Thursday, October 27, 2011

True Religion


Hoshanna Raba
21 Tishrei, 5772
October 18th, 2011

The University of Minnesota just put out a groundbreaking study, massive in both size and scope – 39,000 women over nearly 20 years. What it revealed was that taking vitamin supplements did not help these women live any longer. In fact, those who took supplements died three to 10% earlier.*
But what I know for certain about this study is that it will not change anything. Belief in the power of multivitamins will prevail. The vitamin industry will stay strong. All this is because, in this country, health is religion, not science.

If well-off Americans have one true religion, it is our health and the health of our children. We treat received knowledge about health and illness as articles of faith: once we’ve accepted a health factoid as true (anti-oxidants prevent cancer*, vaccines cause autism*) no amount of evidence to the contrary can shake our belief in it.

Sartre writes, “How can one choose to reason falsely? It is because of a longing for impenetrability. The rational man groans as he gropes for the truth; he knows that his reasoning is no more than tentative, that other considerations may supervene to cast doubt on it…But there are other people who are attracted by the durability of the stone…What frightens them is not the content of the truth…but the form itself of truth, that thing of indefinite approximation.”

Part of the honest life, even in the face of disease, is acknowledging that there are few givens and little surety when it comes to our health. The truth of our bodies, as Sartre says, is indefinite – stated in probabilities, not absolutes. Honesty means giving up certainty and living well and boldly nonetheless. It is strange for a rabbi to say, but we could do with being a little less religious.

* Just to be clear, there is no claim that supplements negatively impact one’s health. Three to 10% is in the realm of statistical variance. The study simply indicates that multivitamins have no positive effect on longevity.
* From the National Cancer Institute: “However, information from recent clinical trials is less clear. In recent years, large-scale, randomized clinical trials reached inconsistent conclusions. 
* The study suggesting that autism and the MMR vaccine were linked was retracted by The Lancet, the British medical journal which originally printed it. Significantly, the NYT article reported these comments: “’It builds on the overwhelming body of research by the world’s leading scientists that concludes there is no link between M.M.R. vaccine and autism,’ Mr. Skinner wrote in an e-mail message. A British medical panel concluded last week that Dr. Wakefield (the author of the study) had been dishonest, violated basic research ethics rules and showed a “callous disregard” for the suffering of children involved in his research.”

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