When I was a kid, my best friend Zeke (not his real name) was what we all considered “fat.” In addition to being heavier than the rest of us, he had a complexion that would have been described as sallow, had a tendency for profuse sweating, bad teeth, and delayed mental development. He was different, and that made him a target. Aside from Zeke and one or two other kids in my elementary school, I can’t remember a single kid who would be labeled overweight by today’s standards. Fast-forward thirty years, and my experience would infer that Zeke would be quite normal in a modern school.
There appears to be near universal alarm, hysteria, and media hype about an “epidemic” of obesity; childhood obesity in particular. Everyone from the First Lady to self-help authors are on the bandwagon, shouting to the hills about the evil of one perceived cause or another and schilling for their particular remedy. Assuming you believe the publicly circulated reports, obesity is responsible for or contributes to more untimely deaths than smoking, and the rate of occurrence is reportedly on the rise. Based on my personal experiences observing and interacting with every-day people, I would have to agree that something has gone seriously wrong in the thirty or so years between my generation and the current one. The real question, and one that I don’t believe has been adequately answered, is what?
Given the wide acknowledgement of a problem and poor public understanding of the causes and cures, industry writ-large is exploiting the vacuum to bleed the public. The diet and supplement industries are playing to this tune and stripping billions from the pocketbooks of people who have fallen victim to this plague. It seems every day there is a new “miracle” diet that completely contradicts yesterday’s diet d’jour and will cure you of your ills for a price. I’ve lost count of the number of miracle supplements and “natural” products (all of them expensive) that were supposed to make weight loss easy only to see them pulled from the shelves as unsafe or fade away into oblivion as the public gained experience and found the results to be wanting.
The pharmaceutical industry too has stepped up to the plate by introducing new miracle drugs that promise to end heart-disease by lowering cholesterol, cure obesity by interfering with our ability to digest fat, and in general make us healthier and happier through chemistry – for a price. It almost seems to be a point of pride for some (some quite close to me) how many different drugs they are taking. The food industry has also responded by introducing an endless stream of new “healthier” alternatives to traditional foods. Diet sodas, low-fat snacks, processed whole-grain cereals, cholesterol free refined vegetable oils, and so on and so on. In addition to providing “healthier” ingredients, the industry is saving us the trouble of having to think about what goes into the food we eat by providing these items to us in a processed form that is ready for consumption, complete with labeling to reassure us that science is on their side. Looking around me, it is clear that science has failed us in many respects. “Science” has been promising painless progress and perfect cures for this health epidemic and it’s close cousins since before I was born, but the overall trajectory in many ways has been increasingly downward.
One thing I’ve not seen, though, is a willingness to reexamine the fundamental premises of the current hysteria. Historically, obesity was an affliction of the affluent. The kinds of heart disease and other chronic illnesses that make life miserable or short for a great many people today were reportedly almost unknown in preindustrialized societies. As recently as the 1930s, Weston Price was able to find societies who hadn’t adopted modern lifestyles and eating habits, and where rotten teeth and heart disease were virtually unknown. None of these people followed the advice of modern science for caring for their cardiovascular system or teeth. They ate diets that for the most part would be condemned by modern science as an irrefutable recipe for an early heart attack. Science has been unwilling to question how and why this is the case, and either writes these cases off as aberrations or statistical anomalies, or looks for other factors that they can use to make the data fit their existing hypothesis. The science of heart disease and tooth decay is “settled,” and the debate is over. Never mind the fact that nearly 40 years of low-fat, low-cholesterol hysteria has done nothing to reduce the actual prevalence of the condition it was supposed to fix. One of the truest tests for the utility of any scientific theory is it’s ability to make predictions that match observations. In this case, the predictions have been abysmal – enough so, I believe, that the theory should be scrapped. Yet we are unwilling to go back to the beginning and re-examine the underlying assumptions. We seem unable to give up on something new and go back to reevaluate the wisdom of the past.
I think it is a part of the American psyche that we tend to want to look forward, to “progress.” There is an implicit trust in anything labeled as science and deriving from experts, and a serious prejudice against the preferences and traditions of prior generations. This mindset has been at the heart of some of the greatest inventions the world has ever known, but it can also lead to devastating consequences if our trust is misplaced. In the past it has resulted in products such as methamphetamine being openly marketed as a cure for fatigue and a miracle diet pill. It brought in kudzu to the American south for erosion control. It brought African honey bees (killer bees) into South America. We have a habit of arrogance that can be astounding, and a willingness to remain blind to our own limitations and limited understanding.
It is a fundamental characteristic that the capacity for evil inherent in any given object, capability, or idea is almost directly proportional to the capacity of the same thing for good, and it requires great diligence, thought, and analysis to distinguish between the two when the messages are controlled or shaped by those with an interest in the outcome. What’s more, we are truly adept at ignoring those things that are somewhat inconvenient or that would require us to move away from the preformed ideas we hold. In my mind, there is at the core of much modern debate a fundamental inconsistency – one that we tend to ignore just like other the inherent flaws and contradictions in our attempts to “fix” the human condition through “science.” This inconsistency, if truly examined and acted upon, would radically change the way we look at the world around us; and it is this kind of change of perspective that I am seeking for myself.
“He is like a man which built an house, and digged deep, and laid the foundation on a rock: and when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently upon that house, and could not shake it: for it was founded upon a rock.” – Luke 6:48
Not too long ago my wife and I purchased land and contracted to have a home built on it. Before any other work was done, the contractor dug a hole in the ground near where the house was planned in order for a specialized engineer to evaluate the soils and design a foundation that would be strong enough and anchored deep enough to prevent it from shifting, heaving, cracking, and generally undermining the construction. After evaluating the soil, the engineer retired to his firm to do the required analysis and design. His results indicated that the standard foundation construction for which we had budgeted and scheduled would be inadequate. We would have to spend significantly more money and allow extra time.
This was a significant challenge for our family. We had already delayed construction several months due to difficulties closing on the land and construction loan, and were facing a period of homelessness between our extant lease expiring and our house being ready for occupancy. Unexpected costs at closing had sapped much of the reserve we had allocated for cost overruns. The additional costs and delays required to evaluate and design the foundations were a significant inconvenience. However, there was never any doubt about the path we needed to take. Weakness in the foundation would undermine the entire house and jeopardize everything we had put into it.
What does this have to do with the topic at hand? The answer lies in the foundations for many of the positions and arguments made today. I believe we have built many of our exquisite explanations and justifications on the weakest of foundations. Foundations that were cracked even as the first bricks were laid for the enormous house of cards that we have built. However, because we are deeply invested in what we have built up we continue to patch, re-level, brace, and generally bandage the teetering tower of sophisms rather than look at the root cause of the repeated need to patch.
In order to get a clearer understanding of the problems we face, and find any hope that we can begin to correct them, we need to start by acknowledging the failure of current foundations, then identify the requirements for a solid foundation on which we can build a durable and strong structure capable of enabling clear understanding.
What then is the foundation upon which modern thinking is based? In short, my view is that our cultural and intellectual foundation is grounded on the belief that man has evolved or progressed miraculously in the last 100 years or so, overtaking and overcoming all the wisdom of the ages with irrefutable and indisputable science. We seem to believe that we are fundamentally different from our ancestors, and that anything produced before our living memory is as crude and barbaric as bleeding a sick patient in order to “re-balance the humors.” We believe we can accurately explain anything, and are quite adept at developing explanations and theories that fit conveniently with and support our biases, prejudices, and preferences. We also believe that we actually understand the intricacies of the universe we live in and the relationships between the numberless components and influences. We also tend to reject or write-off data or theories that don’t fit with our pre-conceived notions or current understanding.
I claim this foundation is perhaps as shaky as any ever built. Each aspect I evaluate seems as solid as a cloud, glued to the rest by little more than air. To begin with, consider the basic premise that science has answered or will answered our questions irrefutably and that using scientific methods, we have proven theory beyond any shadow of a doubt. I personally find this belief preposterous for a very simple reason. We are inside, affected by, and affecting in the course of observation or even existence the system we are attempting to describe. Our ability to objectively and fully observe any phenomenon is fundamentally limited. At best, we can view or account for only a small subset of the conditions, variables, forces, and other interactions that make up even the smallest and most controlled of physical experiments.
“Oh what fools these mortals be.” – Shakespeare
As an illuminating example of how insignificant our capacity and understanding are, consider the anecdote of the butterfly flapping his wings in one hemisphere tipping the scales and initiating a hurricane in the other. Every aspect of the atmosphere is interconnected. On a very small scale, we have written equations and theories for how the major constituents of the atmosphere react to pressure, temperature, motion, etc… and have shown that these equations accurately predict observable changes in controlled environments. Analyzing the theory has resulted in insights and additional predictions that became the basis for great discoveries and inventions such as the jet engine and common refrigerator. These developments have been practical and important, and were based on principles derived from the same fundamental theories that should govern butterfly wing turbulence and hurricanes. The problem with applying these theories to the global-scale is that complexity makes the problem intractable (a scientist’s or mathematician’s way of saying impossibly complicated and unsolvable).
Things in the real world are impossibly interconnected and involve an almost infinitely dense set of relationships. This fact makes definitive theory useless for application on that kind of scale. In the case of the butterfly flapping it’s wings, we would need to know the texture of the wing in exquisite detail, the precise motion of the wings, the location and physical shape of the butterfly and every object in the vicinity that would impact the induced air currents, the terrain and all other physical features of the global environment that would affect the movement of air. Each of these factors are potentially related, with one affecting the other, requiring specification of the first-order (how one thing affects it’s neighbor) and higher-order (how multiple things combine to affect other things) relationships between them.
As an example of how ridiculously complicated this becomes, consider one method for modeling where we cut up the space into small cubical “blocks” of air that are next to each other. This division into discrete blocks is not reality, but is a simplifying approximation required to even begin framing the problem. Each block interacts with at least the six other blocks which border it (top, bottom, left, right, front and back). At a minimum, all six of these interactions must be described by at least one relationship (equation with at least one variable) and initial conditions (starting points) for each variable. For the approximation of the “block” of air to be moderately accurate, the block must be small enough that the stuff inside it is easy to fully account for and everything inside the block is uniform… Nothing inside the box is affected by anything outside it, and there is nothing inside the box to perturb the internal conditions. The entire box of air reacts together to the influences of the boxes surrounding it.
Now, rather than tackle the entire globe at once, consider a 2000 square-foot house with eight-foot ceilings. For simplicity and illustrative purposes, assume that we can adequately describe the atmosphere by chopping it up into one cubic foot blocks (about the volume inside a mid-size microwave oven). Also for simplicity, assume there is a single, one-term, relationship between each face of the block and the block next to it. Assuming the house is a pure cube with no walls, ceiling, heat sources, furniture, or other factors that could influence our butterfly turbulence, there are 16,000 “cubes” of air, resulting in at least 96,000 starting data points and first-order/nearest neighbor relationships.
This sounds pretty difficult already, but with modern computers systems of even millions of interrelated equations are easily solved. I personally have written programs to grind through extremely large problems, and am enamored of the computing capacity we have developed. Our 96,000 element problem is simple once the relationships and starting conditions are defined. However, one cubic foot is HUGE compared to our butterfly. If we break up the atmosphere into one-foot cubes we will loose the butterfly to the assumption that the air inside the box is uniform. In order to preserve any of the effects of the butterfly, we’d have to break the box up into pieces less than about 1/10th the size of the smallest feature in the system. For the sake of this example, think of something on the order of one cubic millimeter (roughly a grain of kosher salt) or even smaller. In this case, our 96,000 relationships for the 2000 sq-ft house become more than 2.7×10^12 (2.7 Billion) relationships and starting conditions. Add to that the need to describe every square millimeter of air contacting non-air (walls, floor, furniture, etc…) in 3-dimensional space, and an expression that adequately captures the way the air interacts with it (for example, foam would be substantially different from steel), and it would take well over 20 terabytes to digitally store just one double-precision value for each cube.
In addition to cutting up space in to blocks, time must be discretized in order to compute the effects of our butterfly. Think of it like watching a movie… Each picture in the movie is a single snapshot of what things look like at that time. If we are only working to the fidelity of the human eye, we only need to cut time into segments of about 1/24th of a second each (24 frames per second) since the eye can’t really respond faster than that. However, if you use this frame-rate to record something that happens very quickly, all you see is a blur that washes out the very thing you were trying to record. This is why National Geographic and other documentarians love extreme slow-motion cameras for filming amazing things like a great white shark attacking a seal, a humming bird flying, or a chameleon catching a fly. These scenes are created by breaking time up into much smaller chunks. In a similar fashion, to model the effect of the butterfly’s wings, we need to break time up into chunks small enough that the “wave” of turbulence generated by the butterfly doesn’t travel across any of the blocks of air between time slots. What this means, is that the entire gargantuan system of equations we’ve developed to model the system has to be solved over and over again for each tiny time slot until the effect has reached the time we are interested in. Assuming access to a supercomputer large enough to store and process data on this scale, the time required to process a single slice of time would be substantial. Continuing the computation to describe the immediate effect just across the room (not to mention the late-term and second-order effects) would be phenomenal.
Solving this system might be conceivable in the future if Moore’s law continues to hold (roughly stated – computing power doubles every 18 months). However, the complexity doesn’t stop there. We could continue to refine the problem (and make it more realistic) by adding second and third-order effects, further breaking down the discretization (blocks) into smaller blocks, and including an almost infinite list of external influences ranging from the effects of gravity on the density of the air as a function of altitude to the temporal and spatial variations in solar heating caused by variable absorption in the atmosphere and so on, and so on… Our ability to even comprehend all the factors that may influence even a highly artificial and controlled situation is fundamentally limited. At some point, we become part of the data set ourselves (our breathing and movement for example), and in the act of setting up our measurements we perturb the experiment and invalidate the results to some degree.
Finally, perform this mental experiment: Look up your house on your favorite mapping software that includes satellite imagery. Think how complex the problem of scientifically describing your house is, then slowly zoom out until you have an appreciation for how small your postage-stamp on planet earth is in the grand scheme of things. That zoomed out picture contains a great many houses of similar complexity with additional “stuff” between them that must be similarly described. Continue the exercise by mentally backing out further until the earth is a speck in the solar system, the sun a dot in the galaxy, the galaxy a small speck in the universe, and so on… The closer we look, the smaller we are, and the more we understand how little we actually KNOW.
There are good reasons why weather guessers have a hard time predicting the weather more than just a few hours in advance. Even equipped with the best models, super computers, and science to back them up, their computations are necessarily based on simplifying assumptions and approximations. The best they can hope to do is run a whole bunch of simplified simulations with varying amounts of randomness added in to simulate the unknown contributions of the real world to their idealized model and hope the average comes out somewhere near the truth. This isn’t unique to weather. All of human endeavor is clouded by the limitations of finite understanding, precision, and capacity. Sometimes the effect is obvious (like the weather), and sometimes it is hidden or small enough that we ignore it either willfully, deliberately or through ignorance of its existence.
Even if by some miracle we were to completely observe, describe, and incorporate all influences within a system into a universal theory that worked all the time, there is no real way to prove the theory is in fact the way things actually are. We can demonstrate the adequacy of the theory for describing and predicting observations. We can similarly disprove a bad theory by showing counter-examples. And, once certain underlying conditions have been set down we can “prove” a theory in some sense provided our underlying “facts” are in fact correct. However, all proofs begin with a statement of the given facts, and as much as we would like to dis-believe it, facts in an absolute first-principles sense are difficult to come by. The best we can hope for is confirmation that the theory is capable of predicting the behavior of the system for which it was created.
As an example, consider one of the fundamental “givens” in physics: opposite charges attract in quantifiable terms, and like charges repel in a similar fashion. We can demonstrate easily that objects imparted a “charge” of “like” or “opposite” character will attract or repel each other in a well behaved and well defined manner. If we add to this the concept of magnetism and describe the observed effects in equations laid down based on scientific observations by Gauss, Maxwell, and others many moons ago, we can take those relationships (equations) and use them to predict certain observable behaviors that explain things like stereo speakers, power generators, radio waves, light, and so on… Using the core concept of charge and magnetism, we have been phenomenally successful at identifying means to leverage and manipulate the world around us for our own convenience. This is the true utility of science. It allows us to describe interactions in a way that enables comprehension and understanding sufficient for predicting the outcome. However, being able to describe something in useful terms and being able to give the definitive specification for what something actually is are not necessarily the same.
As an example, the concepts of “charge” and “magnetism” have proven very useful; expanding from the extremely small-scale universe of quantum mechanics through to grand-scale cosmology, and have stretched into the even more esoteric realms beyond. I don’t believe there has been a single data point or theoretical instance that casts doubt on the utility of these concepts. However, we don’t often stop to think and ask ourselves – what is a charge? I contend we don’t actually know, and fundamentally cannot know. All we can hope to do is describe it’s effects. We can’t inspect it directly. We can’t see it. And even if we could, we would be limited by the fact that we are part of the system within which the concepts exist, and therefore not in a position to step back and pass absolute, impartial, and correct judgment. It would be a bit like asking a blind salamander who had spent his entire life in a dark cave to describe the universe based on the minerals dissolved in the water he drinks and the detritus he cannot see that makes its way into the darkness of his cave.
Unlike the blind salamander though, we have been amazingly adept at using our limited capacity to comprehend the universe to build theories and explanations that conform with observation. As we have gained experience with these theories, we have historically become more and more confident in their correctness, to the extent that we become blinded to our own nothingness. Prior to the 1920s, physicists believed they were just about “done.” They had built up a theory of how the world works that could describe almost every observable phenomenon when viewed in isolation. There were just a few inconvenient aberrations like why a heated incandescent light-bulb filament is the color it is and why different materials retained heat better than others. Many physicists were convinced these trivialities would surely be fixed in due time and the theory of how the universe works would be complete.
Scientists can be a rather arrogant lot. When we think we know the answer, we tend to push back at anything that seems “counter-factual” or inconsistent with our understanding. We look for plausible explanations for “outliers.” We get comfortable with a theory and forget the limitations and uncertainty upon which it is built. We begin to confuse belief and knowledge, model and object, master and servant. This behavior is not unique to the big-brained academics. We all tend to assume we “know” things that at their heart are fundamentally unknowable, and to discount anything that is counter to our predetermined outcome. In the case of the initial forays into quantum mechanics, the professors of classical mechanics didn’t react well to the radical new theories that fundamentally undermined their understanding of the world.
Unfortunately for Sir Isaac Newton and those who followed in his footsteps, the inconvenient aberrations or oddities early 20th century physicists explored shook the very foundations of science in ways nobody could have predicted. The resulting innovations in thought and theory resulted in new ways of describing the world that opened the doors to an amazingly wide range of modern innovation ranging from the amazing contributions of chemical engineering to the world of digital electronics that surrounds us now. In the course of exploring the oddball “boutique” problems, brilliant minds would introduce the theory of quantum mechanics and turn the scientific world on it’s head, all while demonstrating the absolute inadequacy of what had been all too recently declared as essentially “done.”
This up-ending of understanding is not unique, and won’t stop with the current generation of experts. However, there are limits to what we can observe, and therefore limits on how much we can usefully predict and begin to understand. In every generation, there have been those who argued vehemently against any form of theory or thought that went against conventional wisdom. In every case I’m aware of, every single professor of wisdom who declared the argument over and science settled has, in the end, ended up on the trash-heap of history. I find it an amazing mark of arrogance and stupidity when I look around me and find an entire generation who have bought off on the message that science has “proven” this, that, or the other, and that the debate is over. To think that we are capable of completely comprehending, understanding and accounting for all of the influences and interactions that make up this amazing universe of ours is indeed one of the most stupid things I can come up with.
If we as a people are to have any hope for increasing our understanding and improving our situations, we need to be honest about our own inadequacy. When we are arrogant or self-certain, we close the door on learning. There is no student more difficult to teach than one who believes they already know the answer, and the most unfortunate part is that the answer itself is rarely the point of the learning. We must be humble to be teachable. We must comprehend our limitations and be willing to acknowledge that even our most exquisite and best developed theories are no more than that… theories that are useful within the context for which they were developed.
Down With Intellectual Laziness
“For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat” – 2 Thessalonians 3:10
One of the most important lessons life has taught me is to question everything with an open mind. I believe we as a society have become too mentally lazy to do the real work required to thoroughly analyze a problem, research answers, organize and arrange the results and come to a conclusion based on rational and defensible conclusions. The human desire for simplicity and ease is natural, and is to a great degree responsible for many of the improvements in our lives. The desire to get more out of the limited resources we have is the driving force behind innovation but also lies at the heart of laziness. Very few people, indeed you could argue that no one, will sacrifice short-term gains unless they perceive a long-term payoff that makes the sacrifice worthwhile. The distinguishing factor behind laziness is the inability or unwillingness to look forward into the future to identify areas where sacrifice or hard work will pay off.
The American public has become intellectually Lazy. It is much easier for us to accept a party line, polished explanation, or the confident explanations of experts than to spend the time and effort to truly evaluate the substance of the messages we hear. More often than not, positions are taken based on popular appeal, fair speaking, hollow promises, uncritically examined ideologies, or blind acceptance of the status-quo. This mental flabbiness seems to extend to all aspects of modern life. We have reached a stage of society where the 6-second news clip can incite riots, the most repeated opinions are taken as truth, and true debate and discussion are displaced by unthinking partisan bickering, intellectual dishonesty, and unreasoned and inflexible dogma.
In my personal efforts to overcome this mental laziness, I have read and considered some of what would have passed for mass media early in our country’s history. A case in point that illustrates how far we have wandered from our roots as a thinking society are the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers. These papers were originally written as series of newspaper articles intended to inform the public and shape the public debate surrounding the adoption of our current constitutions which represented a much more powerful and expansive federal government than existed under the Articles of Confederation. The pubic debate they represent could not happen in today’s society. The arguments are too dense, discussion too long, and thoughts too deep to survive the attention span and understanding of the masses. We are simply too lazy to put the work into understanding the issues, dissecting the arguments, and forming our own opinions.
To complicate matters, we are constantly bombarded with predigested and analyzed sound-bites informing us what the “correct” opinion is. In this “information age” many had hoped for an empowered populace who could freely share information and allow all to discover the “truth” independent from the media moguls and other power players who historically shaped opinion by using their printing presses or bully pulpits. However, as we have gained more and better access to instant information, major information brokers have risen up and established themselves as the filter for what is true and newsworthy. In spite of our incredible access to information, I believe the average American is more poorly informed on important topics than his antecedents. While you could argue that keeping abreast of the current status of ones friends, family, pop-stars, pets, and other random strangers is being informed, I disagree. We live in an age where some of the most thought-provoking items are pictures of an angry cat with a few words emblazoned across it. We have drowned ourselves in worthless information to the exclusion of truly important issues.
We, as a society, must get better at shutting out the trivial and prepackaged messaging that would lull us into a thoughtless stupor. We need to deliberately work to strengthen our critical reasoning skills. We need to deliberately work to learn new and challenging things. We need to deliberately work to understand both sides of complex and contentious arguments. We need to deliberately work to understand our own beliefs and the foundations on which they are built. We need to deliberately work to probe, push and expand the boundaries of our capacity. All of this is work – hard work – and work is antithetical to laziness. We must not be lazy.
“the unexamined life is not worth living” – Emerson.
Skeptics can be hard to live with or be around. The incurable skeptic is rarely happy, and seems to delight in toppling the cherished beliefs of those around him. This is not the kind of skepticism that I advocate. We should be willing to look at anything with a healthy dose of caution, but I’m not talking about the biting skepticism that sees no truth in anything and draws it’s strength in only tearing down and demolishing. Rather, I’m talking about the kind of skepticism that leads one to look at an argument for more than its fit and finish. Healthy skepticism should lead us to at least question the motives of information brokers, the strengths and weaknesses of the source, understand and look for holes in arguments, compare what you find against your own personal stores of truth, and be willing to accept something only after careful consideration. Several years ago, I worked for an organization who’s motto was “Trust but Verify.” This, in essence, is the kind of skepticism I believe is called for in most things.
Science of all kinds has a long history of being biased in favor of those who fund it. This is occasionally overt, cynical, and self-serving; but more often it is a result of unacknowledged biases, unrecognized blind-spots, and group-think that can lead the investigator to discount the truth in favor of something they hope to find. When we are presented with a new set of data, it would behoove us to question the biases and motivations of both those who paid for it, and those who generated it. One simple test I have used for blind bias has been to look at how one reacts to criticism. Reactions that are more appropriate for a religious zealot, and show the kind of arrogance and hubris I’ve already described, are sure signs of internal bias that will undoubtedly taint the data. Intolerance of dissent or questioning is a characteristic of a cult, not a scientific endeavor.
Respect the Past
“Study the past if you would divine the future” – Confucius
We are all too prone to look at history as being peopled with a different race of being who was all together less intelligent and capable than us. While there were many beliefs and practices throughout history that were truly barbaric and ill conceived, the basic nature of humanity hasn’t changed nearly as much as we think. While our technologies have enabled us to see things that were previously unseeable, and we have gained insights that were previously inconceivable, that is no reason to discard wholesale the wisdom of the ages.
As a case in point, I recently heard a story of a team decided to comb through an ancient viking medical text for insights fighting antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The team discovered a recipe for an ointment that was noted as working very well for a particular form of eye infection that can be refractory to conventional treatment. Rather than dismiss it as hocus-pocus or snake oil, they decided to follow the recipe exactly and see what came of it. To their surprise, the resulting product had phenomenal antibiotic properties against some very difficult to treat bacteria. The medical community was not only skeptical, but openly hostile when the discovered the original source. Now, I doubt the original developer of this recipe understood that the infection was caused by bacteria, and that the particular mixture he developed had antibiotic properties; but I do believe that it was based on observations of what worked, and that explanations of magic or the like were used to describe what they saw in terms familiar to the audience.
Humankind had spent millennia observing their environment and conducting experiments based on those observations. While some theories and practices that resulted had, in the end, no justifiable basis and were ultimately harmful (bloodletting and the medicinal use of mercury for example), others have proven much more useful. One case in point relates to the anecdote with which I opened this essay. As shown by both the fossil record and studies by those like Weston Price, traditional societies who eat the way they did hundreds or thousands of years ago, and eschew the kinds of highly processed low-fat foods that are now the rage, have little to no tooth decay, heart disease, or obesity. Coincidentally, those same groups tend to eat a diet high in saturated fat, cholesterol, and animal protein. I think, as a general rule, a healthy respect for what tradition says about what is good for health and society should be given the benefit of the doubt, and that new evidence that “proves” that what has been considered “wisdom” for generations is false should be subjected to intense scrutiny. We are far to quick to discard tradition simply because it is old. Let us respect tradition and look for ways to integrate it with our modern world.