Finally, a Wise Understanding of Science and Health

I have just finished reading Volume 1 of the magistral and massive tome by Iain McGilchrist, The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World.

From the book we learn that “Dr Iain McGilchrist is a psychiatrist, neuroscience researcher, philosopher and literary scholar. He is a Quondam Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, an Associate Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford, a Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and former Consultant Psychiatrist and Clinical Director at the Bethlem Royal & Maudsley Hospital, London.  He has been a Research Fellow in neuroimaging at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore and a Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Stellenbosch.  He has published original articles and research papers in a wide range of publications on topics in literature, philosophy, medicine and psychiatry.  He is the author of a number of books, but is best-known for The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale 2009).  He lives on the Isle of Skye, has two daughters and a son, and now grandchildren.”

There is so much to say about this book that I expect to post on it in the future. At the end of Volume 1 is Appendix 3, “Why We Should Be Skeptical Of ‘Public Science’.” This piece of writing is so cogent and wise I felt compelled to provide a synopsis for LRC readers now.

It begins, “Wider political and economic forces outside the world of science have their impact, and may contribute to undermining the credibility of science itself.” He then describes a type of official behavior called the ‘white hat’ phenomenon. “This refers to the tendency for people in positions of influence in science policy units to think that because they just know, without going through the tedious process of examining the evidence, that, for example, fat, or salt, or alcohol, must be, in general, dangerous to the health of a nation, the very respectability of science would be at stake were these private fantasies not to be supported (in the early twentieth century similar attitudes could be found applying to homosexuality, masturbation and refusal to wear a vest).”

McGilchrist then takes the cases of precisely fat, salt, and alcohol; showing that the actual science is actively ignored or twisted in the public health discussion. Regarding alcohol, he says:

My purpose, clearly, is not to argue that alcohol is harmless: of course not. I am a physician. I know how gross excess can destroy careers and families, health and happiness. It can be lethal. At one time I was the medical consultant to a team of skilled therapists that helped many alcoholic patients to quit their habit, which for them had become damaging. But there are pleasures, even virtues, in alcohol, known since the dawn of civilisation. This is an area for balance, not hysteria.

The hectoring by bureaucracies is unhelpful. The original recommended levels for the safe consumption of alcohol in Britain are known to have been plucked from thin air (I have that on the authority of someone who sat on the committee that produced the recommendations). Reducing them is about as scientific. The only thing that had a basis in science, and a well-established one, was that women tolerate alcohol less well than men. That was removed from the ‘guidance’, presumably because political correctness trumps reality. (Numbered references to notes have been removed.)

McGilchrist notes that, “Somebody memorably described life as a sexually transmitted terminal disease. Nothing in this world is safe: the art of life is balancing risk with richness. As Paracelsus said, ‘Everything is poison – only the dose makes the difference’.“ How must a wise person live in such a dangerous world? He concludes by restating the ancient maxim that “in all processes there is a balance to be struck.”

But then McGilchrist moves beyond the old truths to state a modern problem, the intrusion of the state. “There is always such a thing as enough. One rarely hears, however, of an administrative body concluding that it has now done enough. Once invented, it carries on pushing in the same direction, marching to the same slogan, even if the reason for adopting the slogan no longer applies – and currently there are few mechanisms for stopping its progress. This is not just a problem in science, of course: it is a prevailing problem of modern life.”

So I say cheers to McGilchrist for stating the obvious, a bit of fat and salt will add flavor, and a glass or two of wine per day can actually help you live longer and happier.