This blog mostly covers scientific subjects. It is my understanding from my own experiences that most people don’t grasp what science is and why it is so important. For example, people don’t realize the differences between acupuncture, or herbal medicine or chiropractic as anything different from science-based medicine. The fundumental difference between these modalities of therapy and, say, aspirin is that they don’t use science to support their claims and, if they do, it is lacking, flawed and never corrected.
Let’s start off discussing how stupid we are. We see ourselves as these incredible beings much greater than other animals. We are more intelligent but not by much. Primates (and birds) use tools, just like us. They can speak with sign language and use spears to hunt. Our brains are better adapted to these skills but we broke off evolutionarily not that long ago. A new discovery shows that at one point,three species of humans coexisted with one another around 40,000 years ago and a fourth lived on an island in the phillipines. Only our species remains, but it is closely linked with others. We only began to use metal tools 6,000 years ago and we were hunter gatherers until 10,000 years ago. It took a long time for us to create a society vastly different from how animals live.
We continue to believe that we are something extra special and smart. The problem with this is that we fail to realize how much our minds affect our observed reality. Time and time again, studies show that our memories are terrible at remembering facts, we observe what we believe (rather than vice versa) and we have natural tendencies to believe certain things. Even our most basic choices and behaviors are affected by our surroundings and circumstances.
Such facts are a thorn in our methods of science. Experiments are bombarded with biases and confounders that we often fail to realize. One of the most obvious examples of this is the placebo effect. Take some ginkgo and go study. Surely you’ll think your memory is better when in fact it doesn’t do jack to help your thinking.
But the reason science is so great is that it incorporates this knowledge of our inherent biases and the ways that data can be affected through non objective influences and it controls for these factors. One of the greatest ways to help do this in drug experiments is by doing a double blinded study where neither the experimenter nor the subject knows whether he is receiving a true therapy or not. This prevents both sides from biasing the outcomes of the experiment.
Another way to help filter out bias is through the replication of experiments. There are many published experiments and studies that show benefits of medical therapies whose results have never been replicated by independent researchers. This implies that the experiments are flawed in some way. Supporters of sham therapies use these outlying studies to support their treatments. That’s why (and this is key) truth is based not on any single study but on the entire scientific literature.
Another important way of filtering out flawed studies is by subjecting them to a peer review before they are published. Anonymous experts on any specific topic are chosen to read and criticize every detail of a study before it is published. This makes it much more difficult for scientists with an agenda to publish a biased report after such rigorous inspection.
Furthermore, all published data is made available to the public, allowing for ongoing review and repeated experiments and observations by multiple researchers operating independently of one another. This is because science, unlike most everything else, is open to falsification if new evidence is presented. Want to know if something is based on proper science? Ask yourself this, “How much has this therapy changed over time?” If it is stagnant, like chiropractic or accupuncture, chances are it does not abide to science very rigorously and therefore doesn’t rely on actual proof of its benefit. Science-based medicine, on the other hand is always being re-examined and changed depending on proper objective data that has been acquired in ways that prevent bias and people’s beliefs from affecting it as best as possible.
One of my favorite ways of figuring out whether something is true is not by attempting to prove it but instead attempting to disprove it. There is a hypothesis and, more importantly, there is a null hypothesis that says something does not work. Before saying something has benefit, true science attempts to prove the null hypothesis (that it does not) as best as possible many times over. Only if experiments can not prove the null hypothesis is something considered to be valid. Homeopaths can cherry-pick some studies implying that homeopathy works but scientist sure as hell can prove that it doesn’t work more concretely. Thus it is labeled as pseudoscience.
Finally, I’d like to mention Occam’s razor as an important principle in science. Always expect the most simple reason for anything first. If there is a study that sounds too good to be true, like one that shows that accupuncture helps cure cancer, don’t believe it right away (like the media often does) but instead believe the more simple and obvious reason for this conclusion: the study was flawed! I recommend cutting away the nonsense and believing the more logical and scientifically-proven conclusions in life.
All of these things I am discussing can be shown in the general trends that pseudoscientific theories undergo in the published literature. Most adamantly-supported beliefs have small, poorly conducted studies demonstrating that they work early on. Then, as more proper and larger studies are conducted, the positive data starts to disappear. Finally, as the largest and most expensive studies are performed the pseudoscientific theories are shown to be false. Unfortunately, supporters of pseudoscience continue to cherry-pick the early studies to support their beliefs.
A current example of this is the anti-vaccination movement’s strong adherence to the principle that vaccines cause autism. Their hero, Andrew Wakefield, published a study showing that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Subsequent investigations showed no link and eventually the study itself was removed from the published literature because it was found that Wakefield was bribed by lawyers involved in vaccine-caused-autism lawsuits to change his data. Yet anti-vaxers continue to support him and refuse to change their stance on vaccines despite a mountain of evidence disproving their claims.
This sort of behavior is common in all aspects of society. Conspiracy theorists believe that the government caused 9/11, herbalists believe herbs can cure a plethora of diseases, politicians think Obama isn’t a US citizen, ghost hunters communicate with spirits, religious leaders claim their authority comes from a supernatural source, and so forth. What ties all these together is the lack of adherence to a scientific method before making their claims and forming their beliefs. That is why I love science so much: if conducted correctly, it is almost impenetrable to human bias.