On “Scientific Research”

I don’t claim to be a “health nut”, but I like to eat healthy barring the occasional indulgence. Whether it’s reducing the consumption of refined grains or adding more fruits and vegetables to my diet, nutrition is a priority. This means reading up on the health section of the news to keep abreast of the latest developments.

I suppose I inherited this quality from my father who obsessively follows research in the health and medical fields. But, lately, I find myself very confused. The following will illustrate why. My family hails from the coast. Coconut is an integral part of our diet primarily because it is natively grown and abundantly available. Whether it’s grated coconut, coconut paste or coconut milk, almost every dish, savoury or sweet incorporates it. Coconut oil has traditionally, also, been the preferred choice for deep frying, saut√©ing or, even, as a dressing. In other words, the way Mediterranean cuisine uses olive oil is how we used coconut oil. I say “used” because this is no longer true. The reason was some research about thirty years ago which stated that coconut oil is very high in cholesterol and terrible for heart health. When my father picked up on this, the consumption of coconut oil in our home dropped drastically. We switched to alternatives for a lot of preparations. Now, almost three decades later, coconut has become the new superfood with ringing endorsements of coconut oil. The jury is still out, however, with some touting it as a panacea and others calling it “poison”.

It doesn’t stop there. Breakfast is a topic that invites contradictory opinions from the scientific community. Some call it vital while others say it’s dangerous. All of these people are scientists with exemplary credentials holding positions of importance in regulatory bodies and academia. For the consumer though, whom or what to believe, that is the question.

I am no scientist, but I wonder how such contradictory results are possible on the same¬†topic. This resulted in my own bit of research. Here are some findings. To begin with, independent studies are few and far in between. A lot of these studies are funded by big industries to malign a rival product so that its consumption drops and, then, promote their own as a “healthier” option. The results are biased in favour of the industry or lobby that sponsors it. Sometimes, the purpose is to hide the ill-effects of their product by exaggerating the so-called “hazards” of another. A case in point is how the sugar industry funded a study in the 1960s to highlight the contribution of fats to heart disease and downplay the role of sugar. This was only discovered as recently as 2016. The fact that this was hidden from the general public for about half a century is a cause of concern. And, when reputed organisations claim that something is dangerous, it is natural for people to think twice about what they eat.

Sometimes, the number of participants in a study is in single digits. How, then, can the results be applied to the general population? No wonder terms like “may” or “could” are frequently used in the title so that if the findings are debunked tomorrow, they are covered and can shirk all responsibility.

In my opinion, there is another factor to be considered – genetics. Studies are often carried out on a specific section of the populace in a particular region. Olive oil, for instance, is healthy and highly recommended. I don’t dispute this. Food habits, at least the traditional kind by which I don’t mean McDonalds or KFC, are cultivated based on crops favoured by the soil and climate. Olive oil is a product of the Mediterranean. People who reside there have consumed it for centuries, and their digestive systems have adapted to it. When it is promoted in Asian countries where other oils are more common, will the results be the same? The same applies to coconut oil which has, only recently, been adopted by the west.

Superfood is the new buzzword in the health industry. The minute something is categorised as such, people rush to buy it. Sometimes, in the quest for health, the consumption of these products gets out of hand. People don’t realise that sometimes too much of a good thing can be counterproductive. Another thing that skyrockets is the price. If you don’t believe me, check the cost of a product when a study declares that it is the best thing for you. Everyday items become unaffordable when they are branded “healthy”. When prices shoot up, you wonder whether it is because of the demand, or sellers trying to make a quick buck out of the next “superfood”.

As health conscious individuals, we are always seeking ways to make our lives better by adopting good eating practices. However, we unwittingly end up playing into the hands of lobbies whose only objective is financial gain. We, all, need to be careful about what we decide to consume based on what is termed as “scientific research”. In a world where business often takes precedence over public health, there are reasons to be wary. Beyond headlines, there are a lot of things that need to be considered with studies about health and nutrition. Sources, researchers, industries, sample sets and target populations are just a few. Because I am not sure what to believe, I have stopped taking these headlines seriously. Consume everything in moderation is one piece of advice that has persisted over time. And, for now, it seems like the sensible thing.


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Science and Religion

I recently read a blog post which dwells on the perceived conflict between science and religion. While I cannot claim to be an expert in either, here are some thoughts.

Many believe that our belief in a higher power originated with the need to explain where we came from and what happens to us after we die. For a long time, natural disasters and epidemics were considered a wrath of God. Human beings thought that the only way to avoid or overcome them was to appease the Gods. It seems, as though, when the answers to life’s questions eluded us, we wanted to believe that it was the work of an unseen and unknown supreme being. It is something that we practice to this day when we say “God knows” to a question that we don’t know the answer to. Maybe, it is our desire to believe that there is some way to influence things that are beyond our control that made us believe in God; that if we are in the Almighty’s good graces, things will work in our favour.

But, soon, science came along. It provided rational explanations for the same things that were once attributed to a divine entity. The reasons for earthquakes, hurricanes and other phenomena were determined and we, even, found ways to predict and mitigate their deadly effects. Causes of life-threatening diseases were identified and cures for ailments were developed. Science went on to explain how all living organisms evolved over time to become what they are today.

Maybe, science answering questions, that were once attributed to God’s handiwork, created an impression that it was encroaching on religious territory. Because, for people furthering the cause of religion, the more that can be attributed to God, the better. This view, however, would mean trusting the unproven over the proven. Religion may have been the only answer once upon a time. But evidence and facts cannot be ignored.

How much a person believes in one over the other depends upon their own experiences with the two. It is akin to a child who favours one parent over another because that parent fulfils the child’s every wish. A person who has experienced first-hand the miracles of modern science will tend to favour it over religion. Take a woman who, after being childless for many years, conceives using IVF. For her, science is nothing short of a miracle and the doctor is no less than God. Whereas, a person for whom science offers no hope, will turn to faith as a last resort. Consider a man who is in the advanced stages of a terminal disease where, despite all its advances, modern medicine can only do so much. If he recovers, his faith in God is sealed. If not, religion offers, at least, some consolation in the idea of life after death.

Science is based on proven facts. It can tell you about the sun, the stars and the galaxies beyond our own, the highest mountains and the deepest oceans. But it has its limitations. As human beings evolved, our lives became about more than just survival. We began to search for meaning in our lives beyond who we were and what we did; a purpose beyond our mundane existence. Scientific theories cannot help here. For example, science does not have an answer for what happens after death beyond the decomposition of our bodies. And, as human beings, who care about life and want to believe that it does not end with death, these existential questions can be very troubling.

Our internal struggles and conflicts cannot be explained or resolved by science. Science cannot tell you what is right and what is wrong. That is a question of morality. While morality is not synonymous with religion, for many, religion acts as moral compass. Morality is an important part of religion and every religion has some guiding principles on how to live a righteous life. Religious scriptures elucidate the idea of an immortal soul and heaven and hell to keep their followers on the straight and narrow.

Another shortcoming of science is that it is difficult for most people to understand. Religion, on the contrary, has a very strong hold. So much so that people tend not to challenge things that they are asked to follow in the name of religion. In some instances, religion has been used to enforce practices that, over time, have proven to be rooted in science. It is possible that people observed benefits of such practices and decided to codify them in religion without knowing the scientific reasons at the time. Or, maybe, it was just easier to get people to follow them if they were associated with religion.

Religion can drive people to be good and do good. It can provide hope and strength like no other. But, at the same time, it can be used to exploit people and justify horrendous acts. No wonder, Karl Marx called it “the opium of the masses”. This makes a scientific approach to religion necessary. We need to question religion rather than accept it blindly. Because, when you challenge something, and it survives, your faith in it only grows stronger. It, also, makes it difficult for others to mislead you. It is easy to blame God when something bad happens when the fact is that most bad things are caused by the actions of men. We need to accept responsibility for our actions rather than blame a higher power for it.

Science and Religion both have a place in human lives. Their purposes do not conflict. Facts are universal while faith is personal. Science deals with the tangible while the intangible is the realm of religion. Science enables us to understand things in and around us. Religion, on the other hand, serves to help us on the journey to discovering ourselves.


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