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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