Walking Barefoot: What Science Is Good For (and What It Isn’t)

“You grok,” Smith repeated firmly. “I am explain. I did not have the word. You grok. Anne groks. I grok. The grass under my feet groks in happy beauty. But I needed the word. The word is God.”

–Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

I like to walk in the grass in my bare feet.

No, let me correct that. I love to walk in the grass in my bare feet. It’s something of a sacred practice for me.

In fact, I consider it to be a pagan practice (if with a small “p”), because it is a way of increasing and deepening my sensual connection to nature.

So I was excited when I saw an article in the Washington Post entitled, “Could walking barefoot on grass improve your health? Some science suggests it can.”  But as I read the article, I grew more and more perturbed.  Something was wrong with this whole idea.

The author of the article, Carrie Dennett, is a diet nutritionist.  She begins by describing the practice of walking barefoot on grass for a short time everyday–which she calls “grounding” or “earthing”–as a stress management technique.  Okay so far.  Because we now live most of our lives in buildings and wear shoes all the time, she says, we have lost our physical connection to the earth.

Now, I can testify to the salutary effects of walking barefoot on the ground, especially on grass or sand, as can practically anybody who has taken their shoes off to walk at a park or the beach.  Where Dennett goes wrong, I think, is how she attempts to justify this practice of “earthing” with science:

“There are many reasons connecting with nature is good for mind and body, but electricity probably is not one you have considered. If you think back to the last time you took a science class, you may remember that everything, including humans, is made up of atoms. These microscopic particles contain equal numbers of negatively charged electrons, which come in pairs, and positively charged protons, so an atom is neutral — unless it loses an electron. When an atom has an unpaired electron, it becomes a “free radical” with a positive charge, capable of damaging our cells and contributing to chronic inflammation, cancer and other diseases. In this case, “positive” is not a good thing.

“One reason direct physical contact with the ground might have beneficial physiological effects is the earth’s surface has a negative charge and is constantly generating electrons that could neutralize free radicals, acting as antioxidants.”

This is pseudoscience.  The paper on which Dennett relies was published in the Journal of Inflammation Research.  There are several problems with the paper, not the least of which is that the authors have financial connections to a company that manufactures “earthing” products. (Another study, published in the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine, did not provide any validation for “the health benefits of earthing resulting from an information exchange between a human subject and ground.”)

The thing that bothered me about this was not that Dennett is promoting pseudoscience (though I was perturbed to see it published in the Washington Post).  The thing that bothered me was that Dennett felt the need to turn to pseudoscience to justify the practice of walking barefoot on the grass.

It’s a sign of the domination of human thought by science.  The (often unspoken) assumption in our scientistic culture that science is the only valid way of knowing.  Human subjective experience is not treated as valid unless it is verified by science–or at least by pseudoscience.  The fact that anyone feels the need to justify the salutary benefits of walking barefoot outdoors is evidence of this.

What’s more, Dennett’s dependence on science actually perpetuates the very disconnection from nature that “earthing” is supposed to remedy.  Consider the clinical studies of “earthing” described by Dennett, where test subjects are connected by wires to ground outlets.  This was done indoors, says Dennett, because the lab is a more “practical” testing location, and also to prevent the placebo effect.  [Insert facepalm.]  Setting aside the fact that the placebo effect could have been controlled for outdoors, it’s difficult to imagine a better example of human alienation from nature than testing the effects of walking barefoot on the earth from inside of a laboratory.

I do believe we modern humans are disconnected from the earth, in a multitude of ways.  Spending most of our lives indoors and with various layers of clothes separating us from the elements is part of that.  That disconnection is going to have a psychological impact on us.  It’s going to affect our mood, our sense of well-being, and–over the the long term–our happiness.  And certain practices, like consciously feeling the intake of fresh air into one’s lungs, the touch of the sun on one’s skin, and the feeling of the soil under one’s feet is also going to have an impact, both on our psychological health and–because mind and body are not entirely separate–on our physical health.

We don’t need science–or pseudoscience–to tell us this.  We just need to go outside and feel it for ourselves. Walk on the beach.  Lie down in the grass.  Sit under a tree and lean your back against it.  Swim in a lake or the ocean.  Dig your fingers into the soil of your garden.  We shouldn’t be surprised at all to find that doing these things helps us relax, sleep better, reduces pain, and increases our sense of well-being.

Science is great for a lot of things.  For example, it’s is good for debunking pseudo-scientific claims like those of Dennett and those studies she cites.

But science (or scientism) becomes a problem when it gets in the way of our human experience of nature.  Sometimes this happens literally, like in the case of the clinical study of “earthing” inside of a laboratory.  Other times, it happens in our head, like when Bennett assumes she needs to justify the experience of walking barefoot by resort to pseudo-scientific talk about negative ions.

I’m not against scientists studying the effects of human contact with nature–in fact, I think it’s great.  But I do have a problem if the worship of science as the only valid form of knowledge leads people to believe in pseudoscience.  And I do have a problem if a lack of solid scientific evidence keeps anyone from walking barefoot on grass.

A lot of contemporary Pagans, I think, fall into the former category.  Many Pagans resort to the same pseuoscientific theories about “energy” or quantum mechanics and chaos theory to validate their belief in instrumental magic. At the same time, I wonder if we naturalistic Pagans sometimes fall into the latter category, that we let our need for scientific proof get in the way of our experience.

Paganism, at least as I understand it, invites us to plunge into matter, to lose ourselves in the sensual experience of the world–in Thoreau’s words, to “live deep” and suck out the marrow of life.  But sometimes our big brains get in the way doing this.  For me, paganism isn’t an invitation to believe in pseudoscience.  It’s an invitation to experience the world without any preconceived notions of what is and isn’t real.

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20 Comments on “Walking Barefoot: What Science Is Good For (and What It Isn’t)

  1. “I do have a problem if the worship of science as the only valid form of knowledge leads people to believe in pseudoscience. And I do have a problem if a lack of solid scientific evidence keeps anyone from walking barefoot on grass.” Yes, this! I think I’ve been trying to advocate in this community for the worth and validity of subjective experience in and of itself for a while now, but I’ve often felt like a lone voice in the wilderness. The experiential and the empirical often overlap, but frequently they’re just different ways of knowing, and that’s ok. Probably even necessary for truly transformative spiritual practice.

    • Are the experiential and the empirical different ways of knowing (a single reality) or ways of knowing different realities (objective and subjective) that are, to some extent, mutually irreducible? If the latter, is this a back door to (a kind of) dualism? And where does it end? Does this line of inquiry call into question the meaning and import of “firmly rooted in the empirical world” (slogan here at HumanisticPaganism.com)? I’m genuinely curious—these questions come to mind for me, but I haven’t yet thought through them carefully.

      • Good questions. For me the empirical and the experiential are just different ways of knowing, not different realities or different worlds. I like to think I’m a monist.

  2. Science is good for knowledge about the universal: what is true about the Universe. Subjective experience is good for knowledge about the personal: what is true for you, but not necessarily for anyone else.

    Walking barefoot is a good example. I have foot pain issues from collapsing arches, and even walking on grass or soft earth becomes painful quite quickly. I also apparently have some kind of allergy which causes my skin to break out when exposed to grass for more than a few minutes. So walking barefoot in grass is not a great experience for me, overall.

    This distinction is important, because it is universal claims on the basis of subjective experiences that get us in trouble. Claims, for instance, of experiences of gods and instrumental magic on the basis of experiences which almost certainly arise from the perceiver’s own brain and confirmation bias.

    • Is subjective experience really better than objective experience is for obtaining “personal knowledge”? If that were true, we would have a very hard time, for example, diagnosing certain psychoses. A personal with a compulsive disorder might think that walking on the grass three times in a circle clockwise sixteen times a day is the best thing in the world for him or her. Do we simply say to that, “it’s true for you”? Or do we try to counter by reducing experience to evidence? This brings us back to the original article cited in the post: we might infer that it appeals to science (or pseudoscience) specifically to get around this concern that what we think is good for us really isn’t. So I think we are still left wondering what exactly the subjective adds to the objective, if anything.

      • A good question. Yet the subjective adds so much to our understanding of the world, and our expression of it through art, poetry, music, etc.

        Yes, “true for you” is problematic in some cases. But in most, it is not. It is the way we navigate the world.

      • Perhaps a more fruitful way of asking the question is “What does an purely objective account of the world take away from an account which includes the subjective?”

        • The answer for some people is: confusion. A purely objective account of the world will create relatively hard divisions between the real and the not-real. If will give us an account of the world which has high probability of being accurate.

          What it will not do is inform that world with joy, with wonder, with wisdom, with celebration, with passion, with art. The subjective is required for these things.

          So long as we are clear about “real for me” vs. “real Writ Large”, we can have it all: clarity about the nature of the Universe, and a rich and wonderful experience of living in it.

        • I should also say that an objective account can help to strip the subject’s experience of many negatives, as well: superstitious fears, worry about “omens” and “signs” and “destiny”, fears of “psychic attacks” and “hexes”, etc.

          So there is experiential as well as navigational benefit to such a view. But we must always leave the door open for the beauty, the wisdom, the wonder.

    • Universal claims based in subjective experience get us into trouble. Yes! That’s a great way of phrasing it.

  3. Great discussion and topic. This is very good too “So long as we are clear about “real for me” vs. “real Writ Large”, we can have it all: clarity about the nature of the Universe, and a rich and wonderful experience of living in it.”

    One point that comes to mind – if “science” is defined as “knowledge obtained through evidence and experimentation”, or something similar, then for universal knowledge, perhaps it is the “only way of knowing”. What else could there be? Yes, personal experience can be a way of finding subjective truth “it’s true for me, I like vanilla” – but for something that is true for everyone (actual truth, actual knowing), then what other way of knowing is proposed?
    Perhaps science is not the only way of knowing for subjective views, but is the only way of knowing for universal truth?

    -JCH

    • In the material world, I would say that the scientific method proves itself uniquely helpful from a practical perspective. Empiricism has its limits (e.g., inability to “prove” anything or even establish the first principle of the uniformity of nature or several other principles that are almost indispensable, such as Occam’s razor), but I think they are more theoretical than practical. As to whether the scientific method is the only way of knowing universal truth (i.e., all knowable truth is knowable only a posteriori), I don’t think that’s right. Transcendental arguments are persuasive to me, at least, as a means of arriving at synthetic a priori truth (which may also be universal). And I think we would like to have recourse to something other than empiricism in some cases because it doesn’t give us much comfort as to pure mathematics, logic, etc.

      All that said, my line of questioning above was really to get a little more clarity about what precise claims were being made re how subjective experience adds to objective measurement. I was really just curious.

    • I have reservations about using the term “universal” to describe the scientific truth. At its best, science is a human endeavor, which is limited by human cognitive categories. I imagine that dolphins, bees, and octupi might have very different categories, which might yield very different scientific laws.

  4. Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Your critique of the article is spot on and your larger point very well-made.

  5. The way I see it is that science is the best tool that humans have ever invented to understand the physical world. But it is a tool, not an ideology, and there are other tools in the shed: art, music, poetry, love and yes, subjective (inner) experience. If science can tell us what is, and how it works, then these other tools might tell us what that means for us, how we then relate to the world and ourselves.

  6. One concept that helps us distinguish science from pseudoscience is that science is a process for arriving at a worldwide consensus among a community of the competent. This makes it a slow process and one that everyone mostly watches from the outside because even if you are a member of the community of the competent in one field, you are unlikely to be a member in any other field let alone most fields.

  7. This makes science the best tool for answering the big factual questions. But it is too slow and broad to answer most practical questions. Instead we use the results of science, the consensed theoretical framework that scientists have arrived at through the use of science, to give our personal subjective experience context and then jump to conclusions based on inadequate sample sizes to conclude such specific facts as “the handle of the deadbolt on my new home is always vertical when the bolt is locked.” This can never be a scientific fact because no international community of competent people will ever form a consensus on it. But it is still a purely factual statement which you can know to be true.

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