Episode One: “I Want To Believe”
If you’ve ever watched the television series “The X Files,” there’s a good chance you noticed the poster that hung in FBI agent Fox Mulder’s office. It was sort of the motto of the show, or at least Mulder’s motto. Mulder experienced extraordinary events he couldn’t explain, couldn’t prove. Others tried to convince him the things he thought happened really didn’t, that there were other, more plausible answers. Fox was never dissuaded; his life goal became finding the proof, even if it was only a personal affirmation. Regardless of what barriers of logic and known science stood in his way, he pressed forward because he wanted to believe that what happened had been real.
For most of my life, I’ve assigned too much authority and power to many societal figures. It was somehow impressed on me very early on that there were infallible and omnipotent beings that were above and beyond question. Police and adults in general were to be respected and obeyed; doctors and teachers knew everything and were always right. I never really thought of it before now, but all that mind control was probably highly influential in my being both anal-retentive and an atheist. I needed to have some area of my life over which I could have command, and I therefore chose my excretory function (sub-consciously, of course, and at a very young age in order to show my mother that she wasn’t the boss of me in every respect), and my personal feelings with regard to the supernatural.
These ingrained reverential regards for the aforementioned authority figures have dogged me over many years, being beneficial in some respects, but certainly not based in reality. I was actually in my mid-thirties when a friend, whose mother lay dying in a hospital, spoke against the doctor who was treating her unsuccessfully. It was the first time I can remember hearing such a thing. I asked how he, with no medical background or training, could possibly question the actions of a person who’d spent considerable effort over many years learning how to treat disease and save lives? He said he simply didn’t believe the doctor knew what he was doing, and as a result, his mother was getting worse.
As time went by, my naivete has diminished. I’ve learned that teachers don’t know everything, the police aren’t paragons of virtue, and parents are often the poorest example of authority figures in the universe. I’ve been treated by some very good medical professionals, but I’ve also found they are neither omniscient nor infallible, and some are downright mediocre. I want to believe the people responsible for my health and welfare know what they’re doing, but I’m not so foolish anymore to imagine they are “gods” as I once regarded them. They are simply human beings, like me, who have applied themselves in a particular field, and are no more incapable of mistakes, misinterpretations, and misgivings than any of the rest of us. There are experts in every walk of life, and in those same venues there are those less able to perform proficiently. This is not to say that those less competent or accomplished are necessarily purposeful in this respect.
Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes points out in numerous instances just how fallible and subjective scientific research can be. Quotes are used to introduce several chapters that inform of and warn against bending conclusions to fit what the investigator wants to believe. Science should not be wishful science; the researcher should be as aggressive as possible in trying to disprove the hypothesis in question as to prove it, and then be honest about the conclusions.
According to Taubes, the current widely-held notions of the links between nutrition and disease are the result of the bending of conclusions toward the preconceptions of powerful characters in the associated fields of research. Where once I would not have dared question such highly learned professionals, I now accept that the field of science should be no less populated with politics, ambition, and deception for gain than any other. The chronology and the circumstances detailed in Taubes’ book tell an astounding tale of how almost everything we think we know about what we should be eating, and why, is wrong. What is amazing is how the desire of some researchers to present their beliefs as fact in the face of contradictory evidence, over time, compounded the ills of society instead of helping to solve them.
It isn’t difficult to imagine a physician today, having been taught what was the prevailing knowledge and wisdom at the time they were being educated, scoffing at such a revelation. One is unlikely to turn one’s back on a lifetime of lessons and innumerable studies based on the observations of one journalist. Even if such firmly held notions were able to be influenced, there are prices to pay in going against the tide. Taubes makes mention of several such researchers and scientists who were rebuked for holding to concepts that were outside the mainstream. Being able to support your family must almost always come before being able to support your theories. I would not expect my personal physician to begin recommending the prescribed reducing treatments mentioned in the book to his weighty patients any more than I’d expect him to advise all his patients to abstain from fruits, vegetables and grains, despite the evidence that these foods are not necessary to promote a healthy and lengthy life, and may in fact be somewhat detrimental to same.
What place does belief have in our being able to change what we do, when faced with the dilemma that we may have been wrong all along? How often do we refuse to believe something of someone because we know them personally, or because we always held them in high regard? Near where I live, a criminal known as the “Bike Path Killer” was recently incarcerated after decades of terrorizing the area, all the while maintaining a second identity as a dedicated husband and father, devout church member, and a pillar of the community. More than a few of his neighbors were shocked upon learning of his crimes and at first refused to believe it could possibly be true; there had to be some mistake, it had to have been someone else.
Our medical community, our government, every facet of the food production and distribution network, and the omnipresent media have for years directed us toward specific diets, toward particular lifestyles, all seemingly with the best of intentions for our health and welfare. Why would we doubt such a huge network of concern? We want to believe these powerful and knowledgeable entities are looking out for us; certainly the movement against tobacco use is evidence of this. Yet even after the dangerous consequences of smoking were well known, it took more than a half century to effect a large enough change in every element of society to make a significant difference in the prevalence of this scourge. Sadly, the irrefutability of the deadliness of tobacco is simplistic compared to the complex questions of what foodstuffs are responsible for the diseases of civilization. Turning back the carbohydrate juggernaut that has been created would seem a Herculean task in comparison.
And the issue of belief, or rather, wanting to believe, merely compounds the problem. Say, for the sake of argument, that science were to undeniably prove, once and for all, the non-existence of all things spiritual. No gods, no demons, no afterlife, no soul. Would all the churches suddenly close for business? Would all the observers of all the world’s multitudinous religions instantly wash their hands of it all and turn to some other pastime? I hardly think so. A survey just released by the Pew Forum reported that sixteen percent of adults said they are not members of any religious group, making that “unaffiliated” segment the fourth largest religious tradition in the United States. Comparatively, only four percent of respondents called themselves atheist or agnostic, about the same figure I recall it being when I made up my own mind regarding my beliefs in my early teens. I honestly expected that as science continued to march on, the incontestability of the nature of the universe would result in that number steadily rising. I don’t see the stability of professors of non-religiosity as an indicator of the stability of the religious; the same Pew report indicates that twenty-eight percent of adults reported having left the faith in which they were raised, and if changes among types of Protestantism were to be included, then 44 percent have changed affiliations. Clearly, despite having difficulty in deciding what to believe, and despite the progress made by science in revealing the workings behind many of the mysteries of the universe, roughly the same segment of the population still wants to believe in something supernatural.
In the case of getting the rest of the world to accept the truth about carbohydrates, the foremost effort must be education. It must be the dissemination of informed examination of factual conclusions regarding existing and ongoing research. The medical community must take responsibility to let go of historic inaccuracies and come of age with regard to treating their patients. Those entrusted with governing us and dictating national or international guidelines for nutrition and disease prevention must likewise abandon mistaken conclusions and begin the arduous task of “turning the cart the right way around.” Without these efforts, the manufacturers of what we eat have no incentive to produce foods that are actually good for us. The food distribution network has no reason to stop promoting the agents of disease and death for their own profit, while insisting they are promoting our health.
But to effect changes that will make meaningful differences in the number of sufferers of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, cancer, dementia, and a host of other associated ills of the civilized world, it may well be that wanting to believe the prevailing notions will prove to be the greatest barrier.