Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The surface and the depths

On a superficial level the question I've been exploring here and in my book is: Is natural good? There are some people who tend to believe that what is natural is healthy, and there are just as many of their opposites who are inclined to believe whatever carries any mark of its natural origin is dangerous. For some the fish lifted moments ago from a lake is more wholesome than anything you could buy in a grocery store. For others, it is suspect, uncontrolled and unsanctioned by food-safety authorities. Getting beyond the gut reaction and sorting out the facts is fascinating to me and I think people who read the book will find it entertaining, I only call this stuff superficial because I think there's a deeper, more important level.
To start out, the question as I've just framed it (Is natural good?) presupposes a yes or no answer. But nature is wholesome, nurturing, and abundant at the same time that it is deadly. And the deeper problem has to do with that frame of mind that crosses its arms and says: "Well, which is it? It has to be one or the other." The people drawn to this binary distinction are the most extreme. They are the folks that take a wheelbarrow-load of herbs every day so that they will never die and they are also the people who demand surgery early and often in the vain hope that technical intervention will allow them to live, if not forever, at least until the next surgery can be arranged. These extremes--though at opposite poles when it comes to what they believe in--are strikingly similar in how they go about their lives.

The more I've studied this, the less I care about the what. What's better the all-natural approach or the technological approach? Eh, sometimes one, sometimes the other, the best methods tend to ignore that division. I mean, where do you draw the dividing line between natural and technological anyway? But I do think there's something important to say about the how.
At both extremes you can find a narrowness of focus that molds the world to the theory, rather than vice versa. You see a willingness to consider evidence only when it fits comfortably within theory. There's a tendency to divide the world into binary oppositions, to see the world in black and white. And both react to contradictory evidence, not with wonder and curiosity, but with suspicion and dismissive annoyance. The only reason my book is possible is because the tendency to dismiss (rather than consider, adjust, and embrace) is so extreme: No one else has taken these arguments seriously enough to give them the attention they deserve, to get past all the craziness and see where important kernels of truth lie in the critique of technological progress.
Interestingly, when I describe these extremes (the all-natural versus the technological), most people replace the word "technology" with the word "science," as if science were clearly aligned with one extreme viewpoint. In fact nothing could be further from the truth. Science is on the side of curiosity and wonder, not dogma. The scientific method teaches us to adjust our theories to fit the evidence, rather than the other way around. That said, there have been times where science has behaved badly, where researchers have put there heads down and refused to see outside their own vision of how the world works. As Thomas Kuhn pointed out, when scientists have worked with a theory long enough, they tend to develop a mental crust that keeps thoughts running in the old predictable channels, and leads them to attack what they don't understand. But as soon as this happens, as soon as people are defending against evidence rather than embracing it, I'd say they are no longer doing science.
I'd like to do more than play judge and determine the winners and losers on the natural-technological spectrum. I'd like this inquiry to point out that the extremists both these camps are on one side of a more important spectrum. That's a spectrum between certainty and curiosity. Between orthodoxy and skepticism. Between dogma and science. Between those who sneer and those who feel awe. In every case, I'd argue for the latter.


  1. super interesting stuff dude. i've been thinking about some stuff that relates to this as well, specifically about how kids conceptualize the nature of science. lots of research out there about the development of kids' epistemic beliefs and interesting to see in my research when/how kids' world views interact with their scientific judgements. would love to chat with you more about this over coffee etc sometime. and can't wait to read the book!

    1. Yes would love to hear about this! I've seen some things (like Paul Bloom did some interesting work on children and belief), but don't know much. Everything that Iain McGilchirst has to say about laterality of the brain and evidence versus dogma seems utterly amazing but I don't think he talks about development. So would like to learn more.

  2. Hi Nathanael, I found you on Twitter (or maybe you found me?). Followed your link here and read this post. I'm totally hooked - can't wait to read your book. Very nice to 'meet' you.

  3. Looking forward to reading your blog and your book.