I don’t know about you but I’ve become increasingly disillusioned with science – facts, data, graphs. Funny really, because this blog was predicated on a belief in science. To be honest, my loss of faith began before COVID. I suspect the pandemic merely confirmed what I was beginning to suspect.
Of course there are lots of extraordinary scientists doing powerfully important work. It’s vital not to lose sight of that, and it’s vital that we remember all the remarkable break-throughs, particularly in the fields of medicine and natural sciences. We owe our current quality of life to science. But we also owe some of the world’s destruction to advances in science and technology that we didn’t fully grasp, or that didn’t become clear until it was too late. Like everything, the discoveries of science are good and bad, and a thousand shades in between.
In seven years of following numerous science feeds, blogs and studies, I’ve realised that what really matters when the chips are down isn’t science at all. It’s Meaning. Truth. Beauty. Human stories. We rarely find these in data, especially not when the data is disputed, questionable, unreliable even. But just because something isn’t quantifiable doesn’t make it any less significant. During COVID, I forced myself to follow the science for a few weeks. But living in such close proximity to death made me realise how pointless the data was. What mattered was the smallest of things: seeing my new best friend each morning (the local heron), walking beside vast cottonwood trees at dawn, a letter from a friend (yes, you read that correctly, a letter!), a game of Scrabble with my children, a telephone call with my mum, a freshly baked biscuit, ripe strawberries, reading gorgeously written prose, birdsong, the scent of lavender. The list goes on, but nowhere did it include anything about R or K. Besides, I was tired of being told what to do by a bunch of people who rarely agreed – if the data on something as simple as wearing a face mask is so contradictory what does that tell us?
Occasionally I read reports that made sense (I’m getting to them), but more because they confirmed something I was already sensing or seemed to know instinctively. In which case, why bother reading them? I’ll tell you why, because they show us how frequently we have the answers within us, if only we can tune in to our own bodies. If only we can learn to over-ride the incessant chatter of our own baffled minds. But it’s also good to understand why and how something works, so that we can better apply it to our lives.
A few recent examples include this study, published this week, seeking to understand the link between muscles and immunity. It’s a study of mice and while we often ignore mouse-studies, this one may turn out to be important. Very simply, chronic diseases including cancer, where the immune system is required to fight for an extended period of time, often gain momentum when the exhausted immune system collapses. This study found that mice with more muscle mass were better able to cope with chronic viral infection than those whose muscles were weaker. There’s a lot of complex science in the study, but the idea that a muscled body might mean better immunity strikes me as highly pertinent as we exit the current pandemic with our eye on possible second waves. Yes, I know we’re not mice. But ten minutes a day carrying shopping, lifting a few weights or lugging logs isn’t difficult. It’s what our bodies were designed to do.
And then there’s this meta-analysis, also published this week, showing that those with the lowest levels of Vitamin K1 had a 19% higher risk of death. Vitamin K plays many roles in our bodies, including getting calcium into our bones and helping blood to clot.
Vitamin K1 is found in leafy green vegetables and brassicas. We all know that our diets should include a daily dose of a green vegetable (or a brassica like cauliflower). So nothing new here, perhaps. But these ongoing studies act as prompts, reminders that we need to continue eating the buds and leaves our ancestors feasted from and that our bodies were designed – over millennia – to consume.
As an aside, the less-studied K2 is vital for building bone density. Several studies have linked high levels of K2 to lower bone loss (and to less cardio-vascular disease). Vitamin K is particularly complicated which may be the reason we hear so little about it. There’s a full science lesson on K2 here. K2 – in all its forms – is found in animal products: organ meats, egg yolks and cheese are good sources. The Japanese fermented food, Natto, is the best possible source of K2 but an acquired taste. K2 is also found in sauerkraut. Cheeses high in K2 include Camembert, Munster, Stilton and aged Gouda. Cheese is where most of us get our K2 but all cheese is not equal. There’s a fascinating study of K2 in cheese here (reading this reminded me why I still find some science thrilling, even post-COVID!).
I didn’t intend to get dragged back to such hard-core science given I’m so science-weary – my apologies! Forward to the important things… sunshine, holidays (possibly) and books. To celebrate the publication this month of my first novel in America, I’m giving away two signed copies. The book is inspired by the true life of a dancer in 1920s Paris and I’m delighted that several US reviewers have included it in their Best Summer Reading round-ups. There’s no science in it, but I like to think it includes plenty of Meaning! It’ll also transport you to the heady days of jazz-age Paris, where people hugged, kissed, danced and went out! You can listen to why and how I wrote the book in this US podcast (only 18 minutes) or go to my FB page to catch up with other podcasts, talks and interviews.
The two winners will also receive a hand-written letter. I know that sounds odd (and it’s not compulsory), but during COVID I’ve returned to hand-writing. Like map-reading (which I wrote about here), hand-writing exercises certain brain muscles which the keyboard of a laptop can’t match. I’ll be writing about the age-well science (and art) of writing by hand in an upcoming post.
If you’d like to put your name into the pot for a signed copy of The Joyce Girl, with or without a personal letter, please email us at our private email account, firstname.lastname@example.org, with the three words THE JOYCE GIRL. You can click straight through to the email from our contact page. Our cut-off date is 6pm on 30 June when two names will be chosen at random. So hurry…
A really interesting study on Vitamn K. Thank you for highlighting this. I wonder can a vitamin supplement do the same? Like many older people (60’s) during lockdown, I’ve been trying to eat healthily, exercise, walk and take helpful supplements like vitamin D3 and Zinc, but also connecting with friends and family gives a great boost to well being that is real, but harder to measure! Sadly, the headline in today’s Guardian highlights how lonely and isolated some people felt during lockdown and that is a great downside of our increasingly self focused world. I think a lot of people reached out during lockdown to those who may have been more isolated and hopefully that will continue.
Thanks again for the Age Well project and I look forward to reading your new novel!
Annabel Streets says
Thank you so much – glad you enjoyed it. Yes, lockdown has been terrible for many. Let’s hope the effects are not scarring or lasting… only time will tell.
Thank you so much for that well thought out email. I really appreciate those of you who have the skill with words and writing…. being able to put down on paper what is in my head!!! Sensible advise with the links if I want more detail …
I met with some girlfriends for a cream tea in the garden in the pouring rain under a soggy gazebo yestereday which was lovely until we swerved onto politics/science/ momentarily!! Not good for stress at anytime ha ha….but a second scone with lashings of jam and cream calmed us….Take care and thanks again.
Dr Fiona Neall says
As a professional scientist (not in a medical field) I am pretty disappointed with this attitude that I sum up as ‘science providing all the right answers and nothing else’. It’s an attitude as a science communicator I come across pretty often among people who are not themselves scientists but think they have a pretty good handle on things.
It turns out that they ignore the fundamental principle of science – nothing is proven, you just build evidence until the possible answers are reduced to one that explains all that evidence.
Issues like mask-wearing are apparently simple. But when you unpick the possibilities, e.g. does the mask stop you transmitting, stop you inhaling virus, increase transmission by handling of dirty masks, make people feel safe so breach the 2-m distancing or take public transport more frequently? – it all starts to get a lot more complicated and collecting data to say one way or another is difficult. Plus as Dr Fauci (I’m assumiing you are aware of him and his role in the US) admitted, when PPE was in short supply for professionals, did the authorities want to send a message that mask wearing might reduce transmission in the general population, causing more panic buying that made life harder for the professionals for whom it is ESSENTIAL. If your common-sense tells you wearing a bandana or similar face covering will increase your safety, wear one. Just be careful handling it and make sure you still observe appropriate distancing. That’s not waiting for the science to tell you ‘The answer’, it’s taking responsibility.
Yes – science doesn’t always have all the answers or even the correct answer, and things go wrong – often. And it’s worth being mindful that there are plenty of people who will make money from something, no matter what the consequences. So if that means exploiting a scientific advance with uncertain consequences, they will do it and plenty of people will cheer them on as ‘entrepreneurs’ and business leaders. It’s easy to ignore scientists’ warning – global warming? stopped flying yet? – of remote consequences when you are seeing some personal benefit.
Annabel Streets says
Thanks so much for your comment – ‘science’ has rarely played such a starring /centre-stage role before, and being filtered through politicians and the media has, I suspect, played a part in our current science-fatigue. You’re absolutely right about common sense. But it’s hard to find a way back to common sense having been so acutely panicked. I’m sure we’ll get there…
terry brown says
i agree with Dr Neal.
science does not have all the answers. it is only as good as the evidence collected to support a theory. As we can not be certain the evidence is complete, all theories are provisional, a best attempt until further evidence proves otherwise or not. This is still better then intuition or common sense. The problem is human beings hate uncertainty and demand absolute right or wrong answers. There is no such thing
Annabel Streets says
Indeed. I suspect we shall all have to live with uncertainty and the discomfort that brings for some time, as our ancestors did. Let’s see what history makes of this episode in the years to come…
Peter Douglas Trethewey says
The government use of science on covid is designed to detract our attention from the state of the NHS, so badly under funded to be not up to a pandemic. No longer needed.
Socrates believed that we know so much more than we think we do.
Vitamin K is, as you say interesting, when young I had very little and bled a lot(tooth extract) and my first biome test proved it but I followed their diet advice and now I have plenty.
Really enjoy your sensible comments. Please do not stop!
Susie Muir says
Just to say how much I value your newsletters, thank you. I’ve bought your book four times already and will keep gifting it.
The way you write always reads like a friend sharing superb advice and in the nicest of ways often reminds me of the way Nigella writes, from the heart.
Very much looking forward to The Age Well Plan, very best to you both and keep up the excellent work x
Annabel Streets says
Thank you so much for your kind words…. much appreciated!
Dear Annabelle, I was so sorry to read that you are disillusioned with science – after having read so many interesting scientific research articles you have put forward though your pages, how can this be when science is the ‘meaning, truth, beauty, human stories’ you say matter – ‘the rest is silence’ or air – usually hot. Please don’t lose your faith that it is science that matters and can change the world and I say this as an English Lit graduate whose scientific education stopped with A’level Biology. Please don’t let the current politicians cynical misuse of data put you off the discipline and rigour that underpin science.
Annabel Streets says
Ah, that’s very kind… I suspect we just need to get through this current bewildering moment. I can’t think of a time when science has been as politicised as it is now, or as distorted. I hope it’s not part of the ‘new norm’ (as they say). Thanks for the comment!