Uncommon Common Sense
By Bill Frayer
Complexity and Ambiguity
I am the kind of guy who likes to keep up to date on research about health and nutrition. Years ago, I avoided eggs and limited red meat. I try to eat my share of fruits and vegetables. Several years ago I started reading studies which indicated that the nutrients and enzymes in foods were absorbed by the body more reliably than they were in supplement form. I avoided the Atkins craze, although now science seems to indicate that inflammation caused by refined carbohydrates may be more damaging than saturated fats. So, now I’m less concerned with the fats and paying more attention to how many carbs I eat. I still don’t take supplements. But, I may be wrong.
Of course, I will likely need to make other adjustments in the future. I know a number of people who have given up listening to dietary advice. They exclaim “They keep changing their minds! So why should I pay any attention to what they say? I’ll eat what I want.” Yes, the information on diet and health is not completely settled. It is confusing. It can even be contradictory. That’s the nature of science itself. We live in a complex world; and our bodies are a marvel of interconnected chemical and biological systems. It is impossible to isolate variables in a way which will definitively prove that particular foods are beneficial or dangerous. BUT, we can draw probable conclusions about which diets are healthy. That’s the best it gets in science. Those who are looking for absolute truth must be satisfied with varying degrees of probability. Some connections, like the health effects of smoking, are understood to a very high degree of probability. The effect of specific compounds in specific foods are not so clearly understood.
This is infuriating for some people who are looking for certainty in their lives. We would all like to have simple, clear information about diet, exercise, cognitive function, and child development. We do know more about these subjects now than we did a few years ago. Nevertheless, we cannot understand many things with certainty; they are too complicated, and we simply do not have enough information.
We all would like to be able to avoid ambiguity. When we go to the doctor, we would like to get a clear, unequivocal diagnosis and treatment. When we ask a question, we would like to get a definitive answer. Of course, it doesn’t work that way. We get conditional responses which leaves us with the uneasy feeling that we really don’t know. Some people are very uncomfortable with ambiguity. They like to find and believe in simple fixes and simple answers. I think that has always been the appeal of strict, fundamentalist religions. There is no ambiguity. “Do this; believe this. You will be saved. If bad things happen, it was God’s will.” Simple, yes. Accurate? Not likely.
As critical thinkers, we must accept the fact that knowing the absolute truth about many things is not possible. Yes, we can function by searching for the most reliable information available and base our behavior on this information. But, at the same time, we must understand that our knowledge of the human body and our natural world is continuing to evolve.
We must accept a certain degree of ambiguity in many areas of our lives. Our conclusions must be provisional. We must be able to change our minds based on new information. Accepting this truth and embracing it is central to clear thinking.