Yes, I think too much

The Explainable

with 4 comments

Lately, I’ve been having conversations with various work associates about the nature of religion. Before you think it’s time to back away slowly, I’d like to assert that I am not going to bash religion, nor am I going to support it. My views on this topic are broad-minded and inclusive of science and all religions. I have a personal sense of such things, but it is deep, complex, and will be beside the point of this post. This post (and a “part 2” to follow) isn’t about what is “correct” or debating the point from one side or another, but rather about how sides being taken is unproductive and unnecessarily antagonistic and adversarial.

The question that has been discussed was about whether science has become the new religion. I know this is a sensitive topic for people who are atheists and who believe science is the only way to convince ourselves of what is actually real. The fact that it is something which gets scientific hackles up only indicates all the more that science might be regarded in a similar fashion as religion among scientific sorts. It points to the idea that “religious” is seen as a pejorative descriptor and that one elevates oneself by aligning ones position with pure science and views “religion” as something negative.

At any rate, the notion that science has become the new religion is not based on trying to undermine the validity of science, but rather based on the idea that many people have faith in whatever researchers say. They accept that if researchers say it is so because they did their measurements, calculations, and experiments, that it must be “true” or “real”.

Of course, we all know by now that the wind keeps blowing in opposite directions in regards to the results of research. First we are told that drinking alcohol is bad for you, then we’re told it is good in moderate amounts. We’re told that Calcium supplements are helpful in stopping the effects of loss of bone density and later told that, “oops”, they don’t really help unless you also have Vitamin D. The bottom line about science is that it has to be seen as fallible, and that it should be questioned, but many people have the idea that science measures “truth” and reflects “reality” accurately. It can. It might. But, it doesn’t always (or “often” depending on the subject) reflect reality as much as the hopes and theories of the researchers who conduct those studies and unconsciously (or consciously) bend the results to their viewpoint.

Moving on though, I’m not here to bash science as I am a strong advocate of science. I’m simply not an unabashed fan-girl. I view scientific results as “the best we can do for now” and take the results with appropriate grains of salt. Science plays an incredibly important role for human beings, and that is that it does a good job of attempting to explain anything which is explainable. What I mean by that seemingly non-sensical statement is that it measures things that are measurable based on the advancement of instrumentation which is capable of translating things into sensory data which humans can perceive. We can’t see sound waves, but we can create sonar devices which allow us to see them.

The thing which science doesn’t do is explain the unexplainable. The tipping point for someone in embracing science as a religion comes to me when they believe that science can measure everything which is “real”. If you believe that nothing exists which science cannot measure or will not eventually be capable of measuring, then there is a good chance that science is your religion, and that your view of reality is very limited. To think that everything that exists can be measured or recorded, or that everything that exists can be translated into a form that humans can see, smell, hear, taste, or feel is a bit on the fanatical side. To believe that no information or theory is of value simply because it can’t be proven using scientific methodology and that any experience which cannot be replicated under controlled conditions didn’t really “happen” seems to me to be a very narrow view of the nature of existence, particularly given the vastness and complexity of not only the earth, but the universe.

To offer just a few examples which illustrate what I mean, I will mention that cats appear to be able  follow the earth’s magnetic fields to find their way around, and we can’t scientifically explain or “prove” what they seem to be doing, but all external observation indicates that something is there that cats can perceive which we cannot which allows them to navigate. Crows appear to be able to “teach” each other how to open milk bottles and tear apart trash bags, even when the crows are not occupying the same geographic space. We can’t explain how they communicate information seemingly over vast distances without actually squawking at each other. Science cannot measure or replicate these processes, but clearly there is something there as we can observe these animals’ actions.

Anything which smacks of telepathy, precognition, a collective unconscious, or ESP is scoffed at, but there is (at least anecdotal) evidence that such things exist. They do not cease to be a possibility because they cannot be replicated in a scientific environment. If I place two crows with milk bottles in two different labs and one crow grew in the wild and was captured opening a milk bottle and the other was raised in captivity and never saw a milk bottle, does a failure of the crow in captivity to learn to open the bottle mean that no teaching goes on in the non-experimental environment?

It has always been my feeling that science is reductionist in nature, and that is how it loses some of my faith. It tests with known conditions only and then debunks theories based on limited variables. If science believes condition A, B, and C will result in condition D and it tests with A, B, C, and D does not result, then it concludes that the relationship between A, B, C, and D cannot be proven to exist. However, what if there are conditions E, F, and G which the researchers are not aware of which must factor into A, B, and C for D to occur? Perhaps the crows only communicate however they do under certain circumstances, and a wild crow and a domesticated one in a couple of labs don’t satisfy those conditions so no teaching or learning occurs. The E, F, and G could be weather patterns, the presence of trees or power lines, or even some biological condition which occurs in wild crows that doesn’t occur in those raised in captivity. We cannot know, and science will not ask because anything which can’t be part of a controlled environment doesn’t fit the method and therefore will not be factored in, especially if such variables seem “illogical” as components of the dynamic being tested for.

The previous example is a very crude one, but it is meant to illustrate a point. There are not only flaws in scientific methods and biases at play, but there are things which simply cannot be measured by instrumentation which translates phenomena into something that humans can perceive. Some things, are simply beyond our perception no matter how sophisticated the tools that we employ. That means there are some answers that will never come to us via science. To me, that’s okay. It doesn’t invalidate the answers we get or undermine the value of science or research, but rather recognizes its limits. It’s a tool, not a way of distilling “truth”. The truth is much bigger than science can measure. To me, it is important to understand and accept that science can only explain that which can be explained with its particular methodology. Given our limits, that means there are a lot of answers science will never be able to give us.

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Written by yesithinktoomuch

September 23, 2010 at 10:59 pm

Posted in religion, science

4 Responses

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  1. One of my favorite books of all time is Guba’s “Paradigm Dialogs”, a copy of which I sold on half.com last year then repurchased within months because I missed having it! I definately lean toward critical theories but enjoy almost all areas of scientific investigation, while keeping in mind that science is value laden (cultural influences, for instance) and largely driven by economic and political interests. (Especially, perhaps, research related to medicine and health!) Studies in nutrition journals, for example, are typically based on shockingly small sample sizes.

    -rebecca

    RNegade

    September 24, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    • I had never heard of that book before but it looks very interesting. I’m going to see if I can track down a copy (though given where I live, it’s rather tricky unless I want to pay a premium price).

      I remember reading someone say that a study they read said that consuming vinegar everyday was good for you and supposedly helped you lose weight as well as control blood sugar. The study was conducted by a vinegar manufacturer (this was revealed in the link the person provided to the study), but the person who parroted this positive information about vinegar consumption failed to note that the people who did the study had an economic interest in the outcome.

      I think this sort of thing happens all the time (either overtly or covertly), but people don’t question results. Part of them doesn’t want to, because life is a lot more chaotic when you can’t trust the plethora of information you’re given.

      Thanks for commenting. 🙂

      yesithinktoomuch

      September 25, 2010 at 10:57 pm

  2. Finally taking nutrition classes is eye opening… The ADA says everything MUST BE EVIDENCE BASED. I swear I read it in caps every time I see it. This semester I am taking Nutrition Education and Counseling (barely a peep about obsessing either…) and everything is Science says this works, well, works for who? The people in the study? Sure maybe. I don’t know I’ve had some medical mysteries around myself and for me the chance of that happening is 100%. Stats and studies can say something else, but when you are the outlier (in more than one way) you start wonder.

    I posted this link the other day on my Facebook page and got one comment. I went to a boarding school and for 4 years lived in a dorm. Not all of my ex roommates are my “friend” but I was hoping that at least one would speak up. No one did.

    http://www.annarbor.com/news/university-of-michigan-study-female-frosh-gain-less-if-roommate-is-heavy/

    I’m not sure I agree with the why. The science might be sound, but the interpretation I was surprised by. My 18 year old male cousin, who was once the heavy kid but now a buff ski bum had this to say. “well they say that peoples weight tends to mimic that of those around them (their friends) this is the inverse of that so i’d say fear? it is the greatest motivator.” Living it and proving it are two different things.

    Sarah

    September 25, 2010 at 9:21 pm

    • Thank you for linking to the study, and for taking the time to read and comment, Sarah. I think this is exactly the sort of thing I was thinking about in my post on “Interpretation Age”. There’s the data, but what does it mean? Can we even know? Are the people who eat less who have heavier roommates even aware of their own behavior on a conscious level? They probably aren’t, especially when the results reflect a failure to change rather than actual change (that is, they don’t eat much more and don’t gain much).

      There are many reasons why this situation might occur (though the sample was small and of college students – which most studies are conducted on them and that is why they are to be taken with a big grain of salt as college students are not representative of the entire population by a long shot). It could be fear of becoming fat. It could be that the mere talk of weight and dieting creates higher body consciousness about weight and behaviors that contribute to gain. It could be that a roommate who wants to lose weight gets out and takes walks or exercises more often and so the roommates go out together rather than sit in their room drinking beer or eating pizza. It could be, as the study speculates, behavior modeling. It could be inertia – the heavier roommate may be more proactive in buying and keeping healthier food around so the other roommate just partakes of what is at hand rather than get her own food.

      The bottom line is that these studies are contaminated by too much probing or discussion, so that the causes aren’t explored in any depth so researchers make the guess that falls in line with their pet theories. I did psychological research in college and was struck by the profound lack of construct validity. You could, essentially, create a testing environment that was heavily biased and had a high chance of yielding the desired result no one would question you.

      yesithinktoomuch

      September 25, 2010 at 11:07 pm


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