Thoughts on health, happiness and sustainability

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The religion of science

It is often said that we live in an age of science. Humans now know far more about the physical workings of our world than at any other point in history and thanks to scientific method, we now have the means to base our beliefs on rational understanding rather than blind faith and superstition.

I have always considered myself to be scientifically minded and I am naturally sceptical of anything that doesn’t have a clear and rational explanation. It seems to me that no matter what your religious beliefs, scientific method is an inherently good way to understand and make judgements about the world.

Science is good but not perfect

However, I now feel that our belief in science has gone too far.  We now believe in what we perceive as scientific information often without question and treat scientific information too often as infallible. We have forgotten the true essence of science as being the methodical and unbiased observation of the world around us and instead believe what we hear blindly.

Science has become a religion in and of itself.  There must be a name for that – scientology?  Darn, it’s already taken.  How about pseudo-sciencism?

Too often nowadays I hear people bad mouthing new ideas or calling ideas they don’t like as quackery while proclaiming that they know the “scientific facts”, when in fact they have usually done little or no research. Their minds are closed and they blindly believe what they have have learned as “the truth”.

Good science is about good questions

True science is about asking good questions, designing effective studies to try to answer those questions and then drawing logical conclusions from the data gathered.  True science is always ready to be challenged in the pursuit of furthering our understanding.  When used inappropriately though, science can do as much harm as good.  Too often we now have poorly designed studies, or good studies that are taken out of context in the researchers conclusions, in the media and by the public.

Not to mention the fact that we do not consider all science equal. It is in our nature to have huge personal bias (even for scientists) and so we too often don’t even listen to studies that contradict our own beliefs and instead select which scientific information we want to accept in order to support our own view of the world, which we then claim is based on “hard facts”.  I call this “science of convenience”, in that we believe passionately in science, but only when it is convenient to our own beliefs and interests.

This is sometimes called The Tomato Effect after the historic belief in America that tomatoes were poisonous even long after they were proven not to be.  Watch the video below and it highlights how culture can be far more powerful than rational science even within scientific communities.

These is no such thing a hard fact – that’s a fact!

The truth is that anyone with even a basic scientific understanding should understand that there is not really such a thing as a hard fact – just very strong theories.  New evidence often leads to previously accepted theories being revised or replaced and it is essential that we understand the inherent limitations of science in order that we can use scientific information effectively.

Some key things to note are that:

  • It is always possible that anything could be disproven
  • If you ask the wrong questions, you will get wrong answers. Crap in = crap out!
  • Conclusions drawn by scientists are inherently less reliable than the data itself. Scientific conclusions are subject to bias from the scientists own beliefs, vested interests and prior knowledge, even if they have the best intentions. They also often lack the big picture view to see their own research in context with wider evidence. Its what I call “the PHD effect” resulting from very narrow specialisms. Nobel prize winning immunologist Peter Doherty stated that “We working scientists  increasingly find ourselves in a kind of Tower of Babel, where it is harder and harder to stay abreast of what going on in even closely related fields”.  So sometimes an intelligent “non-expert” with a good understanding of the big picture can draw more useful conclusions that the scientists who actually conducted the study.
  • A true scientist will always maintain an open mind and hear out any theory fully before making a judgement.

Don’t confuse science with marketing

Our blind faith in science is even more flawed when you consider that the vast majority of people get their scientific information from the mass media and advertisements.  Journalists hand pick studies that allow sensational headlines, that support their own world view or support the business interests of their employer, often reporting information incompletely and drawing inappropriate conclusions that the public then read as scientific “facts”.   Meanwhile marketers fill their adverts with scientific sounding claims (often incorrect, incomplete or simply misleading) in order to make their products sound more beneficial to the consumer (and that’s not to mention their funding for scientific studies in the first place).  The consequence is that the public often have a very warped perspective of many important scientific issues, but think that they have the full picture.

How to assess scientific information

Trying to figure out which scientific sounding information is credible and what is not have become a minefield of confusion.  Ultimately we all have to make up our own minds as to what we do and don’t believe, and respect others to make their own decisions.

Here are some helpful tips for the T Colin Campbell Centre for Nutrition Studies that can be used to make an assessment of any scientific sounding information:

  1. What is the information recommending or promoting (if anything)?
  2. What problem is this information intending to solve?  Is it in your opinion an important problem?
  3. What questions are being asked about this problem in this information (or referenced research)?  What questions are not being asked?
  4. What kinds of assumptions are being made about the problem?
  5. Who is the author and what are their credentials?  Are they in your opinion a credible source of information on this topic?
  6. Is the scientific methodology described and does it sound appropriate for the problem being studied?
  7. What evidence is provided to support any conclusions or claims?  How does it relate to other evidence on the topic that you are aware of?
  8. Are the claims or conclusions well reasoned and warranted by the available evidence?
  9. What are the potential consequences (positive of negative) of accepting the conclusions?

Science is the best tool that we have for understanding our world, but if we are to enjoy its benefits and avoid its dangers then we need to respect it for what it is and use it responsibly to constantly seek the truth, accepting that there are no final answers.

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