Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Cautious Science

When people learn that I am raising food using organic methods they tend to have one of two responses. On one hand many folks immediately begin discussing the benefits of food raised using organic methods compared to chemical, anti-biotic and hormone laden foods. On the other hand some people question the benefits of organic and natural methods.

The most recent challenge I heard was an explanation that protein based growth hormones are completely safe to humans. The argument was that the hormone was protein based so our stomach simply digests it. Furthermore, the protein is not a protein that we have a receptor for, so even if it were not fully digested it could not bind to any of our receptors.

This argument is based on two basic assumptions. First, what we currently know about hormones indicates that the growth hormone shouldn’t have any effect on us. Second, the lack of studies linking the ingestion of hormones to any short-term health effects means that there are no health effects. Both arguments stem from a view of current science as interchangeable with technology. This view holds that science can and should be undertaken with desired end results in mind. The results of this science should then be immediately applied to develop technology for everyday use.

However, science is not technology. Technology is simply the use of tools to produce results. Science is the careful exploration of the world around us without preconceived end results.

In my science classes I learned three lessons repeatedly, none of which was that science provides us with absolute answers. The first lesson is that in our scientific exploration, we are consistently wrong. Only after years of study, new ideas, and new discoveries do we ever reach theories that begin to adequately explain a given subject. The second lesson is that we only study what we think to study. And third, is that nothing occurs without any affect and we frequently fail to see the connections. Together, these three lessons have made me view science as an important tool, but one that must be used with much caution when developing new technologies. This is in direct conflict with the view of new technology as the immediate and beneficial result of scientific exploitation.

In the case of growth hormones the first view of science advocates their use unequivocally. There are no immediate measurable harmful outcomes and there are immediate measurable positive outcomes. The second view of science requires that we proceed with caution on principle. It recognizes the possibility that, because of inadequate knowledge, we have misunderstood the full role of proteins and hormones in cellular function. It readily admits that in our studies of the affects of such substances we may not be asking the right questions to find connections between their use and harmful (or beneficial) outcomes. And finally, it assumes that because we have added a component to a living system it will change whether or not we notice it.

Caution is particularly well advised when it comes to food. We ingest food and use the components to build our own bodies. If we have made changes to our foods that are not fully understood it is likely that we have introduced changes to our own bodies that we do not fully understand. Currently, we are experiencing higher than ever levels of poorly understood “diseases” such as ADHD, diabetes, cancer, and autism. It is true that correlation is not causation. The fact that the massive increase in chemicals and hormones into our food happens to occur at the same time as massive increases in systemic diseases and disorders does not imply that one causes the other.

However, it does give one pause to consider that many of these health problems are poorly understood, related to body systems tied to nutrition, and have no apparent cause. At the same time we have introduced a large number of substances into our environment and directly into our bodies without good knowledge of their effects.
Remember: we are usually wrong, we often ask the wrong questions, and in complex living systems everything is connected. We need to stop confusing science with technology and proceed with caution.

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