“Science knows it doesn’t know everything; otherwise, it’d stop. But just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you.” — Dara O’Briain
Do you reject “western” medicine, opting instead for more “natural” alternatives? Do you avoid GMOs, antibiotics, and the flu shot? Would you rather receive healing through vitamins, herbs, and energy, than doctors and pills, packaged in toxic green colors and wrapped in labels with warnings of frightening side effects?
I understand your position quite well; I held it for about a decade. I feared doctors, held Big Pharma inherently suspect, and was certain that the medications made in laboratories and dispensed at cold, callous, white-walled pharmacies were deadly poison.
I was being incredibly self-centered.
I didn’t know it, of course. In fact, I thought I was being humble. Here I was, just a piece of planet Earth, relying on Her to provide me with everything I might need. Instead of trusting doctors, with financial interests and corporate sponsors and unreadably dense scholarly papers, I trusted the Earth. She held the answer, not us. It felt fundamentally selfless.
Before I go on, let me tell you some things about myself: I’m not a doctor. I’m not a scientist. I’m not on the payroll of any pharmaceutical companies, or health insurance boards. I’m not a shill for the government, and I’ve never worked for the CIA (it sounds kinda cool, but I think they all carry guns, and I hate guns).
When I was a kid, I would cry if my mother pushed a chair too forcefully. “Everything has a spirit!” I would tell her. Much to the dismay of my entire family, I would wail at the thought of any of earth’s creatures being harmed. When my mother explained to me “where bacon comes from,” I slapped the strip of meat in my hand down on the breakfast table. “I’m never eating meat again,” I said. And I haven’t. What I am saying is, I was born a hippie.
I got my B.A. in philosophy from a small, liberal arts college in the middle of California’s agricultural region. I picked philosophy because, while pursuing a Theatre B.F.A., I had taken so many philosophy classes on the side (yes, philosophy classes on the side), that at some point I realized I could graduate sooner by taking the easy way out: finishing my philosophy degree. [A note to philosophy majors: if you’re thinking “Wait, is this all gonna be a reframing of the is-ought fallacy?”, I can confidently respond: kind of.]
Humanity’s treatment of other living things consumed all my thinking space. When an old tree was cut down in the center of campus, I cried. In the middle of the night, my dorm phone would ring because someone had seen an injured animal somewhere on campus and knew I was the only one who would scale a building for a pigeon with a broken wing. I was in this thing.
I completed a thesis on all the stuff I was thinking about all day anyway: the obligations we have to other living things (a field called bioethics). Albert Schweitzer’s Reverence For Life was my Bible. Schweitzer would go out of the way to avoid stepping even on a blade of grass when he didn’t need to. Such was his (title!) reverence for life. On Earth Day, 2004, I bought my first hybrid bike, and named it Albert. Do you believe me yet? I was in this thing.
There was something intuitive about nature, something primal and connective and ineffable. I would sit under trees on campus and feel the connection between me and them, and sense quite profoundly that universal truth: we are all connected. I started to trust that intuition, built into me by the stars or the planets or God or whatever else might have cooked us into being. That intuition became my guiding light. I learned energy healing, and began using it on friends. When a classmate was diagnosed with testicular cancer, I used purple healing light to pull the cancer away. (Side note: the surgeons may have also helped.) Do you believe me yet? I was in this thing.
Seriously, I am the last person to be writing an essay trying to convince you that your quest for a natural and intuitive life is selfish.
But it is. Here is what I was missing:
The Earth Doesn’t Owe You Shit.
The Earth is not here for you. It’s here for itself. Like it or not, this earth was “created” by cosmic movements you will never completely wrap your head around, and neither will I. But it’s much easier to understand this: We know that life on Earth evolved. You can find that upsetting, or unlikely, or just boring. But the Earth doesn’t give a shit. That’s how it happened.
The literal ground you walk on carries the bones of your ancestors. Those old bodies, decayed and discarded, can be lined up one by one in a stunning array of the history of life. This Animal died, and That One did not. So That One survived and had more children, while This One didn’t. The next generation was more like That One than This One. Meanwhile, somewhere else, An Animal Kind of Like That Animal was evolving separately, making its own stumbling way through evolutionary history. Eventually That Animal, and An Animal Kind of Like That Animal met, and mated, and something not quite like This, not totally That, not entirely Kind of Like That, was born. You’re losing the thread, aren’t you? Good. This is hard to follow. It should be. It took billions of years.
You are the tiniest fraction of this evolutionary history, and true humility means submitting to your tininess. Imagining that the Earth is here to cough up herbs and tinctures to cure you specifically, instead of creating life for life’s sake, is to imagine the Earth is here to serve you.
But it’s not. You’re not that special.
In fact, the Earth would kill you without a second thought: thousands of plants are poisonous to humans. It is only through other people testing them, and dying, that you know to stay away.
Ebola is natural. Anthrax is natural. Arsenic is natural. Foxglove is natural. The only way to be a responsible member of our planet is to respect and fear its power. To treat it as intrinsically valuable, regardless of whether we ever were here.
Nature isn’t here for you. It’s here with you.
Science is Inherently Humble.
Science education in America (and I can only speak for the country in which I grew up) is sorely lacking. I am confident I could have skated all the way through twelfth grade without being able to recite the steps of the scientific method. This is tragic, because science is not just the study of the natural world (though it is our very best way to do just that); it is a system for getting to the truth. It is an inherently humble system.
I’m willing to bet you perform rudimentary science experiments throughout your day.
You hear your phone ring. Where is that coming from? You go in your living room. Ah, no, the sound got fainter, and maybe slightly deeper.
You go to your bedroom. The noise is louder, slightly more high-pitched. It feels closer. I’m closing in on it.
You walk into your closet. No, now it’s muffled and even further away than when I was in my living room.
You adjust, carefully using incredibly complex data received by your ears and eyes to analyze the distance between you and that damn phone. As you walk from room to room, you are testing hypotheses.
You put yourself in the living room, not because you’re sure the phone is there, but because it might be. Prove me wrong, phone! And it does.
So you put yourself in another room. You test the hypothesis that it is in the bedroom. Prove me wrong, phone! And it does.
And so on, until one of your hypotheses (under a pillow, perhaps?) is a jackpot.
You have performed science without meaning to. Without ever articulating it to yourself, you quickly switched between guesses, testing each one and humbly accepting the results when those guesses were wrong. You adjusted with the new information, went on a new search, and successfully got what you wanted.
This is all science is. It is testing hypotheses, checking them, and humbly adjusting when we’re wrong, or just Not Quite Right.
Well. It’s that and a bunch of other cheques and balances that isolate variables, test things many times, make sure the results aren’t biased, run the study design past other experts, and so on. But you get the idea: Science is the best thing going for finding out what you want to know.
Meanwhile, Fetishizing Nature is Inherently Snooty.
But what about this notion that within all of us is a living, breathing intuition, connected to all of life, giving us guidance we should yield? That’s a lovely picture, until you pull the frame out a bit.
Because what are you really doing here? You are trusting your intuition and ignoring everyone, and everything else. You are so confident of your own brain (or gut or soul or whatever makes your insides slosh around for 80+ years), that you will trust it and only it, and let the pieces fall where they may for everyone else. And if you’re wrong? So be it. Fuck all those other people, dogs, trees, rivers, orcas, horses, roses, beetles, coyotes, mountain lions, hydrangeas, and kittens, am I right? You have intuition! You don’t need any of ‘em!
And that’s kind of true: thanks to living in the modern world, where most of us are relatively safe, largely vaccinated against disease, and consistently well-nourished, almost every single person on Earth will outlive their ancestors of just a few hundred years ago.
You can live your entire life, unaware of the gargantuan web of progress propping you up. And then you can take all the credit. You can do that.
But it’s monumentally self-involved.
Your intuition is a good thing; don’t get me wrong. But it is good for exactly one thing: reacting quickly. If you’ve been attacked by a wolf before, your intuition is now an expert on personal wolf attacks. If you see anything that reminds your intuition — your lizard brain — of a wolf, it’s going to tell you to take off before your higher mind knows what’s up.
That’s it. That’s all your intuition can do. If you haven’t fed your intuition a steady diet of experiences, logic, science, data, and the thoughts and opinions of a wide variety of other people who may know something you don’t, your intuition isn’t good for much at all.
Science Doesn’t Know Everything.
Recently, I went through one of the worst experiences of my life. A friend, who I deeply love, fell down a rabbit hole of unproven remedies, in an effort to cure what ailed her. She had become genuinely frustrated by her experiences in doctor’s offices (a familiar feeling for many of us) and turned to an alternative medicine “healer” for help. The healer, as it turned out, was a guy offering a largely useless and potentially deadly remedy from his house in the hills above Los Angeles.
This particular remedy is especially dangerous, but it’s not easy to find that out if you don’t know where to look. A quick google of this faddish treatment will return many positive results. If you don’t have the time to stop and analyze (or if you are looking for confirmation for what you already believe), you might not notice that these pages are written by people selling the therapy, or by “doctors” with internet degrees. Meanwhile, the negative results are from the organizations with tremendous checks and balances baked into their scientific analysis: the National Institute of Health, the World Health Organization, or the Food and Drug Administration. Even some naturopaths were speaking out against the practice.
So I told my friend what I thought: this unproven therapy might kill her. I begged her not to go. She refused.
“You think you know everything,” she said.
But I don’t. I think I know very little. I think I know so little that science must bridge the gap for me. While I trusted my intuition above all else, years ago, my view now is smaller, humbler. I believe I know almost nothing.
You can argue, of course, that the organizations I’m relying on for studies, papers, and journals contain their own biases; that financial interests infiltrate the US health care system; that we believe things today that we won’t believe in a hundred years. That’s true. But that is solved by more curiosity, better policy, stronger public funding of medicine, and more regulation and scrutiny. In other words, more and better science.
When we move closer to the truth, we move away from harm.
And that’s why it’s selfish to trust your own intuition, to trust your impressions of Mother Earth and her herbs and flora, above the diligent, difficult, scientific work of others. You are essentially saying “My gut is better than hundreds of years of people working together.” You are telling Mother Earth that you prefer your warped, self-centered vision of her, to what she really has to say. This is deeply narcissistic.
And it’s selfish. At least, it’s selfish if anyone in your life loves you and wants you to be healthy. And alive.
The person who waves her hand dismissively at science, opting instead for the “natural” solution sold by the energy healer next door, is not so far from the logger, or the fossil fuel tycoon, or the politician who couldn’t give two shits about the reality of human-caused climate change.
They both think the Earth is here for them.
The Earth doesn’t owe you shit.