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.