When Certainty Trumps Curiosity. And Science Fails.
"The brain runs on glucose, so it must be fine to eat sugar."
"Stomach acid causes heartburn, so it must be fine to take acid-suppressing medication."
"The toxicity of individual pesticides is low, so it must be fine to mix them all together."
These are examples of flawed "scientific" reasoning. They are flawed because they contain more certainty than curiosity. They are science without a philosophy of science. Which makes them popular but wrong.
Today we look at a few examples of what happens when we have more certainty than curiosity. We examine the tangled web we weave when we use science to justify the answers we want to hear, rather than the questions we need to ask.
Does Excess Sugar Damage the Brain?
"The brain runs on glucose, so it must be fine to eat sugar."
This is my favorite slapstick response from people who want to try to convince me that they have a "scientific" reason for eating cupcakes and sticky buns.
Of course, there are so many reasons why this reasoning fails, but I'll give you just one reference by Dr. David Perlmutter to get you thinking about the pros and cons of having sugar-frosted flakes in your bloodstream, or in your brain:
One of the most powerful leverage points in your physiology that can help reduce free radical production is to keep blood sugar levels low. Elevated blood sugar binds to protein in a process called glycation, and glycated proteins are associated with increased production of free radicals by as much as 50-fold! This is the reason that elevated average blood sugar, as measured by the A1c blood test (a marker of protein glycation), directly correlates to brain destruction.
Do Proton Pump Inhibitors Cause Heart Attacks?
When we take shortcuts with nature, she often makes us take the long way home.
For example, when we use "science" to suppress symptoms rather than using it to understand systems, we fail to look upstream for root causes or downstream for unintended consequences. That's like forgetting to look both ways before you cross the street. Such is the case with a certain class of stomach acid suppressors known as "Proton Pump Inhibitors" (PPIs).
There are a number of problems with long-term suppression of stomach acid, ranging from poor digestion of protein to poor nutrient absorption to dysbiosis (the overgrowth of bad bugs in your gut).
But today, I direct your attention to the specific problem of using PPIs, like Prevacid or Prilosec, merely to treat the inconvenience of heartburn, when heart attacks may be the real inconvenience.
It turns out that PPIs may unexpectedly cause heart attacks by increasing levels of a molecule called ADMA (Asymmetric Dimethylarginine). ADMA is a major risk factor for heart attacks. PPIs inhibit the enzyme that breaks down ADMA. When ADMA builds up, it inhibits the production of Nitric Oxide. Nitric Oxide is critical for keeping blood vessels open, so they can deliver a constant flow of blood to the heart. (That's why you've heard of people "taking a Nitro" to alleviate chest pain.)
Once you understand the basic physiology, it comes as no surprise to find a significant association between long-term use of PPIs and heart attacks. The massive enthusiasm for PPIs over the years is a classic example of how we don't know what we are doing until we know what we are undoing.
Now, of course, this study is a correlation study, so it cannot prove causation. But it should leave us wondering. Maybe instead of covering up heartburn with acid blockers, we could interest our patients in looking upstream and taking better care of their digestion—with better food, better chewing, and better stress management. Would that be too easy? Or too hard?
Thomas Edison says it best:
The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will interest her or his patients in the care of the human frame, in a proper diet, and in the cause and prevention of disease."
Medication has its place, of course, but it's seldom first place. So there is no need for science to be short-sighted or in a rush--unless science has become the handmaiden of the chemical cartels and big pharma.
If 2 Chemicals are "Safe" by Themselves, Then They Must Be Safe Together. Right?
One of my core beliefs, which often sets me apart from other food and fitness bloggers, is the idea that my health is bigger than me, that I can't be radically healthier than my environment. What goes around comes around. I live downstream, so I have to look upstream for causes and their effects. This means that ecology is never just ecology: it is always medical ecology. We have an interest in being interested in our environment.
In the following Civil Eats article, you’ll learn:
- How scientists, farmers, and regulators usually consider the health effects of pesticides one at a time. But that’s not how they’re used.
- How exposure to multiple fumigants commonly used together in California may increase cancer risk.
- How a UCLA report found that when it comes to how these chemicals act together, they can deplete the body’s resources for coping with toxicity. Specifically, they can impair the body’s ability to repair DNA damage, something that can increase the cumulative risk for a disease like cancer, says the report. As Kegley puts it, the big question is: “What’s the breaking point where the body can’t protect itself anymore from toxic chemicals?”
What Is Science, Anyway?
The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious — the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.
Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers of the preceding generation.
The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions.
We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. That’s a clear prescription for disaster...”
Read Maria Popova's wonderful article at BrainPickings.org What is Science? From Feynman to Sagan to Asimov to Curie, an Omnibus of Definitions.
Whatever science is, it is clearly NOT a project of certainty over curiosity. Because that leads to a world where Big Food, Big Pharma, and chemical cartels make loads of money off complacency and convenience.
You deserve better than that. Because science is better than that.