An Unfortunate Ensign Article

June 28, 2008 | 83 comments
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The July 2008 Ensign has an article titled “Cancer, Nutrition, and the Word of Wisdom.” I think it is ill-advised for several reasons.

We should not be following the Word of Wisdom because scientists have identified pragmatic benefits from it. We should be following it out of obedience to the word of God and the doctrines of the Church. A little thought experiment might illustrate why this is so: imagine the following headlines in the newspaper tomorrow:

Scientists Prove Cigarettes Lengthen Life
Leading Nutritionist: Meth Users Don’t Get Cancer
AMA Endorses Beer to Prevent Birth Defects [1]

If your testimony of the WoW had been based on Ensign articles explaining its scientific benefits, I think you might be tempted to jump ship when faced with contradictory evidence. If your testimony of the WoW was based on a spiritual witness that it is a commandment for modern saints, you’d see those headlines and then turn to the funnies with a shrug.

I think the “science shows our faith is right” approach is dangerous primarily for a more insidious reason, however: it encourages us to expect scientific backing for the tenets of our faith. And so when the sociologists can’t show that day care is harmful and the archaeologists can’t find any Nephites and the family scientists discover that children raised by same-sex parents turn out just fine, thank you very much, confusion is sown in people who were raised on a steady diet of the scientific “evidence” for our beliefs and practices. This may not seem terribly important to those of you with strong, well-founded testimonies, but as a convert, I can see the danger in encouraging people to think that science has (or soon will) prove the veracity of all of our doctrines and practices. It isn’t going to (in our lifetimes) and expecting it to is to build on the sandiest of foundations.

That’s my objection to the approach of the article, but I had problems with some of the specifics as well. At one point the author writes, “From the perspective of medical science, most investigators who have examined the effects of caffeine suggest that caffeinated beverages should not be consumed in large quantities.” Of course, he has to say “large quantities” because most investigators would not agree that very small quantities would have harmful effects. As we all know from the overblown “rat studies” large enough quantities of pretty much any innocuous thing will do you in. But what does this have to do with the WoW, which prohibits all hot drinks? (And I won’t even get into the hot drink/caffeine issue here.) In this case, the scientific evidence most definitely does not support the WoW’s complete prohibition on hot drinks, so why even mention it?

Even worse is the section on alcohol. The author notes that alcohol is implicated in an increased risk of some cancers. OK, fine. But google “health benefits of red wine” and then tell me if you think that his brief paragraph can be called representative of the current state of the research on health consequences of alcohol consumption. (Short answer: no.) It is unethical to cherry-pick a few studies that suggest a link between alcohol consumption (in general) and (a few types of) cancer while ignoring the much larger body of evidence that suggests that not only is red wine not harmful, but that it has enough health-promoting benefits that many of his colleagues recommend daily consumption of red wine in order to ward off cancer and other health problems.

The only thing worse than linking gospel principles to science is linking them to bad science.

And I can’t resist ending on a flippant note: Why on earth would an LDS person trot out studies showing that faithful Saints live longer than average? I thought our goal was to return to God’s presence. Are you telling me that following the commandments delays that? Problematical, I say.

[1] When my mother was pregnant with me in 1974, her OB/GYN told her to drink beer. I can’t remember what reason was given, but it was all very scientific.

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83 Responses to An Unfortunate Ensign Article

  1. Julie M. Smith on June 29, 2008 at 12:02 am

    I wrote previously on the dangers of thinking about the WoW as just a health code here:

    http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=3220

    While the discussion following the post is long (and a little silly at times) it also includes some interesting arguments of the not-just-a-health-code variety, particularly Jim F.’s comment in #63 and Visorstuff’s in #68 but others as well. I think the most important point to come up was that D & C 89 itself gives a reason for the commandment–and it isn’t health-related (see v4).

  2. ed42 on June 29, 2008 at 12:14 am

    The word of wisdom as recorded in the scriptures is a ‘commandment’ and we (the Mormon lay people) voted for it.
    The modern WoW is not recorded and we have not voted for it.

  3. Julie M. Smith on June 29, 2008 at 12:16 am

    ed42, a discussion of sustaining (nb not voting for) doctrine/commandments would be interesting, but this thread isn’t the place for it.

  4. greenfrog on June 29, 2008 at 12:19 am

    Julie,

    Should our beliefs in doctrinal and religious matters ever be influenced by the tools of mind that we use outside of religious realms? Is there a way we can tell when to use one approach and when to use the other?

  5. AHLDuke on June 29, 2008 at 12:21 am

    Julie, this is truly pernicious. There was a section in LeGrand Richard’s old missionary standard, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder (do they still give that to missionaries in the “new” Missionary Library? Its horribly outdated) that was very much in the same vein- all these studies done by reputable universities that validated the principles of the Word of Wisdom. Though usually someone who believes very strongly in what science has to teach us, relying on it for support to validate eternal principles is truly relying on the “arm of flesh.” It changes all the time, even if in small increments. I would have to say that in the areas of alcohol and coffee, the weight of the evidence is probably against the WoW. The WoW seems to be a lot less about health and much more oriented to preventing us from doing stupid things, particularly when we are younger. Anyone who has been to a non-LDS college can attest to this.

  6. Julie M. Smith on June 29, 2008 at 12:25 am

    greenfrog, good questions. I can’t think of a situation where my decision to follow (or not) the WoW should be based on the latest research. Can you?

    And if it is (and I’m not saying that the author’s was, but it might have that effect on naive readers), is that a good thing? I don’t think so. If the _only_ reason that you don’t violate it is to avoid health problems are you really following the commandment at all? Is your motive any better than one who does her alms publically?

  7. Neal Davis on June 29, 2008 at 12:31 am

    @#5: They recently removed it from the standard mission library.

    In any case, a major problem with justifications of this kind is that it becomes obsolete, regardless of the position taken. Just look at the old B.H. Roberts-era LDS scholarship, drawing conclusions based on the historical studies of the early twentieth-century, which are now completely dated.

    Of course, I also agree with the criticism that a scientifically-based testimony will fail. Just look at Kierkegaard’s critiques of Hegel.

  8. Doug on June 29, 2008 at 1:12 am

    This recent interesting article from Mormon Times makes many of the same points. At the same time, I think it is worthwhile to look at some of the apparent physical blessings of the Word of Wisdom (why not?). I think if we look at the Word of Wisdom from a D&C 130:20-21 perspective we will look at some of the obvious physical blessings (I don’t think smoking is going to be vindicated anytime soon. That said, I believe that the primary reasons behind the WOW are spiritual and that yes, we should not primarily base our testimony of the WoW on the scientific aspects.

  9. Lupita on June 29, 2008 at 1:24 am

    “I can see the danger in encouraging people to think that science has (or soon will) prove the veracity of all of our doctrines and practices. It isn’t going to (in our lifetimes) and expecting it to is to build on the sandiest of foundations.”
    Amen, Julie.
    As with many fields, medicine is an art and a science. What is accepted as scientific proof now may be drastically different in mere decades. Not that tobacco will ever be proven to be good for one’s lungs but I am holding out for the green light on Cheetos. There’s gotta be a way to get some kind of nutritional value in there!
    My frustration is when the WoW is cited as the reason why the LDS are such a healthy people. Now, I’m not trying to point fingers here but, within my personal realm of experience, I wouldn’t say that is entirely true. I don’t know the specific cancer caused by over-consumption of green jello, but I have to laugh a bit when another study shows that LDS are less likely to die in an alcohol-related car crash while smoking and drinking Starbucks.
    I would’ve found an article discussing various physical and spiritual coping strategies for cancer patients and their families more helpful or perhaps an engagement of the broader issue of how the author reconciles faith with seemingly-contradictory scientific information. But that’s just me.

  10. Seth R. on June 29, 2008 at 1:34 am

    I think recent studies have found that you can derive the same heart benefits from drinking a glass of red grape juice that you can from drinking a glass of wine. Just thought I’d throw that out.

  11. Matt W. on June 29, 2008 at 1:35 am

    While I am all for non-overlapping magesteria, I don’t necassarily mind people saying there may be good things we and others can physically detect coming out of our religious practices. Should that be reason number one for those practices? No, but it isn’t terrible to have there either, or to write an article about them.

    All that said, why does everyone else in the universe get their ensign before me?

  12. WillF on June 29, 2008 at 1:44 am

    Julie,

    I don’t understand the thought experiment with the headlines. I don’t think you are suggesting these were really printed somewhere. Why does imagining the absurd help make your point?

  13. NoCoolName_Tom on June 29, 2008 at 2:17 am

    WillF,
    Because, from the point of view of research science they are all scientifically possible. They are obviously not probable or logical, but we’ve been surprised by how the human body reacts to its environment before and we are certain to be so again. Biology is a science that often surprises. Thus, if future research leads to similar improbable headlines in the future, what would that mean for those who hold to a scientific reasoning for the WoW?

  14. Vesper Holly on June 29, 2008 at 2:19 am

    I don’t actually know anyone who follows the Word of Wisdom completely so I find it difficult to believe that there would be studies proving that it has significant health benefits to the people who follow it. I also see that the published health benefits of some parts of the WoW (eating seasonally or eating meat sparingly) seem to have very little impact on Mormon compliance. I think we pick and choose the studies that make us look more right for following the parts we prefer to follow. Look World! Tobacco is bad for you, the Church must be true!

  15. WillF on June 29, 2008 at 2:47 am

    This wasn’t just any old schmo interpreting the data, Here is his professional profile: http://www.kccancercenter.com/content.aspx?section=yourteam&id=32719

    While I agree that you shouldn’t base your testimony on scientific evidence, I think the Word of Wisdom is unique because it specifically promises good health. You can measure if people are living priniciples of the Word of Wisdom. You can also measure how healthy people are. So, is there some kind of taboo on trying to study if there is a connection between the two?

  16. WillF on June 29, 2008 at 3:02 am

    Personally, I’m afraid that more people will lose their testimonies if they are convinced it is taboo to consider scientific support for the Word of Wisdom, and then go back and read all of the articles by General Authorities that claim scientific evidence for living the Word of Wisdom. This article has been written quite a few times already in the Ensign:

    http://lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=bbd508f54922d010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD&locale=0&sourceId=0692f73c28d98010VgnVCM1000004d82620a____

  17. WillF on June 29, 2008 at 3:02 am

    Personally, I’m afraid that more people will lose their testimonies if they are convinced it is taboo to consider scientific support for the Word of Wisdom, and then go back and read all of the articles by General Authorities that claim scientific evidence for living the Word of Wisdom. This article has been written quite a few times already in the Ensign:

    http://lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=bbd508f54922d010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD&locale=0&sourceId=0692f73c28d98010VgnVCM1000004d82620a____

  18. BrianJ on June 29, 2008 at 3:04 am

    \”I can’t think of a situation where my decision to follow (or not) the WoW should be based on the latest research. Can you?\”

    I wonder if that is what greenfrog was really asking. At any rate, there is ample room for different interpretations of the WoW after one has wholeheartedly decided to follow it. How much grain? How little meat? What kinds of fruits? Which hot drinks are Bad-Hot and which are just hot?

    As for the article, the biggest problem I have with it is it\’s selective use of science—which, I\’ll point out, is an oxymoron, since data selection is verboten in science. If he is going to present his work as a sort of mini-review of nutrition and health, he is obligated to mention studies indicating the health benefits of wine (which may or may not be replicated by grape juice—an accurate review would point out the controversy) and coffee.

  19. manaen on June 29, 2008 at 3:56 am

    Couple quick responses:

    * My problem with the LDS-live-8-to-10-years-longer-than-US-average offering is that as testimony building it fails for at least a couple reasons:
    – Seventh Day Adventists tend to live about 20 years longer than the US average, presumably because of their superior conformance with the WoW’s strictures against eating meat
    – Has anyone controlled our longer-life average for the weaker strains culled out of the gene pool by the pioneers’ ordeal? Their 1-in-11 death rate must have shifted our gene pool’s mix significantly.

    * Longer life is not necessarily a benefit of fully living the the restored gospel — e.g. doing so resulted in the Saints living significantly less time than the US average during the pioneers’ exodus from the US to Deseret. Not following the Church’s counsel to gather in the desert would have avoided the higher, earlier death rate of the pioneers.

  20. Kaimi Wenger on June 29, 2008 at 3:58 am

    “The only thing worse than linking gospel principles to science is linking them to bad science.”

    Amen, Julie. Spot on.

  21. BrianJ on June 29, 2008 at 5:54 am

    manaen, my understanding is that, with a few exceptions, most Mormon pioneers faired relatively well and had only slightly higher death rates than if they had not been traveling.

  22. Jim T on June 29, 2008 at 7:47 am

    Interestingly, that which led to the Word of Wisdom was hygiene, not health, and the Word itself was not enforced until early in the 20th century when the “new interpretation” was decreed. Health, if one actually reads the scripture, is the promise, not the reason for the 89th Section. A pertinent, or perhaps impertinent, question is whether the Word in the 21st Century is still relevant. I would argue that it certainly is, but only if we actually observe it in its entirety. A lot of us bloated, overweight members may not die early from smoking but we will surely die or suffer long-term ill health from our overeating and other food-related self-indulgences. Pardon me while I run to 7-11 for a donut!

  23. jeans on June 29, 2008 at 8:48 am

    …and then serve it to the youth as refreshments, properly prayed over to enhance its nutritional value.

    Julie, well done. This kind of using highly selective science as a magical totem against illness is very dangerous. Yes, diet is implicated in cancer, but there are SO many other factors, and even people who eat healthy get cancer- there are lots of cancers. There’s nothing in the Word of Wisdom, for example, about sun exposure. I especially take umbrage at the practice of choosing only what supports what we already believe. We would be better served by a genuinely exploratory article (yes, even in the Ensign, though I can’t imagine it happening) that presents all sides of an issue, instead of a highly slanted one.

    ed42, I didn’t get the distinction between the “scriptural” and the “modern” WoW…??

  24. Mr. Thoughstkoto on June 29, 2008 at 8:52 am

    Science is usually making things believable. In science you can somehow explain many things unexplainable in religion. But Faith works differently. You have to believe in order to see the results, you have to believe in order to produce miracle. How many of you watched KUNG FU Panda? They are looking for a scroll? When the panda finally had the scroll, there’s nothing it it. When he started believing then he has the power to beat the tiger.

    So yes, I agree with you. We may need science to be believable, but our faith is what we need…to strengthen.

  25. Seth R. on June 29, 2008 at 9:12 am

    I think Dumbo would have made your point better.

    It got better reviews.

  26. Geoff B on June 29, 2008 at 9:23 am

    Every time I talk to an investigator of Church skeptic, I inevitably get into a discussion like, “why can Mormons drink Coke but can’t drink coffee?” or “haven’t recent studies shown that a cup of red wine a day is good for you? So why would Mormons prohibit something that is good for you?” It is impossible to make any argument along these lines that is at all convincing to anybody thoughtful. The only thing that you can say, which is what I have learned to say, is “the Word of Wisdom is about faith. In the same way that Orthodox Jews believe in eating kosher (even though white meat pork is not bad for you), Mormons have rules about what we should ingest and what we shouldn’t. Some of those rules are clearly true — no tobacco, etc. Some of them are harder to accept. The only way you can truly accept them is if you have faith they are true. I have faith they are true.” Any other line of argument simply falls apart.

  27. Jonathan Green on June 29, 2008 at 9:23 am

    I guess I don’t see anything unfortunate about the article. In general, if a belief purports to have some connection to the real world, I don’t have any objection to a competent discussion of evidence for that connection in the Ensign. So if the Word of Wisdom promises better health, it seem appropriate to talk about people’s improved health. In the specific case of the World of Wisdom, where there is so much room granted (outside the prohibitions) for following the commandment according to our best understanding, it actually does seem appropriate to me if some people base their decisions on the latest scientific discoveries.

  28. WillF on June 29, 2008 at 9:55 am

    “The only thing worse than linking gospel principles to science is linking them to bad science. ”

    How do you support the conclusion that Dr. Stephenson is linking to bad science?

  29. Susan M on June 29, 2008 at 10:21 am

    I’ve always thought of the WoW as being about moderation. Cigarettes, coffee, alcohol—these things are addictive. Sure there are some people who are able to handle them in moderation, but not the weakest of us.

    (I said this once on an email list years ago and also mentioned that we are commanded to be moderate in all things, and someone jumped on me because they couldn’t actually find that anywhere in the scriptures. Because the scriptures use the word “temperate,” instead. Which means moderate.)

  30. apricot on June 29, 2008 at 10:26 am

    A professor of health education at BYU told me that according to the most recent studies from the med literature, the three healthiest drinks on the planet where, in this order:

    Tea,
    Coffee,
    a glass of red wine a day.

    A poultry science professor (who was our bishop) told us in a class on the Word of Wisdom that we needed to be careful interpreting it literally because rye was poisonous to domesticated fowl. Not unhealthy mind you. Poisonous.

  31. WillF on June 29, 2008 at 10:52 am

    30 – So are we to conclude that the recency of a study is what makes it reliable?

  32. Ranbato on June 29, 2008 at 10:57 am

    Actually, my understanding is the red wine studies are somewhat red herrings. Red wine isn’t good for your heart as much as red grape juice — red wine just happens to retain many of the properties of the grape juice it is made of.

  33. Kaimi Wenger on June 29, 2008 at 11:10 am

    Jeans (23),

    Ed’s referring to the turn-of-the-century shift, when the WoW (or at least, certain portions of it) became viewed as commandment (and grounds for discipline), not just optional good advice.

    It’s pretty clear that Section 89 when given was optional good advice. (See the first few verses of it, for instance.) For the first 70 years or so, it was not enforced as a commandment (except for a very small number of cases of discipline for egregious breaches like public drunkenness). This gradually shifted under Joseph F. Smith and Heber J. Grant.

    The best historical analysis is Tom Alexander’s book, _Mormonism in Transition_. Peterson’s master’s thesis (available on the BYU website) is also a good source.

  34. Kari on June 29, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    Kaimi,

    I haven’t read the Alexander book, but echo your recommendation of Peterson’s master’s thesis

  35. Bob on June 29, 2008 at 12:19 pm

    It seems to me, Church members breakdown into two groups: Those who have a faith directly in the WoW, and those who have a faith in keeping Commandments (?)

  36. JT on June 29, 2008 at 12:29 pm

    Is there anything wrong with viewing the WoW as _the Lord’s_ law of health (i.e., not modern science’s law of health)? I guess I still see it as a law of health. That many of the blessings in the WoW refer to things of a spritual nature shouldn’t be surprising, given the LDS views on the body.

    I personally find scientific support for some of the WoW faith-confirming, yet I don’t find discrepancies between the two as faith-demoting. I’m not exactly sure why – probably similar to the reasons mentioned in the other comments. However, for someone who does not have a strong foundation of faith in the restored gospel, I suppose confusing spiritual “proof” with scientific “proof” could potentially be spiritually damaging.

  37. Peter LLC on June 29, 2008 at 12:32 pm

    I guess I don’t see anything unfortunate about the article.

    Perhaps your reading wasn’t close enough? For example, the author’s use of the perfect verbal mood suggests that the Word of Wisdom normally has a beginning and end, which is not how Mormons typically consider their health code.

  38. Mark D. on June 29, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    Does God command something because it is good, or is it good because God commanded it? I should rather hope the former. Otherwise the WoW is nothing more than a faith testing exercise.

    One has to make allowances for the reliability of scientific investigation, but in general research thoroughly confirming the benefits of following the WoW is joint evidence that it was inspired and is more than a test of faith, and of course evidence thoroughly rejecting it is evidence that it either wasn’t particularly inspired or it is little more than a test of faith.

    For someone who likes to inhabit a world where God commands us to do things because they are wise and just rather than devising arbitrary dictates to try our patience and our faith for no good reason, I welcome such confirmation.

  39. queuno on June 29, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    Flake’s book about the Smoot hearings (can’t find it in my clutter, at the moment) makes the observation that the elevation of the WoW was intended to give the Saints a new way to externally show devotion, now that polygamy (esp after the Second Manifesto) was verboten.

    (I may be oversimplifying, and Flake may have been citing someone else, but her succinct discussion of it is on my mind lately. Plus, I just finished it and haven’t started my Martin&Willie volume yet.)

  40. Julie M. Smith on June 29, 2008 at 1:43 pm

    WillF, re: the bad science

    As I said in the post:

    ‘It is unethical to cherry-pick a few studies that suggest a link between alcohol consumption (in general) and (a few types of) cancer while ignoring the much larger body of evidence that suggests that not only is red wine not harmful, but that it has enough health-promoting benefits that many of his colleagues recommend daily consumption of red wine in order to ward off cancer and other health problems.”

  41. Jonathan Green on June 29, 2008 at 2:14 pm

    Petter LLC, I protest. The article’s one use of the perfective mood with the Word of Wisdom as subject is entirely appropriate: “the Word of Wisdom … has stood the test of time.” Don’t you agree, somewhat agree, disagree, or strongly disagree?

    Julie, on what basis do you think the author is cherry picking? My impression is that the number of red wine studies is not particularly large compared to the whole body of cancer research. I am by no means an oncologist and my command of the literature is basically zero, but I assume you’re in more or less the same state. You’ll have to give me a reason to think otherwise.

  42. Julie M. Smith on June 29, 2008 at 2:25 pm

    Jonathan, I freely admit that I’m not an expert. But I’d encourage you to at least google some abstracts of medical studies and see what you find. More importantly, look at the health and diet recommendations of reputable sources: not only are they not warning people off of red wine, some are encouraging its use. The study mentioned in the link in my post (92 out of Harvard) named drinking red wine as one of the eight most important things you can do to promote heart health. I assume they know more about the issue than either of us.

    I believe it is ill-advised to find a few studies showing an increased risk of a few kinds of cancer as a result of “alcohol” consumption and present that as if it were the whole story about alcohol and health. Further, the issue isn’t just cancer–I’m seeing studies showing red wine (or, from the nurses’ study, what they called “moderate alcohol consumption”) beneficial for everything from strokes, Alzheimer’s, certain cancers, diabetes, hypertension, coronary heart disease, aging in general, etc., etc.

  43. MattG on June 29, 2008 at 3:47 pm

    Mark D.,

    “Otherwise the WoW is nothing more than a faith testing exercise.”

    Sometimes I think it is the former. Why did the Jews wear phylacteries and not trim the corners of their beard? Was it somehow beneficial to them? Why some of the seeming arbitrary laws that we are given, especially those given to the Israelites? When I look at the Levitical laws given in the OT, most of them seem outright silly. But looking back I think we agree that one of the main purposes was to portray to the Israelites a sense of order, cleanliness, and being “different” from the world. The kosher laws, the various washing rituals and purifications, they may have been physically healthful, but they also reinforced the idea of being whole and pure before the Lord. I think the Word of Wisdom falls into this category for us as well. It’s not so much the individual parts, but the idea it’s getting across: live clean, be a peculiar people to the Lord. Maybe sometimes we are given some commandments so we can be set apart as a peculiar people, which in this case, I think the WoW is. This theme has been revisited lately re: both WofW and polygyny. Sometimes there is no logical reason, it just is, and we do it, because we have faith in God and receive a witness that we should do it. I agree, though, that most of the commandments are for our physical and spiritual welfare, as they help transform us into the type of person that God is. Obedience is one of them. It didn’t make sense for Jesus to be baptized either, but He did it anyway to follow the commandment, not logic.

  44. Researcher on June 29, 2008 at 3:54 pm

    I haven’t read all the comments thoroughly, but here’s a heads up for all the lawyer- and liberal-arts types among you.

    If you want to look up the medical studies yourselves, you can go to PubMed. That’s the government’s huge database of scientific papers.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez

    If you type in (for example) “red wine,” it comes up with 2,004 articles. Here are some of them from the first couple of pages:

    Wine can trigger asthma [Armentia]. Very small amounts of alcohol use do not damage the liver over the course of ten days [Wutzke et al]. Small amounts of wine use in non-obese, exercising people eating a healthy diet can help prevent coronary heart disease [Corder]. A small amount of alcohol use can help cardiovascular health, but any more than that and you can develop problems with hypertriglyceridemia (high cholesterol), cardiomyopathy (inflamed heart), hypertension (high blood pressure), and stroke [Saremi and Arora]. And the articles go on [and on] from there.

    With the multitude of research funded by various governments, universities, and companies, you can find a study to support any point of view. The real trick when looking at medical research is to find studies that look at large enough populations or that survey a lot of other studies. That is why research like the Framingham Study is so important. It has looked at heart health in an immense group of people over many decades. Whereas the small study above looking at the effect of small amounts of alcohol on the liver over ten days is less useful in making epidemiological recommendations. (Epidemiology is the study of health and disease in a population.)

    Looking at the Word of Wisdom in epidemiological terms is an interesting exercise.

    Benefits to the population: if used in small amounts, possible minor health benefits from red wine; easing certain social situations

    Risks to the population: alcoholism, drunk driving, crime, allergies, damage to the liver (cirrhosis, cholestasis, etc.), other bad effects on health (such as those noted in the Saremi study) exposure to other risk behaviors (as one lady I know says: getting drunk and going home with a [low-class man]), and I’m sure I could think about other risks if I kept thinking or looked at the MADD site.

    So looking at those risk factors in a whole large population that you cared a lot about, if you were the person who had to make a decision on whether or not to recommend alcohol use, which would you choose?

  45. DavidH on June 29, 2008 at 4:00 pm

    Apart from the strictness of enforcement, another difference between the moderm wofw and section 89 is interpretation of what it means–the modern enforced wofw is limited to tobacco, alcohol and coffee and tea (of certain types)–perhaps drug abuse as well. Section 89′s emphasis on sparing use of meat is usually forgotten, and certainly not enforced. A pretty good argument based on language can be made that section 89 only applied to hard liquor, and not to wine or beer. The interpretation of hot drinks as including coffee and tea, whether hot or cold, is not evident in the language of the section, although I think there is some relatively contemporaneous evidence that it was meant to apply to at least hot coffee and tea.

  46. Jonathan Green on June 29, 2008 at 4:12 pm

    Julie, it’s an article specifically about cancer, not heart disease or general health. If you’re going to say the author is cherry-picking concerning cancer studies, the burden is on you to show that that is so.

  47. Ray on June 29, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    #44 – especially if red wine was being recommended instead of red grape juice (even though both carried the same benefits) mostly because people wanted to allow for the consumption of red wine over red grape juice.

    Seriously, why would the studies focus on red wine instead of red grape juice? The only reason is to provide a justification for the consumption of wine.

    Having said that, I also am wary of discussing the WofW as primarily a health law. Given its stated purpose, I prefer to view it as primarily an addiction avoidance law. The general health benefits can be vast or infinitesimal; I really don’t care much.

  48. Julie M. Smith on June 29, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    Jonathan, given that the author mentions “infertility, Meniere’s disease (a disease affecting balance), insomnia, sudden infant death syndrome (with maternal consumption in utero), and fibrocystic disease of the breasts. In addition, gastric acid disease (ulcers of the stomach and duodenum)” in his section on caffeine but doesn’t mention cancer in that section, I’m not sure why we would limit the discussion to just cancer.

  49. Julie M. Smith on June 29, 2008 at 4:25 pm

    Ray, from what I understand, the active ingredient in red wine is something called resveratrol and while it does occur in grade juice, it is in substantially higher amounts in (some) red wine. Further, you can’t really blame the winemakers for this one since they are legally forbidden to mention positive health effects of alcohol consumption in their advertising. I don’t know anything about who is or isn’t funding the studies, but I am open to the possibility that it is “designing men.”

  50. WillF on June 29, 2008 at 4:26 pm

    Julie,
    By saying the author was “linking to bad science” I thought it you meant that the studies he was citing weren’t reputable. I don’t buy the idea that the majority rules in science. If there are 5 studies on one side and 1 on the other (or even 500 to 1) do we make a judgement based on quantity? Don’t you have to examine the studies themselves for quality?

  51. StillConfused on June 29, 2008 at 4:33 pm

    WoW = World of Warcraft if you have teenage boys. Makes for an interesting take on this discussion.

  52. Julie M. Smith on June 29, 2008 at 4:36 pm

    WillF, I wasn’t suggesting that at all. Of course we don’t do that.

  53. BrianJ on June 29, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    Unless you have a solid understanding of the research in question, going to PubMed is about the worst thing you can do. If you want expert opinion, you either have to become an expert yourself (at least to a degree) or track down some experts. For example, you might consult the Mayo Clinic for expert advice.

    Ray, many of the studies focus on red wine and not grape juice because they are prospective or cross-sectional studies, which means that the researchers did not tell people what to eat/drink but rather looked at what people were already doing. And lo, lots of people consumed alcohol but not so many juice drinkers, which means alcohol is the only thing one could test. This is definitely not a conspiracy to promote alcohol. Later studies were designed differently in order to be capable of distinguishing between red wine or juice.

  54. Bree on June 29, 2008 at 6:56 pm

    Great thoughts, Julie. I hope you send your critique to the editors.

    Re: Pregnancy and Beer– I know that Guinness was routinely given to women after childbirth in Ireland and Britain in the years before WWII, presumably for its very high iron content. Perhaps that is where the strange advice stems from?

  55. Gary Goodson on June 29, 2008 at 8:31 pm

    Julie, great job in stimulating an interesting and lively discussion on the subject of the Word of Wisdom!

    My first reaction to your comments was, “Why the big deal?” We have people studying external evidences to the Book of Mormon. Are there some problems that people bring up that we don’t yet have answers to? Yes. But if our testimonies are based on faith and a testimony from the Holy Ghost this does not destroy our testimony. On the other hand some of the external evidences to the Book of Mormon can be faith supporting.

    I believe that scientific evidence of benefits of the WOW can also be faith supporting.

    As has been mentioned there is an interesting history of the evolvement of the WOW. It has meant different things to different modern prophets throughout the years. This is okay. But I have noted that some recent Ensign articles have referred to scriptures in 1 Corinthians concerning how our bodies are the temple of God and how we should take care of it. So regardless of what exactly is covered or not covered in the 89th section I believe that there is a principle that if we follow it can enable us to do things that keep the body and spirit healthy whether the specific items are mentioned in the WOW or not.

    Additionally I find that many of the health studies are suspect. As has already been pointed out there are many problems with alcohol consumption. I doubt that normally the benefits of red wine would justify starting to drink red wine just for these benefits. Certainly most articles that I have read on the subject do not encourage this.

    I am currently reading The Last Well Person by Nortin M. Hadler, professor of Medicine and Microbiology/Immunology at the University of North Carolina. He is a graduate of Yale and Harvard and an esteemed doctor and medical educator. In the first chapter he vigorously attacks the medical profession for dishonestly using studies to justify heart surgery, angioplasty, heart stents and the like. But to admit the lack of real scientific support for this surgical approach would dramatically downsize most hospitals and critical-care units in the U.S. and free up over $100 billion annually. (Check out some of the reviews on Amazon.com.)

    My point is that for the average person it is very difficult to evaluate the various studies that are reported. And just because very prestigious organizations support a particular view does not necessarily make their view correct.

    This said, I believe that articles like the one in the current Ensign are good. But we must take them with a grain of salt and our testimony should not be based on the shaky foundation of scientific research, especially in an area where there are so many conflicts of interest in doing the studies and interpreting them.

  56. Sonny on June 29, 2008 at 10:03 pm

    Just a quick comment about the red wine vs red grape juice sub thread.

    It is my understanding that the reason there is so many studies on red wine instead of red grape juice is the simple fact that there are tons more red wine drinkers in the world to study as opposed to committed red grape juice drinkers. It is simply a numerical matter in terms of getting populations to study.

  57. greenfrog on June 29, 2008 at 11:49 pm

    greenfrog, good questions. I can’t think of a situation where my decision to follow (or not) the WoW should be based on the latest research. Can you?

    Don’t we do exactly that when we conclude that certain substances prohibited by the Word of Wisdom are ok if prescribed by a physician who, one hopes, is basing her prescription on the latest research?

    And if it is (and I’m not saying that the author’s was, but it might have that effect on naive readers), is that a good thing? I don’t think so. If the _only_ reason that you don’t violate it is to avoid health problems are you really following the commandment at all? Is your motive any better than one who does her alms publically?

    That’s an interesting question, especially for a commandment that many conclude is designed specifically to create external perceptions of righteousness.

    My original question, though, was prompted by a realization as I read your post that in many regards, we do avoid applying thought-processes and mind-tools to religion and faith that we apply in all other aspects of our lives. That very reticence is interesting. On one hand, it suggests a kind of careful, reverential respect and caution in applying inexact tools to such an important topic; but on the other hand, it seems to suggest that faith and religious ideas can’t withstand the scrutiny that we bring to bear on other topics.

    It’s relatively easy for me to agree that other people’s closely held religious and faith beliefs were just wrong and should have succumbed to scientific evidence gathering and logical reasoning long before they actually did (cf. Galileo), but when it comes to apply the same mind-tools to my own beliefs, I’m a lot more reticent.

    So my questions were whether you’ve sorted out when to apply such approaches to faith topics, or whether you’ve concluded that you should never do so.

  58. Ray on June 30, 2008 at 12:02 am

    All , I didn’t mean my comment to expose “conspiring men” or “devious” funders of the studies, although, re-reading it, I certainly can understand why people thought that. Frankly, I was thinking more of those who *drink* wine – not primarily those who produce it.

    I simply meant that there is a real, sincere desire among many to show the benefits of red wine drunk in moderation and no corresponding desire to do so for grape juice – or another alternative. It is easier to tout those benefits than to extrapolate and advocate drinking juice – even “nutritionally enhanced” juice. The studies are accepted and touted as compiled; they rarely are extended to see if there is a better way than wine to get the same benefits. I think a major reason for this lack of extension is due to the fact that so many (including consumers) have a vested interest in the continued consumption of wine.

  59. Howard on June 30, 2008 at 12:50 am

    Regarding red wine vs red grape juice, resveratrol is not the only beneficial ingredient, alcohol plays a beneficial in role blood chemistry with moderate drinking.

    I stopped drinking one beer a day and switched to non-alcoholic beer when I returned to the church. My HDLs dropped 20 points!

  60. Joshua Madson on June 30, 2008 at 3:59 am

    “From the perspective of medical science, most investigators who have examined the effects of caffeine suggest that caffeinated beverages should not be consumed in large quantities.”

    thats about the most worthless sentence Ive seen in a while. Its like a madlib, anything works.

    “From the perspective of medical science, most investigators who have examined the effects of _____ suggest that ______ should not be consumed in large quantities.”

  61. Sue on June 30, 2008 at 4:18 am

    Just like we don’t wear garments to magically protect us from burning in a fire (despite silly urban legends to the contrary), I don’t think it makes sense to obey the Word of Wisdom because we expect to necessarily be healthier. We do it because we’re commanded to do it, and doing it is a test of obedience. At least that’s how I reconcile myself to it.

    I’m grateful for it though, because I have a sort of addictive personality and I’m fairly sure I would’ve gotten in a HEAP of trouble back in high school without it.

  62. Mark D. on June 30, 2008 at 4:43 am

    I am not inclined to believe that garments (generally speaking) will protect the faithful in a fire. However, if there is not some benefit to wearing them (modesty, remembrance, whatever), I would be forced to conclude that either the wearing of them is unspired or that God is borderline psychotic.

  63. Ronan on June 30, 2008 at 5:05 am

    There are plenty of Word of Wisdom-obeying Latter-day Saints who get cancer. Sucks for them.

  64. S.Faux on June 30, 2008 at 7:55 am

    I do not understand your argument. Are you really saying, \”Ignore science?\” What is the advantage of living in ignorance?

    If there are correlations of the gospel with science, history, or any other dimensions of life, I usually want to know about it.

    By the way, you are now particularly appalled by the advice given to your mother to drink alcohol during her pregnancy not just because it was against the Word of Wisdom but because of the science of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. You seem to need science while condemning it.

    Science is not perfect, but we are far better with it than without it.

  65. S.Faux on June 30, 2008 at 7:55 am

    I do not understand your argument. Are you really saying, \”Ignore science?\” What is the advantage of living in ignorance?

    If there are correlations of the gospel with science, history, or any other dimensions of life, I usually want to know about it.

    By the way, you are now particularly appalled by the advice given to your mother to drink alcohol during her pregnancy not just because it was against the Word of Wisdom but because of the science of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. You seem to need science while condemning it.

    Science is not perfect, but we are far better with it than without it.

  66. Naismith on June 30, 2008 at 8:58 am

    While I agree with Julie that health benefits are not the primary reason we should follow the Word of Wisdom, I think this particular article has great value as a source of post-decision cognitive dissonance reduction, in making people feel better about their faith-based decision to follow the WoW.

    In particular, I think it would be comforting to new converts, to give them additional reasons for feel good about their decision–and perhaps provide explanations that will make sense to non-member family and friends.

  67. Julie M. Smith on June 30, 2008 at 11:46 am

    greenfrog asks, “Don’t we do exactly that when we conclude that certain substances prohibited by the Word of Wisdom are ok if prescribed by a physician who, one hopes, is basing her prescription on the latest research?”

    Maybe, but I think a better way to look at that is *motive.* The reason I say that is that if I take 30% alcohol cough medicine and find out later that it is no better than snake oil, I’m not guilty of violating the WoW. My motive was good when I did it, regardless of what the research shows later.

    greenfrog writes, “but on the other hand, it seems to suggest that faith and religious ideas can’t withstand the scrutiny that we bring to bear on other topics.”

    I think this is true and SHOULD be true. God is allowed to ask us to do things for which we don’t have a logical reason. If everything you do for religious reasons is capable of withstanding logical scrutiny, what’s the role for faith? For obedience?

    I think Ronan brings up something that was bothering me about the article but that I wasn’t able to articulate.

    Naismith (and S. Faux and others): the problem is this: the WoW can’t be proven scientifically best in all instances. (Witness his statements about “hot drinks.” And–and I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before–but his writings about alcohol are deeply problematic given that the 89 gives the Saints permission to drink . . . wait for it . . . moderate quantities of red wine. And was Jesus increasing his cancer risk at the Last Supper and the wedding at Cana?)

    It is a terrible idea to set up new converts and their families with the expectation that everything in the WoW is scientifically justifiable. It simply is not. And even if it were, that isn’t why we should follow it! The science is a red herring–we follow the WoW out of obedience and all the red-wine-helps-your-heart studies in the would shouldn’t make us stop. Encouraging people to listen to science to confirm the gospel instead of listening to the still small voice to do it is not a good idea. Do you think someone’s faith in the BoM should be based on the testimony of the Spirit or on the results of mesoamerican archeology?

  68. no-man on June 30, 2008 at 1:01 pm

    I agree that the article is weak. It will give the Saints something to show their neighbors — see? here’s proof that the Word of Wisdom is good for you! — but the author absolutely cherry-picks his studies to find the conclusion he wants.

    I wonder if the author would also be willing to mention that Utah has a higher than average incidence of prostate cancer. He could then cite the large-population study in which the only behavior associated with reduced prostate cancer rates is with men who ejaculate at least 5 times a week during their 20′s. Seems to indicate a need for young men to keep exercising their prostate by any means to provide long-term protection against cancer. And conversely, those who repress the natural function of the prostate set themselves up for developing cancer later in life.

    It’s a flaky example, but most published cancer studies are open to all kinds of interpretation and are usually contradicted by at least one other study. You can find almost any conclusion you want in a published study.

  69. NorthboundZax on June 30, 2008 at 1:41 pm

    Both the scientific/health and faith-driven notions of the WoW are difficult to make strong cases for. There are arguments against both. As a scientific/health notion it is not easy to see why green tea is typically viewed as verboten with all its health benefits, and as mentioned earlier, the complete ban on red wine is clearly overstepping its bounds as a health enhancing dictum. Also, if we are going to promote the Mormon life span as proof of concept, what to do with the Seventh-Day Adventists who statistically live longest of all? On the other hand, the faith-testing approach requires striking out portions of scripture like D&C 89:17 > as nonsensical unless one thinks for some reason that animals are going to have their faith strengthened by particular diets. (On a side note, it is curious that rye is not particularly good for fowls or swine).

  70. greenfrog on June 30, 2008 at 7:46 pm

    greenfrog asks, “Don’t we do exactly that when we conclude that certain substances prohibited by the Word of Wisdom are ok if prescribed by a physician who, one hopes, is basing her prescription on the latest research?”

    Maybe, but I think a better way to look at that is *motive.* The reason I say that is that if I take 30% alcohol cough medicine and find out later that it is no better than snake oil, I’m not guilty of violating the WoW. My motive was good when I did it, regardless of what the research shows later.

    I may not be parsing your response correctly, but I think your reference to motive may constitute a rather extensive withdrawal from the position I understood you to be staking out in the original post, above.

    We were considering whether or to what extent to take into account scientific/logic type thinking when evaluating a faith- or religion-based instruction. To that point, I identified “doctor’s orders” as evidence that we do, sometimes, utilize science/logic based thinking when deciding how to comply with the Word of Wisdom.

    If I understood your post, you responded with a slight shift of perspective — from “how to decide what to do next” to “how to decide whether to condemn/excuse a failure to comply” — an after-the-fact evaluation.

    I think the result is the same: if we excuse failures to comply with the Word of Wisdom because of a good faith application of science/logic thinking (whether ultimately correct or snake oil), then haven’t we tacitly concluded that it’s ok to apply science/logic thinking to at least that question of faith- or religion-based conduct? If it weren’t ok to apply that kind of thinking to WoW questions, then the motive of the person drinking the alcoholic cough medicine (“I thought my doc’s science-based prescription overrode the WoW’s faith-based requirements”) wouldn’t be relevant, right?

  71. Julie M. Smith on June 30, 2008 at 7:49 pm

    greenfrog, you’ve lost me–probably my fault and not yours. If you want to try a “for dummies” version of #70, I’ll try to respond.

  72. greenfrog on June 30, 2008 at 8:06 pm

    Sorry for my lack of clarity.

    I’ll take another stab at it:

    If I understood your post correctly, by discussing “motive,” you impliedly already concluded that “following doctor’s orders” is a good-enough reason not to follow the WoW.

    If science/logic-style thinking was never permitted to apply to faith-based rules, such as the WoW, then “following doctor’s orders” wouldn’t excuse the WoW violation. The person in question would be “guilty” of wrongly believing that the doctor’s orders override the scriptural instructions. (In this regard, note that some Jehovahs’ Witnesses refuse blood transfusions even when prescribed by their doctors precisely because they reject science/logic thinking overriding their faith-based beliefs.)

    Any clearer this time?

  73. Julie M. Smith on June 30, 2008 at 8:33 pm

    greenfrog, I’m still not entirely sure I understand you, but I’ll take a stab:

    I’m OK with using science to determine whether the use of a substance constitutes an acceptable medical exception to following the WoW. I don’t think anything I wrote originally contradicts this, but my comment #6 does because I wasn’t thinking of medical exceptions at the time. Now that you’ve mentioned it, yes, I would change what I wrote in #6 to reflect that it is OK to use science to determine medical exceptions.

    But that isn’t what this author does, is it? If the article had used research studies to show what medicines were OK to use (despite containing alcohol or narcotics or whatever) that would have been a completely different article.

    By the way, your comments have made me wonder if the time might come when a bishop might buy a “well, I’m only drinking this merlot with dinner to protect my heart.” line. :)

  74. greenfrog on June 30, 2008 at 9:34 pm

    Thanks, Julie.

    We probably are looking at approximately the same thing from different perspectives.

    From mine, your “medical exception” could engulf the entire rule. If a doctor says the merlot is good for you specifically, I’d guess you’d be ok with drinking it. If a doctor says that merlot is good for everybody, I’d understood from your original post that you wouldn’t allow that scientific/logic-based reasoning to influence your WoW interpretation.

    And, fwiw, a close friend of mine was surprised when her M.D. instructed her to consume small, but not insignificant, amounts of alcohol during the middle stages of a very difficult pregnancy involving constant bed rest. She objected on both personal WoW grounds as well as what she’d learned about fetal alcohol syndrome. Her OB told her that even with the constant bed rest, the only way she’d avoid miscarriage was by consuming some sedative a couple of times a day. Of the potential sedatives available at the time (20 years ago), small amounts of alcohol were, in that doctor’s opinion, the least likely to cause significant harm to the fetus.

    As it turns out, my friend thought White Russians were the best of the alcohol lot. Perhaps she didn’t try merlot? ;-)

  75. Naismith on July 1, 2008 at 6:58 am

    “Encouraging people to listen to science to confirm the gospel instead of listening to the still small voice to do it is not a good idea.”

    I totally agree, but I am not sure the Ensign article does that. It merely offers one more reason to feel good about the previously made faith-based decision to live the Word of Wisdom.

    I tried in vain to find a good link about post-decision cognitive dissonance reduction to explain this concept better. But it is a very powerful influence in modern marketing. It’s the reason that Saturn invites new owners to barbecues. No one is going to buy a car because of the barbecue, but the barbecue helps them feel better about their decision.

    This happens in politics, too. We might decide on a candidate because of their platform, and then think, “and she’s a woman, too.”

    When I bought a Prius a few years back, we were thrilled with all the well-designed cabin storage. Finding each new compartment helped us feel better about the decision. Of course we didn’t buy it because of the storage, that feature just helped us feel better about the decision, which at the time Consumer Reports did not think was a wise choice (gas was less than $2.50 per gallon).

    I chose to breastfeed because of the bonding with baby. The first time I made that decision was in the 1970s, before studies on the effects of breastfeeding. When I chose to breastfeed our last children born in the 1990s, amid studies about scientific effects, my primary motiivation was still bonding. But the studies helped me feel better about that choice.

    That’s the role that I think this article plays.

  76. Chou on July 1, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    Julie,
    I spent last summer studying the health benefits of coffee–a quick way to re-cement my conviction that why I choose to follow the WoW must be rooted in a belief in modern prophecy. Thank you for your post.

  77. Bryce Haymond on July 1, 2008 at 4:34 pm

    I don’t think that using science as evidence of doctrine or principle is a bad thing, indeed it can support faith and testimony, but it certainly should not replace a witness born by the Holy Ghost.

  78. Phillip C. Smith, Ph.D. on July 2, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    The word of wisdom was given for the weakest of the weak. Thus the prohibition of all possibly addictive products of the time, such as tobacco, alcohol and caffeine. We now know that wine is good, but is there clear cut evidence that the benefit stems from the alcohol or the grape juice, or a combination of both?

    Since alcohol can be addictive, it is likely the Church will continue to ask members to abstain.

    It is interesting that in the early 1830s, when science had no opinion on the dangers of tobacco, that Joseph Smith would come out against it. Who told him at that time that it was bad?

    Agreed that we need to be careful making claims unless we are sure that our position is true and that the science in question is valid. If both are clear, perhaps position statements are in order.

    Phillip C. Smith

  79. Adam Greenwood on July 2, 2008 at 2:42 pm

    I too have dug post holes.

  80. MSG on July 16, 2008 at 8:24 pm

    It was my understanding that when God has a “peculiar” people he sets them apart from everyone else with ways of living that are in direct contrast with the how the rest of the world are doing things at the time so that those people stand out as being different.
    Not drinking coffee, tea or alcohol at all today is very different from what most non-LDS people are doing. In Joseph Smith’s day, tobacco use was the norm in society. It’s no
    wonder the Lord would call his people to not use it the way everyone else was.
    A current example (I’m reaching here for one) when Pres. HInckley called the youth of the Church not to be tatooed or pierce certain body parts and the girls not to wear more than one pair of earrings at a time–no matter what the current pop trend may be, we’re supposed to stand “apart” in a clean way.

  81. mormonmagmeister on July 27, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    Just a question: When was the last time someone on this or any other major Mormon blog commented on “A Fortunate Ensign Article”? (Crickets)

  82. Julie M. Smith on July 27, 2008 at 1:49 pm
  83. mormonmagmeister on July 27, 2008 at 7:28 pm

    My point exactly. I read that post a while back. While it was, indeed, written 15 days ago, it refers to a conference talk from four years ago and a conference talk from three months ago, and it makes only a passing reference (without a link) to an article in this month’s Ensign. That’s pretty weak.

    That said, however, I want to say that your post is well argued and the discussion of this overall issue is, for the most part, productive. Well done. And by the way, I agree with Naismith’s comment above (#75).

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