By N.S. Palmer
Nuance won’t fit on a bumper sticker.
Of course, if we’re talking about the word “nuance,” it fits just fine. But what the word denotes — subtleties, complications, uncertainties, and ambiguities — won’t fit. It’s big and it’s messy. That’s why people absolutely hate it. That’s why they tend to avoid it in their thinking.
These comments are inspired by a recent discussion among my co-workers. One of them made a favorable remark about vitamins and herbal supplements as health aids. Another cited an Atlantic Magazine article by Dr. Paul Offit, a physician who thinks it’s harmful to take vitamins in amounts greater than the government’s recommended daily allowance (now called the Dietary Reference Intake or DRI).
Let’s lay out the facts. Very few people on either side of the debate like them. They don’t fit on a bumper sticker.
There is some evidence that vitamin consumption in excess of the DRI can improve health and reduce one’s risk of diseases such as heart disease and cancer. There is some evidence that it’s a waste of money. There is some evidence that in certain situations, it can be harmful (though still safer than prescription drugs). Taken as a whole, the evidence is all over the place in terms of results, clarity, and credibility.
Add the fact that in spite of astonishing scientific advances in the 20th and 21st centuries, the human body is still poorly understood. We still don’t know exactly what factors (that’s “factors,” plural) result in heart disease, cancer, and other ailments. We still don’t know with a high degree of certainty how, why, or even if some medicines work. And the people who sponsor studies are usually selling something.
As a result, even people who are careful and well-informed have to base their judgments on a real mess. They have to sift through contradictory evidence, assess the credibility of various experts (Linus Pauling, Paul Offit), and reach a conclusion. If they’re smart and self-aware, they know that their conclusion might be wrong. Or it might be right. And that’s as much certainty as they’re going to get.
The human mind hates that kind of ambiguity. It’s much easier to say that Nobel laureate biochemist Linus Pauling was a nut, vitamin intake over the DRI is worthless, Paul Offit is right, and conventional medical treatment is always the solution to our health issues. Or to say that Linus Pauling was a god, vitamin intake over the DRI makes you disease-free and immortal, Paul Offit is a corrupt apologist for Big Pharma, and conventional medical treatment will kill you for profit.
Linus Pauling didn’t subscribe to that kind of over-simplification. When he was dying of cancer at the age of 93, he said that he never thought Vitamin C was magic. He thought it would reduce a person’s risk of premature death from various illnesses and would probably confer other health benefits. And, as a scientist, he knew better than to cite his own individual case of living to the age of 93 as proof of his theories. In science, individual cases tend not to prove much.
Nor do I subscribe to that kind of over-simplification. Dr. Paul Offit is neither stupid nor ignorant, but like all of us — including me — he has a point of view through which he sees and evaluates the evidence. Like all of us, his point of view is biased by his psychology, his personal history, his sources of (considerable) income, and the things he learned first. Whether or not it’s true, what we learn first tends to bias everything that we learn later, because we assess the credibility of new information in terms of what we already believe.
And the issue isn’t limited to vitamins. It affects our judgments in many areas where the evidence is uncomfortably complex and we try to cram it into a simple, black-and-white picture:
- The free market is the solution to all our problems, and liberals are a bunch of America-hating Commies (though I guess now, they would be secret Muslims). Or socialism is the solution to all our problems, and capitalism just means the rich exploit everyone else.
- The Bible is God’s revealed truth, and as such, is error-free in every word it says. (Pick your favorite Bible translation: That’s the one that God likes.) Or the Bible is superstition, and religious believers are ignorant fools.
- Neuroscience can account for and cure all psychological problems. Or Freudian psychoanalysis can, and neuroscience is beside the point.
- America is good. Or America is evil. But whatever it is, we still hate the French.
Those kinds of ideas fit nicely on a bumper sticker, so they are congenial to the simplicity-loving human mind. But they ignore a big truth:
In most situations, you pays your money and takes your chances.
In my opinion, anyone who thinks otherwise is kidding himself.
Copyright 2013 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.