Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Doctrine of Signatures

It is an unpleasant fact that science will always become outdated.

I am sure that a hundred years from now, schoolchildren will laugh at the principles we currently believe to be absolute scientific truths, just like how we now laugh at what was once "truth" centuries ago.

Take for instance the doctrine of signatures, which states that resemblance is a good indicator of effectiveness. If a particular plant resembles a human ear in its shape, then according to the doctrine of signatures this plant would have some sort of useful relevancy to the ear, perhaps being able to cure an earache.

While this now seems very arbitrary and somewhat unreliable, the doctrine of signatures still could be found in mainstream medical texts well into the 19th century and today is still the main principle of homeopathic medicine.

In fact, the doctrine of signatures can still be found in some nutrition myths that are still popular today. I know it's hard to believe that we would still use the doctrine of signatures with all of the research and scientific advancement that has happened in the world of nutrition, but take for instance fat, protein and cholesterol.

Many people still believe that eating fat will make you fat, that you need to eat large amounts of protein to build large amounts of muscle and that eating dietary cholesterol will make your blood cholesterol levels go through the roof.

Even though many of these "facts" are now largely disputed within the research community, people still believe them.

Why? You ask.

I think the reason is that these days science outdates itself so quickly that we no longer know what to believe. However, don’t blame the scientists for this.

You see, the job of science and scientists is to add to the existing body of research - To do their small part in answering the big question. However, most mainstream journalism and media need quick answers and they needed them yesterday! And this is where the major mistakes happen.

While scientists look at their work as something that helps answer a small piece of the puzzle, media looks at it as “THE ANSWER”.

This “jumping to scientific conclusions” can have dire consequences, as illustrated by one of my favorite articles, written by Gary Taubes and published in The New York Times back in 2002.

I think this is a very important piece of work that everyone should read, so please check it out by Clicking Here and let me know what you think of Gary's take on the last twenty years of nutrition research and policy.


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Jeff said...

An oldie but a goodie! I remember when it appeared in the NY Times Sunday magazine it created a bit of a storm that rippled through other media outlets. It's amazing however that 4 years after its publication dietary fat is still synonymous with poison, although, it seems, that as time ticks by more and more experts seem to be challenging the gospel.

Thanks for bringing it back to life.

Brad Pilon said...

Hi Jeff,

I wish they would re-run the article, as I think that back in 2002, many people refused to believe some of his arguments solely because they were too “scary”.