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5.11.2010

Skepticism and Free Thought

I believe in skepticism, especially when it comes to incongruous pseudoscientific claims.

But I do not believe in fundamentalism. Most often we associate fundamentalism with zealous, irrational religious beliefs.

However, there is such a thing as fundamentalist skepticism, the rejecting of all things unexplained as myth.

I had a former boss whose basic modus operandi was that if there was no available peer-reviewed, published scientific proof for a scientific claim, then it was clearly not true. When he would apply this to areas outside of his expertise, it greatly illustrated the fallacy of his thinking.

What it boiled down to was that if he was not aware of any peer-reviewed, published scientific proof for a claim, it was rejected out of hand. Of course, he never withheld judgment until he had time to review the literature, so he just came across as a negative nellie, putting down everyone else's scientific queries.

This is fairly similar to what religious fundamentalists do, and I don't like it.

Since we both worked in the field of nutrition and health, which is vast, his fundamentalist view was clearly putting him at a disadvantage. Most nutritional theories of health are extremely difficult to test scientifically. Many inquiries are not conducted because of cost. Epidemiological statistical data is rife with variability and vulnerable to mixed interpretation. Clinical data from cell cultures and animal models seldom translates to human biology, almost by definition since nutrition is so species specific. In such cases, it is best to keep a skeptical but OPEN mind to the possibilities. If one can make a scientifically reasoned case for a hypothesis not yet tested, it should be put in the "unfiled" category rather than the "delete bin."

For example, evolutionary theory yields a number of good hypotheses for how certain foods and food groups affect human health. The ancestors of modern humans evolved on a whole food diet foraged from nature, low in calories and dense with nutrients - like omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. Low sugar and salt content was a hallmark of this diet, and we know that high sugar and salt intake contribute to many human chronic diseases today.

It is extremely difficult to test the health benefits of whole food nutrition in modern humans, with the ubiquity of devitalized and biologically unnatural food sources available in the modern age. Controlled trials are costly, and generally not practical given that few humans today follow the strictly controlled diet of the nutrition laboratory. A few studies have been done on the handful of indigenous hunter-gatherer populations in the world still eating their ancestral diet, but these often lack power because of small sample sizes. Should the paleolithic dietary theory be rejected out of hand because there is no available evidence, on speculation? Of course not.

We can see fragments of support for the health benefits of a paleolithic diet in epidemiological statistics comparing people who eat more fruits and vegetables than other people, or those who consume whole grains vs. refined grains. The latter is subject to much criticism, because grains as a food source are a relatively recent addition to the human diet, one that we may not be fully adapted for. There is plenty of epidemiological data on the Okinawan diet. Japanese residents of Okinawa have incredibly good health eating a whole food diet rich in fish, fruits, and vegetables, and low in refined grain. Okinawa has the highest proportion of centenarians than any other population on earth, a verifiable scientific fact that seems best explained by dietary habits, particularly with respect to data on Okinawans who have emigrated to Hawaii. Within a generation of adopting an American diet, descendants of Okinawans begin to show health declines relative to their parents.

You see my point. Untested hypothesis can still be evaluated on their scientific merits. This is what fundamentalist skeptics fail to recognize, to their disadvantage.

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