-flavoured rationale in order to lend credibility to your choice.”

    That is a great line. I’m an ethical vegan and have been for almost a decade now. I’m also fat and have chronic illnesses. Veganism for me is not so much about food but about animal rights, on par with human rights and enviorment and other things in importance. The trend the last years that vegan suddenly means “eating right” (and often not even fully vegan because people tend to flip flop between plant based diets, paleo, low carb, low fat on their quest to “Perfect” health) is so depressing to me. I think it’s not helping any animals and even sadder, I think it’s a huge disservice to people to tell them things are factious when they are not. It doesnt mean these things are not maybe true, but to claim them beforehand and not just as anecdotal evidence in a “hey, this worked for me really well, maybe it also works for you?” way but more like “if this doesnt work for you you’re surely doing something wrong/are detoxing/its your fault”.

    Of course, you are also right, that must people do not make those actions on rationale.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Veganism is a great example of this, thank you.

  2. Lea Avatar

    Oh, but I do have some criticism to add. Moral choices are not really, at least not necessarily, unscientific. At least I hope so or me doing a MA in moral philosophy would be pointless. I think morality is something that can be argued and shown to be wrong or right, I just don’t think it’s easy and most people probably never reexamine their moral compass/feelings in which case they would be unscientific I case.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I’m sure you know more about this than I do. Would you be able to provide an example that could help me understand it?

      1. Lea Avatar

        Sorry for the late reply.

        There are, of course, different theories about what morality is, how it’s constituted and whether it only reflects individual feelings about how the world is or if morality is actually something more tangible where we can, in theory, once we all look at the “facts” (whatever these may be) agree that X is good and Y is bad. That doesn’t mean that every individual agrees X is good and Y is bad, and it definitely does not mean that everyone only does X but that anyone who’d have all the right information about the world would see that it was true. I am actually not sure myself what moralism is. I think it’s mainly a construct to describe what is right and wrong within communities of human beings (and animals and other objects which are not active parts but only subjects of morality, since they have no moral agency of their own – we would not hold a baby or a dog responsible for their actions). A religious person might believe that one needs to be moral for God but in modern ethic philosophy that’s not a big “thing” to think that people need morality for god and not for themselves. Sorry, I feel I’m rambling a bit now, it’s a bit of a complicated topic to introduce briefly.

        There are people who say they are complete moral relativists who believe that different cultures hold different moral ideas, but even these people often think that there are some sort of universal rights and wrongs. That moral reasoning can be wrong or right. That the gut reaction we have if someone is saying “I can hurt someone because it feels nice for me” is not just an emotion but that us thinking “no, you can’t, that’s wrong” is not just us going “it’s wrong for me personally” but “its wrong. full stop”. If morality is not actually connected with truth but just whatever anyone is feeling about anything and totally subjective, then it’d be a pretty useless thing.

        I think there is this perception that moral philosophy is mostly just descriptive when it’s really trying to be a theory of “What should individual/country/community X do in situation Y considering the following circumstances…” and the way it’s done is a very scientific one. We study mathematical logic and try to apply it to our reasoning (as in first-order logic, modal logic and predicate logic for all the mathheads out there). You start with a premise like “It is wrong to hurt someone unnecessarily” and then you look at a situation Y and figure out if that is the case, then this situation is wrong. This is pretty much the first step in figuring out if an argument is sound (sadly, it’s not the last or it would be very easy. So this would look like the following:

        1. It is wrong to hurt someone unnecessarily.
        2. John is hurting Luke unnecessarily.
        -> It is wrong of John to hurt Luke unnecessarily.

        That’s clearly a very basic example and of course we could argue if the premise is right at all. I think a lot of what philosophy is is less figuring out the premises and more about seeing what follows from them. I think a lot of people have moral intuitions that are vague and confusing and actually conflicting, but that doesn’t mean that morality itself is unscientific.

        I’m sorry if that didn’t help clear up my comment at all. Maybe I misunderstood your comment about morality being unscientific.

  3. Dana Avatar

    Although I agree that non scientific evidence should not be the basis for arguing why or why not a person should eat a certain way…I also don’t really feel that scientific evidence is always valuable either. What I do believe is that whether you are following Whole 30, Weight Watchers, Atkins, Paleo or anything else….that you should do what feels good for you. I follow a Paleo diet. I only follow this after years of what I’d call “diet experimentation.” For me personally, it has curbed my Binge Eating completely. I have a ton more energy and am not thinking about food all the time. Other people have not had these same experiences. I don’t try to tell the with any evidence that it is the way to be…I do say that it feels right for me. And that I have lost 10 pounds as a bonus. I think we could look at any diet and find positives, negatives and some scientific support.

  4. Bonnie Avatar

    An additional point is that if you look at various places who do know the science, you often find them arguing scientific studies. People can read studies and the conclusions however they like, depending upon their bias. This is largely because there is no perfect study. We can’t completely isolate a hypothesis and test in a vacuum and even if we could, in real life, it isn’t in a vacuum, but has other variables working on it. One such instance might be how stressed the subject is. We do know some things about stress but how does this work within the challenge of determining whether certain foods are “good for us”.

    I think one of the big things for me that HAES does and I’m not sure if this moral or scientific, is that they are presenting information that challenges the “everyone knows” assumptions. And I think we need those challenges.

    1. jsj Avatar

      Statistics does have some very potent tools to deal with possible confounding variables. I cannot vouch that everyone can use them, but they exist.

  5. Sara Avatar

    Nice post. I think it’s comforting for people to think that they are eating the best possible human diet. Of course there is no one best human diet, but I see a lot of this type of justification with people who follow strict diets that restrict certain food groups. Example- people eating a paleo diet since this is what humans are ‘meant’ to eat. I do think it creates distorted thinking patterns around food and can lead to judgment about what other people choose to eat.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I agree, I think people reach for this sort of explanation because it provides comfort about a topic that is actually far from definitive, and has far more than one “right” answer, which is nutrition.

  6. Julie Avatar

    Another angle on this I think is important is the distinction between statistics and the individual.

    Scientific studies can tell us something important about how bodies and food often work. Only I can say whether something makes a difference in my experience of the world.

    I do a lot of things I don’t have proper scientific justification for (acupuncture, GF, etc.) because I tried them and they made a difference in my health. I don’t have to know HOW they work to know THAT they work for me, in this moment.

    I bring this up because I’ve had people committed to science try to argue away my experience with scientific studies, implying that I’m making things up because Science.

    1. Ani Avatar

      “I do a lot of things I don’t have proper scientific justification for (acupuncture, GF, etc.) because I tried them and they made a difference in my health. I don’t have to know HOW they work to know THAT they work for me, in this moment.”

      Yesssssss. My very general response is usually “Science doesn’t have an explanation for everything yet.” But sometimes I’ll go for “Science doesn’t know me!”

      My ayurvedic practitioner is killing it with getting my energy levels back up to par. I don’t know how. I don’t even care. I just wanna Do All the Things again.

    2. closetpuritan Avatar

      Related, I think sometimes we’re too down on the placebo effect. If you think that a particular treatment only works via placebo effect, but someone’s using it to treat something like back pain, that is mostly about how they subjectively feel (rather than, say, cancer)–hey, the placebo effect can be pretty powerful. I’m not saying we should not talk about whether some is just a placebo, but it’s not really helpful (and probably not effective) to try to talk someone who a treatment is helping out of continuing the treatment.

      1. Michelle Avatar

        I have mixed feelings about this. I think for an individual, whatever helps them function better or whathaveyou is fine. It’s when people get into PROMOTING treatments that are essentially just placebo that it gets shady. But that doesn’t mean people can’t be allowed to find something helpful even if there’s not a known mechanism of action, or no mechanism at all. It’s your body man.

        I’d only ask that people attempt to be honest with themselves and others about what they’re doing, and why.

  7. Fiona Avatar

    Thank you! You’ve clarified for me something I lose sight of sometimes when I wade into the highly emotive diet debate. Fighting pseudo-science with science works better when people aren’t also highly emotionally and morally caught up, too often psuedo science seems to come about as a way to justify a moral argument, and people with this stance are unlikely to probably appreciate any scientific fact presented no matter how simply and clearly it disproves their arguments. In these cases simply restating that they have no place morally judging others life choices is probably the most sanity-preserving way to proceed.
    Reading this post kept making me think of Food Babe. A million facepalms.

  8. Vicki Avatar

    Thinking about what Dana posted: I can accept that the paleo diet curbs Dana’s binge eating, without having an idea of how it has done so, or whether it would also have that effect on other binge eaters. Because the flip side of “it’s hard to do a scientific study, but this works for me” is that people are different enough that you don’t necessarily know why it works for you, which makes it hard to predict whether it will work for the next person. Maybe it’s the combination of foods in the diet, or that it happens to exclude two things that were triggering binge eating, or there’s something psychological going on there.

    It’s even possible that some other change or even curbed the binge eating, and happened to be at the same time that Dana started eating paleo. (This is where you’d need to do complicated studies, if you cared about being sure “this solved my problem” rather than “I did this, and now I no longer have that problem, but maybe there’s some other cause.”)

    1. Beth Avatar

      You have reminded me of this comic:

      I had a friend who told me that her boyfriend had lost a lot of weight, and that it was because that person switched from Coke to Simply Lemonade–which have similar calories, but the Simply Lemonade has cane sugar instead of HCFS. She saw this as proof that high fructose corn syrup was what was making him fat, and that it was evil. I suggested that maybe it was the lemon juice ADDITION that made the difference. (This was an email exchange, and she never replied to that one).

      I heard about another anecdotal study (maybe on 20/20) that a friend of mine watched; apparently, he eliminated cheese, but had fewer digestive problems pre-cheese-elimination vs. after cheese elimination. (Sorry, don’t know more details). So my friend tried to say that this was rationale for dairy being good for you. But most people don’t eliminate food entirely when they eliminate one thing; they substitute something else (maybe now you have peanut butter, for example). So now, you have something else ADDED to the mix that may cause digestive problems. For some people, they switch from dairy yogurt to non-dairy yogurt, not realizing that some of those brands have inulin as a sweetener/fiber additive, which can wreak havoc on some people’s stomachs. It doesn’t necessarily mean that dairy agrees with them more.

      Maybe both of these people are right, they could be, but there’s no way to know.

      Honestly, I feel like part of my issue is that I have gotten to be VERY skeptical also think very critically about these issues, and now I just drive myself crazy by going in mental circles and falling down PubMed research rabbit holes!

      1. Mich Avatar

        That is true about the alternative being made of different ingredients. I think people search for an equivalent because it’s expected of them to continue to eat X. Such as bread: it’s so ingrained in our culture, that they have to make alternatives so that people can still live the same way, without considering that you can just go bread-free.

        I also discovered when I was trying to eat some of that soygurt substitute, and it’s soooo gross. For decades I didn’t eat yoghurt because I hated it, but I have found a few brands that are ok (one of which was discontinued).

  9. Amy Avatar

    I’ve got nothing to contribute except to say that you’re one of my favorite stops on the internet and I’m so glad to see new posts so frequently. Hooray!

  10. standgale Avatar

    I think that people naturally like to have a symbolic reason, or a “story” or whatever behind their behaviour, and I think it makes it easier for people to modify their behaviour – whether it is in terms of diet, or morality (e.g. via religion) – if they have one of these kind of “reasons”. It provides a context and a framework for their choices and their feelings and thus their actions and thoughts and so on. And so if you had an unconnected set of food choices that matched the Paleo diet but was just presented as a list, it would not be something most people would remember and would integrate into their lives. But having a narrative about cavemen and so on makes it understandable and… I think your brain just LIKES to have a narrative. But this doesn’t make the narrative true.

    It reminds me of something else I read yesterday which said that people recover better from traumatic experiences (suffer less depression and anxiety) if they can attribute a purpose to the experience. I immediately thought of religion, where people say something was the will of god, or the universe has a reason for whatever. It doesn’t matter whether these beliefs are true, they still can help people.

    Very few people recognise the value of an untrue story, or the value in acting as if an untrue thing is true. And so, if someone comes up with a narrative that is useful in some way, they need to present it as THE TRUTH for other people to accept it. And then that causes more problems because if your thing is THE TRUTH and my thing is THE TRUTH then we can’t ever talk about the relative virtues of our two things, and we can’t accept that reality might be different for someone else. (Obviously this can strongly apply to a discussion about religion, but I think we should concentrate on the fanaticism of diet proponents to keep ourselves out of trouble!)

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I like this and I agree, as I have suspected for a while now that the human brain operates primarily in story mode.

      We make meaning out of things, we make sense of things, and we sort of find justice in an essentially unjust and frankly kind of random and often horrible existence. I think we do this with food, too, and it’s not inherently a bad thing, but it can lead to some complications and down some very weird paths.

  11. Fiona Avatar

    Thanks for this, Michelle. You’ve articulated something important in the jumble of contradictory mishmash of not only diet and nutrition advice/theory but also health/wellbeing as a whole – that doing [whatever] on the basis of choice rather than science is, for most of us, purely a personal value judgement: when I do/eat this, I feel better/lighter/more energetic. When we’ve had that experience, reaching for accepted scientific support for those choices is also human nature. We all want to be RIGHT, right?

    Probably, the key thing is to learn to accept our own choices as right for us at the time and let go of any need to justify them.

    1. Beth Avatar

      Why did I read the comments?! One of the first ones compared this author to climate denialists. And then said “The proof I need is in my family and how much healthier we are without gluten.” Kind of missing the point.. sigh.

    2. Michelle Avatar

      Yes, I have really been enjoying his articles lately and we share some similar viewpoints.

  12. jsj Avatar

    As important as it is for us individuals to hear this, it’s really important to understand how science can be misrepresented by powerful entities with vested/concealed interests. That’s dollars talking, not people.

  13. Rabbi Ruth Adar Avatar

    There’s so much here that I really, really like. GREAT post.

    “it is good and honest for someone to choose to exclude pork from their diet based on cultural tradition. That makes perfect sense to me. But if that person turned around and claimed there is a definitive scientific consensus that eating pork causes zinc deficiency, that wouldn’t make sense. It is factually incorrect, and now it also becomes dishonest.”

    One of the things I do as a rabbi is teach about kashrut (Jewish dietary law.) People’s thinking around it never ceases to fascinate me. The “reason” for kashrut is simple: it’s part of Jewish law and tradition, courtesy of some verses in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. There is no logic for it given there, in the source.

    However, I get many students who are desperately insistent that kashrut is the best way to eat because blah – blah – science – blah – blah. OR they are insistent that kashrut is outmoded and they don’t keep it because blah – blah – science – blah – blah. But they feel the need, either way, to drag pseudoscience into the equation.

    You wrote: “It is very tempting to reach for scientific-sounding explanations, because those explanations are privileged in our culture. They carry a kind of social capital.”

    I agree wholeheartedly that to cobble up pseudoscience to explain something is dishonest and wrong. Thanks for the insight that will help me help my students. Also, thank you for your lovely sane blog posts that help me think clearly about my own food practice.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Thank you so much for this, Ruth!

    2. Mich Avatar

      I’ve found some similar ps.-science around kosher. On the Eat Right 4 Your Type blog, they sometimes discuss the no meat and milk together as superior science discovered 3000 yrs ago, because calcium reduces the absorption of iron and other vitamins in meat, so they say that it’s the best way to eat since you don’t mix the 2 together.

      That is not what it originally meant!

      Then you have the other side of the coin where Christians (and others) who don’t understand what the rationale for kosher is (eg. the origins or why it continues) so they trash it and say that it’s stupid. This is something common that I have been finding in certain circles, and reaches all the way back to the Romans, and continues to inform antisemitism today: that kosher is stupid and sabbath is lazy, therefore Jews are stupid and lazy.

      This represents the “right” and “wrong” way to eat, and that is used as a stick to judge others. Eugenics is a logical conclusion to this if you take it further.

  14. Tiana FatHealthCoach Avatar

    I love that you used the term “science-flavored”. It accurately describes what many health-minded folks use to justify themselves with nutrition or exercise or living. As a health coach, I try to keep from judging my clients, or anyone, for what they choose to eat or how they choose to live. I think it’s more effective to be moderate and fair and respect the choices of others in relation to their own bodies. There’s already too much shaming going on in the world. To each his own. Thanks for this level-headed post.

  15. Gretchen Avatar

    I see this play out a lot in discussions about GMOs. People on one side are arguing that GMOs are scientifically identical to non-GMOs. Meanwhile, the folks they’re arguing against often have moral objections – “meddling with” nature, the effect of global seed companies on local economies, the devaluing of agriculture as art, etc. These arguments get nasty because people are talking at cross purposes and each thinks the other is willfully ignoring the point.

  16. Shannon Cate Avatar
    Shannon Cate

    This is what bugs me about blanket accusations that my choices about GMO food are “anti-science.” I choose to eat food that is non-Big-Agribusiness GMO. I understand that genetic modification has always happened in agriculture and I believe the science that says there is no nutritional difference or danger in eating GMOs. But I also want to support the kind of farming that happens not to use Monsanto seed. And I oppose *that* kind of GMO because of economic and social justice reasons. But all I ever see is how people who want GMOs labeled or don’t want to buy them are benighted fools who don’t understand science. Science (at least that particular part of agricultural science) is not the basis of my choice. Values are the basis. Or even support of a different kind of more ecologically sound science, for that matter. It’s apples and oranges. (It also bugs me when biblical literalists try to make “scientific” claims for a seven-day creation of the universe. Believe that if you like, but that is not science, it is faith.)

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Yes, I hear you. I think what often happens is a thing called “meaning transfer,” which I see a lot, for example, with foods like McDonald’s. Basically, there is nothing inherently chemically wrong with McDonald’s food, unless you object to some fairly specific processing practices. But it’s not true, for example, that McDonald’s foods won’t ever rot, or that they are basically plastic, or that there are non-meat fillers in the meat, etc., which are all claims that people commonly make about it. What I think is actually happening is this: many people (validly) despise McDonald’s for their business practices, and feel that the impact of fast food and mass-produced industrialized food on our food culture and environment is a negative one. But instead of expressing those objections in those terms, what actually comes out of their mouths is: “McDonald’s makes their burgers out of kangaroo meat” or even “Only gross fat people eat at McDonald’s” or whatever the mythology du jour is. They transfer their disgust at McDonald’s as a business onto the chemical makeup of the food itself. And then, in reaction, skeptical types focus ONLY on rebutting the concerns that can be refuted with scientific information, and completely leave out of the discussion the very real concerns about the labour practices, the industrial practices, the impact on the culture and environment. And I think this has happened with GMOs – people making unsupported scientific scare-claims about GMOs are the low-hanging fruit that skeptics go after, and in turn they fail to address the actually important objections people might have, on a values level, on an economic level, on a political level, about the way GMOs are deployed in the world.

      1. closetpuritan Avatar

        This comment went on FaceBook for my sister who–I’m not sure if she’s blanket anti-GMO, but is troubled by roundup-ready plants, largely buys organic and local for environmental reasons, and says that she is boycotting corn (I’m assuming only commodity corn and not sweet corn).

        1. Michelle Avatar

          Just a note: I think I originally heard about “meaning transfer” as a marketing term from Julia Belluz, who writes a lot about popular science stuff. In that context, it was used as a marketing term for when a food becomes associated with a person who has desirable traits (like a celebrity who promotes it) and then other people buy the food in hope of acquiring those same traits. I’m sort of using it backward here – that negative traits (of an unethical company, or a type of person, like fat people or low-class people or whatever) become associated with a certain food, and then people avoid the food in order to avoid acquiring the negative traits. When I see people doing this, though, they usually pair their avoidance with a biochemical justification.

          Anyway, there’s an interesting article here that talks about it –

  17. Jane Sanchez Avatar
    Jane Sanchez

    The caloric model fo obesity is incorrect. It has NO predictive power. It does not meet the standard that Stephen Hawking requires for a good theory. It also explains NOTHING.


    1. Michelle Avatar

      I’m not entirely clear on what you’re saying, but I agree that saying that people are fat because they were in positive energy balance at some point is about as helpful as saying people die because their hearts stop beating. Of course energy balance is a thing, and of course it, at the most reductive level, determines the mass of the human body. What that doesn’t explain, however, are the very complex feedback mechanisms and environmental factors that go into influencing and manipulating energy balance itself, like variations in gut absorption of calories and nutrients, the possibility of a set-point mechanism (or an adipostat or an energostat), and the possible role of the hypothalamus in determining that, the role of a huge number of gut hormones and neurotransmitters, the signalling functions of fat cells themselves, adaptive thermogenesis, the role of the liver in energy production, fuel partitioning, and the likely possibility that many genes work simultaneously to determine or strongly influence all of these things within a specific environment.

  18. […] of interest, The Fat Nutritionist’s thoughts on The Whole 30, referenced in Michelle’s […]