The Ultimate Food Fight Between Science and Technology
It’s been 7 years since this article was originally published, and it’s a good time to make some additions. I stand by what I wrote in 2015, 2005, 1990, 1982, and 1978, and I stand by what Aristotle and Hippocrates said more than 2,000 years before me. But our world is going through a rough time and, from my perspective, this information is more apt now than ever. My 2022 amendments are added as italics.
‘Normal science’, according to Thomas Kuhn, refers to a generally accepted but not necessarily correct understanding of science. For example, the scientific community (i.e., ‘normal science’) once believed that the earth was the center of the universe. New evidence and courageous scientists repeatedly challenged this assumption, and eventually the heliocentric model became ‘normal science’.
I dare say that we have been stuck in an outdated paradigm of food and health for the duration of my 67-year career in nutrition research and food and health policy. Our continuing uncertainty of knowing how to consume safe, health-promoting food on a daily basis raises questions about the scientific integrity guiding our decisions.
Why do most researchers in ‘normal science’, for example, ignore the benefits of a whole food, plant-based (WFPB) diet on human health? And why do the same ‘normal science’ researchers assume the safety of genetically modified (GM) foods? Two seemingly separate ideas sharing the same stage. Although we could think of several answers to these questions, one stands out: A disturbing number of research institutions who maintain a position of objective science shape their agendas according to the demands of the market rather than the pursuits of science and health for the good of planetary, ecological and human health. In doing so, these institutions and their backers are assuming that genes, the first source of biological events, alone determine outcomes. This presumption of genetic supremacy compromises both of these issues: the WFPB diet and GM foods.
I submit that we have vastly overplayed the importance of genes and in so doing, are denying two important features of Nature. In human (animal) health, nutrition controls genetic expression–a fact of nature. In altering genes (plants or animals) to produce a specific outcome ignores the biological complexity of gene activity–a fact of nature. In both cases, we violate Nature and its context and run the risk of unintended consequences. Briefly, one group of people wish to control (i.e., conquer, violate) Nature while a second group is quite happy to live within Nature.
A Whole Food, Plant-Based Diet is Rarely Researched
Except for a handful of intervention studies on heart disease and diabetes [Ornish, Esslestyn, Barnard], virtually no peer-reviewed, professional research study has included subjects using a WFPB lifestyle. Even though rare, these studies now reveal unusually impressive findings. So why hasn’t ‘normal science’ hollered “Hooray!” then explored these findings in more depth? The most prominent and practical reason, of course, is that there are not enough WFPB people to include in these studies, but what else is going on?
The sad truth is that a majority of medically oriented ‘scientists’ seldom want to entertain the idea of a truly comprehensive human study on nutrition, with or without a WFPB cohort. Most of these ‘scientists’ do not value nutritional science at all. In addition, some seem to have grave concern that the effects of a WFPB diet may be too threatening to the status quo that they support and rely on. Policy makers have allowed already minimal research funding for nutrition studies to dwindle even further, and powerful industries have stepped in to compensate researchers for structuring and conducting misleading reductionist research. This parallels the way research has been happening in the GM realm as well. It’s mostly about the role of individual nutrients and individual genes.
The Art of Observation
In my own research career, I was the director of a team from Cornell University, Oxford University, and the Chinese Academy of Preventative Medicine that conducted what is still the most comprehensive study of nutrition ever undertaken. This included 6,500 subjects in rural China (stable residency and local food availability), where most people were using diets that approached the nutritional profiles of a whole food, plant-based diet. This project was prompted in part by our laboratory-based research that led to demonstrations that this diet 1) reverses experimental cancer development, 2) controls gene expression (enhancing health promoting genes and suppressing disease promoting genes), 3) minimizes a broad spectrum of illnesses, unlike the traditional pill and procedure strategy and 4) reverses (i.e, cures) diseased conditions unusually rapidly. These are amazing effects. When aggregated and explained ‘wholistically’, they cannot be ignored! Moreover, they reveal the possibility of returning control of health to the individual, not to the advice of third party experts.
Combining the findings of our lab research with our comprehensive ecological human study in China [The China Study] and adding the independently achieved clinical findings of others [Esselstyn, Ornish, McDougall], the weight of evidence favoring the health benefits of a WFPB diet became extremely impressive, far more so than all the pills, procedures and protocols of ‘normal science’ combined. Even so, this impressive evidence has been ignored by ‘normal science’ researchers, some of whom dismiss this evidence because it did not come from a well focused and straightforward study like the randomized clinical trial. This is a no-win vicious cycle. Some researchers lament the lack of convincing evidence but also seem uninterested in getting such evidence. ‘Normal science’ does not anticipate a positive response.
My research programs produced detailed findings that, if considered parts of the whole of nutrition and cancer, suggested radical change in our understanding of these disciplines. I was in science to gain insight into the natural order of things, that is, Nature. I had two well-funded projects from the onset of my research career. One project concerned people, nutrition and cancer in the Philippines. The other concerned carcinogens, enzymes and cell biology in the laboratory. But some of our ‘parts’ did not fit well into the ‘normal science’ of nutrition and cancer—in fact they didn’t even belong. A little more inquiry made me realize that the ‘normal science’ version of nutrition and health does not acknowledge a unified whole of nature but a misguided collection of random ‘parts’, which have been inappropriately selected for use in past years.
The Difference Between Science and Technology
The kind of science that interests me most is that described as the ‘art of observation’. This approach requires getting a sense of the whole before tackling the parts, understanding the context before focusing on details out of context. It may surprise many that this approach is seldom taken. In genetics research, it would be wise to know that there are about 20,000+ genes, that genes work together through infinite combinations and that genes do not act alone. They must be expressed, a nutrition-dependent process that brings into consideration additional infinite complexity. In nutritional research, it would be wise to know that nutrition involves countless components in foods (many called nutrients) and countless combinations of components working together, largely to control gene expression. There is no way that we can ever know the relative contributions of individual genes, individual nutrients or other food components and the countless ways in which nutrients function. But acknowledging this very complex natural order of things is an essential first step before drawing sweeping conclusions on details. We should be looking for patterns of genes, nutrients and biochemical events that work best to create health, then translate this information in reference to the food we choose to eat.
Unfortunately, we mostly focus on single nutrients, single genes or single gene alterations and single mechanisms by which these entities work, then make conclusions as if they are singularly important. This is technology, not science, and the implications of this approach is that it will forever be subject to the whims of our personal and corporate preferences, will forever be confused and forever suffering unintended consequences. I should also add that Jonathan’s wife, Allison, also a brilliant molecular geneticist, from my personal acquaintance, is of the same mind as Jonathan and myself. She is someone who professionally challenges that which others may not. And sadly, this art of skepticism, with courage and civility, has sunk to a low level. There is a plethora of academics anxious to do the same thing, but powerful forces now stand in the way.
And unfortunately, this is the result of an active effort since the early 1970s by certain powerful people and institutions to squelch academic freedom, so that they can pursue their own self-serving interests. This was recently and abundantly on display during the recent Covid pandemic. No authority—governmental, political, media, scientific—dared to acknowledge, for example, the potential impact of nutrition on controlling the rampage of the coronavirus. “Let it run its course—we have pharmacologic means to bring it under control.” So it is believed. Since 1980, there has been a huge shift in how academic biomedical research is funded, from 70% public money in 1980 to 30% by 2010. As corporate funding increased, academic freedom decreased. To secure this shift, the Supreme Court Citizens United 5-4 decision allowing corporations to fund political campaigns sealed the deal. Politicians are now marketplace commodities.
I submit that GM and related genetics research is technology, not science. Introducing a new gene to plants to selectively kill pests or to make them resistant to herbicides, without considering how such genes might affect the activities of the other tens of thousands of genes is not science. Identifying single human genes as primary causes of disease, which can only be treated by targeted drug therapies, is also not science. These are examples of technology gone wild.
Why Scientists Leave
Let’s take the example of Dr. Jonathan Latham and Dr. Allison Wilson, two brilliant mid-career molecular geneticists who interpret the underlying science of the genetics ‘revolution’ as well as anyone I know. These two appreciate the kind of science that encompasses—at least in biology—an infinitely complex system which I prefer to call the whole, i.e., ‘wholism’. This is the context that is so often ignored. People of this persuasion—and I am one of them—believe that it is important to be skeptical of claims about parts that ignore the wholes of which they are the parts. A narrow focus on parts, when standing in isolation, is reductionism.
In an article by Dr. Latham concerning Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), Latham stated that, earlier in his career, he “left science”. In my opinion, he did not leave science; he was maintaining the ideals of science. In reality, it was his colleagues who were exploiting modification effects of specific genes, possibly for commercial exploitation. This, by definition, is technology, not science.
I also now realize that I decided to leave science as I had come to know it in the early 1990s, although I kept my endowed professorship at Cornell. Like Latham I did not do so in order to wander into the field of technology, but instead to protect the integrity of the scientific research I had done. At this point my long-standing research program had been handsomely (and publicly) funded by The National Cancer Institute (of NIH) for 27 years. I had successfully requested renewal eight times, and I was confident that our research funding would be renewed again. I knew this review system well, having been a professional peer reviewer for the proposals of colleagues at other academic institutions.
When I received a preliminary review of the ninth proposal, I sensed that there might be trouble ahead. Opinions of normal scientists against our findings on the health value of low protein, low fat, plant-based diets were beginning to surface. These opinions were, in my judgment, more about personal prejudice than about the scientific quality of the research. Consuming less protein has never been a popular idea.
I decided to ‘hang up my boots’, so to speak, and closed my laboratory at Cornell. I had had a marvelous run for more than three decades. I had trained many graduate and undergraduate students, hosted many senior colleagues in my research group and our findings had been published in the very best journals. Ours had been, for many years, the largest, best funded and most published and publicized research program in our large Nutritional Sciences Department, itself long ranked #1 in the US.
I perceived that some colleagues both on and off campus involved in ‘normal science’ believed that our findings were too provocative. After all, this information had the potential to substantially change the way we think about food and health. But something was amiss. I found myself drifting away from what I now call ‘normal science’.
Returning to Dr. Latham’s comments about his “leaving science”, I now see a common thread in his and my decisions. My story is very similar, except that I did not have the same foresight until later in my career. He was a young professional engrossed in an exciting new era of molecular genetics. He was not yet aware that this exciting new information on genes might be exploited for narrowly defined commercial purposes that might create unintended consequences.
The Public has the Right to Know
Consider that we might solve our health problems by advancing information on the exceptional benefits of WFPB diets. My present interest, therefore, is to inform, to educate and to be educated about this very powerful information. This dichotomy of contrasting methods (reductionism vs. ‘wholism’) impacts how we think about science, develop hypotheses, conduct research, interpret findings and apply information in the marketplace.
After almost six decades, I have only increased enthusiasm to share this information with the public. We have had the most expensive health care system in the world for many years. Unfortunately, the health benefits of a WFPB diet is neither known to, nor is used by the health care (disease care?) system. Worse, this information tends to be proactively suppressed with little or no interest in investigating its substance in more detail. My research–focused initially more on cancer research than nutrition research–was publically funded (instead of industry funded as much research is these days). Therefore, I felt it was my responsibility to bring this information to the attention both of students and of the general public who had funded ALL of our work. In doing so, however, certain people within the ‘system’ (of ‘normal science’) tend to ignore or at least oppose my intention, prompting me to ask myself which science was best, theirs or mine. Such opposition—at times even unethical—only spurred me even more to continue on my path.
Science. Real Science.
We need to be aware of the difference between science and technology. Science observes and, unlike technology, there is no need for individuals to advance agendas for products and services. The rules of science should be applied with as much objectivity as can be mustered. This means, among other things, a willingness to be wrong, to debate those with different interpretations of the evidence, to be bold enough to form hypotheses that go against the dominant paradigm, and to honor the findings of others.
There is a beautiful, hopeful message struggling to be heard. We can improve our health by understanding what healthy nutrition really looks like. And science—real science—can show what it is.
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