My beloved science and me

I am no expert on anything, except perhaps on being me, of which I have an entire lifetime of experience. I don’t know much about biochemistry, about anthropology, anatomy or physiology in general. I got through my entire low quality typically Norwegian education in sport sciences almost completely without taking notes (it’s difficult to listen to a lecturer, think, and take notes at the same time) and without top scores. I have a terrible memory and often read my own blog to learn new things. In fact one of the reasons I started writing things down here was simply to have a place to put down my thoughts so that I could find them again. I am no expert and no one reading this blog should make the mistake of considering anything here expert advice.

But I like science. The reason is that I’d just like to know the truth. I am not interested in believing and the only way to find truth, as far as I know, is to use science. We all start out as scientists and we all know how to use science when we are born. From day one we are doing our very own n=1 study. What happens when I eat this? What sort of reaction do I get when I pull this down? The results are recorded in neurons and we test and test and test.

After a while though the brain starts living a life of its own, and we believe things not tested, we suppose and assume and depend on rational guidance to not lose touch with reality.

The urge to believe is strong. Superstition, which is one of those evolutionary obstacles on the course to rationality, is a good example of this. You wore your blue shirt to that meeting that went just perfect, and when it is time for a new meeting there is an urge to yet again pull out the same shirt, because it might be that the shirt matters. Another great meeting and the likelihood of a different shirt being worn to an important meeting gradually diminishes. Athletes engaging in competitive sports seem particularly prone to superstitious thoughts.

Superstition still makes perfect sense in light of evolution, as most things do, but luckily we can fight even evolution. Our irrationality can also be blamed on evolution. Believing that the stars are fires on the eternal hunting grounds of the afterlife or that somehow everything is linked to a carpenter being nailed to a piece of wood for saying people should just try to get along, is believed because our brains have evolved little protection against these sorts of thoughts. But this lack of an irrationality force field can make the search for truth difficult.

I am no expert, but I’d still like to know the truth and I fight the propensity to believe every day. That being said, I don’t think you have to be an expert to understand the general theme of healthy living. Much of it makes perfect sense and much of the rest requires a strong belief held despite the nature of the evidence.

Eating foods found in nature and not those invented by humans makes a lot of sense. Not accepting this requires some faith. Eating animals also makes a lot of sense as most data suggest it to be wise, while not eating animals requires belief in something other than nature (if you ask a vegan he might say he believes in nature, but that’s just self delusion. He believes in his self delusion).

Grains worry me. Admittedly I haven’t looked at the data on this subject very thoroughly. It seems to me the data arguing against grain intake is not that strong. I would have liked to have some RCT’s and some more anthropologic data from hunter gatherers. But the data are strong enough to have me worried, and strong enough to make grains nothing more than an occasional exception to my diet.

In all likelihood you do not have to eat a low carb diet to be healthy. Anthropologic data has shown us that humans can and do live as hunter gatherers on a relatively high carbohydrate diet without being plagued by the diseases of civilization.

I feel there are two important notes shat should be made regarding optimal diets. Firstly, although humans can thrive with good health on high carbohydrate diets, this does not exclude the possibility that we can thrive even more and improve our health more by replacing some of the carbohydrate with fats and protein. The Kitawans were healthy, but could they have been healthier? Secondly, although the evidence clearly indicate a natural, Paleolithic like diet with minimal grains, plant oils and processed foods as the optimal diet for maximal health, as a (wannabe)scientist I cannot take this to mean that we will not find an even better alternative. I am, and have to be, open to the possibility that we in the future might grow meat in the laboratory that far exceeds the nutritional quality of any natural meat, that we may make genetically modified foods that should replace natural foods or that we in the end will compose our diets of highly processed even plant based foods which might be the best human diet ever achieved. Technology is cool and the speed of scientific progress is astounding. I can’t wait to see what the future will bring. For now though, natural paleo like diets are our best alternative.

Science like most human endeavors is also affected by fashion and trends. There are even scientific journal with names like “Trends in molecular medicine” and “Trends in cell biology.” The latest environmental fashion is climate, which seems to be changing rather more than most people like it to. It’s a fashion though, and I dislike the reduced focus on other major environmental disasters. Physics has string theory, which has been all the hype for some time. Paleo is a trend in nutritional science and I think leptin perhaps is losing its popularity.

Strangely, it took a fashion designer (my wife) to give me a good scientific analogy for the changing of trends and how we perceive them. Fashion is after all both defined and plagued by ever changing trends. She proposed that trends are like the ever moving tectonic plates, but there is always a constant and stable core. Sometimes we get caught up in the ways of the plates and forget about the core.

The important thing to remember about trends in science is to not confuse popularity with importance. A new and exciting theory can shift our focus like a pair of boobs passing through the vision of a human male, but its importance must be questioned.

I sometimes think that as a scientist I should be open to anything. If new data emerge from good methods they should be accepted despite any of my previous certainties. I also think that not all things need to be studied. We do not need to do a scientific study to find out if it is dangerous to jump out of an airplane without a parachute, because common sense, a well developed human ability, predict the outcome of these actions and tells us what the result might be.

Unfortunately, this view – the conviction that some things need not be tested because rationality and common sense dictate them to be true – can also be used to halt science. This has happened in some scientists who do not think any more dietary trials are necessary because we already know fat is fattening. Or that no more trials of physical activity to treat obesity are necessary because we already know exercise makes us thinner. It is common sense and regarded as established as gravity.

So we need to have an open mind, albeit not so much that our brains fall out, the prime example being alternative medicine which in all aspects apart from a deity seems equal to religion.

Nutritional science like any science is a mental obstacle course where the true way is along a rope that is not spanned high in the air, but only just above the ground. It seems intended more to cause stumbling than to be walked upon.*

*Franz Kafka

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