Thursday, December 23, 2010

"The Uncertainty of Certainty"

You look up a word in the dictionary. They’ve got the definition wrong. “A fish is a head covering.”
High School math textbook; the answers are in the back; but many of them are incorrect.
You find a number in the Phone Book – does anybody still do that? – you dial, it’s the wrong person. You dial again. It’s still them. But angrier.
You follow your “tried and true” recipe for Eggplant Parmesan. People are spitting it into their napkins. Including you.
What the heck is goin’ on?
What’s goin’ on is the Tree of Certainty has been vigorusly shaken. And it’s really messing things up.
In the December 13th issue of The New Yorker, there’s an article called, “The Truth Wears Off”, written by Jonah Lehrer. The article describes how medications, hailed as successful for treating certain conditions, have unexpectedly stopped working.
Scientists are scratching their heads. Reliable conclusions, drawn from rigorous experimentation, seem no longer to be reliable, and they have no idea where to turn for an answer. The lab rats are, like, “What do you want from me? The stuff doesn’t work anymore.” Prize winners wonder if they have to return the money.
Understanding the “the medication’s lost its mojo ” phenomenon goes beyond the “usual suspects” explanation. A pharmaceutical company does a study, proving that their new wonder drug works like a charm. That’s your mother saying, “My Sonny Boy is the best!”
This thing goes beyond that. This is respected reseachers, employing the gold standard “scientific method”, where you prove something experimentally, and then you prove it again, then other people who don’t know you, or maybe don’t even like you, replicate your conclusions in independent studies, and having met all the tests for scientic validity, the results are published in the “Hotsy Totsy Journal For People Wbo Know A Lot About This Stuff”, and it becomes The Truth, and doctors prescribe medications based on this truth, and people take them, and everybody’s happy.
Except it turns out that, despite the meticulous adherence to the scientific process, over time, the certifiable results of that unilaterally trusted approach
Don’t work anymore.
Leaving the scientific community mystified and perplexed. Ot to mention dumbfounded, troubled, jittery and confused. Why? Because, “We followed the rules. Our results were validated. We thought further testing would refine our conclusions, but we got exactly the opposite. That’s not supposed to happen.”
To me, this lament has the ring of a Witch Doctor going, “I chanted the incantations, I shook the rattles, I danced in a circle, and the guy died anyway. What’s happening to my medicine?”
As the article says, “It’s like our facts are losing their truth.” And nobody seems to know why.
The article offers some partial explanations. Wishful thinking and the “human nature” preference for being right may unconsciously be insinuating their way into the testing process. Others point to the publishing process, wherein papers providing confirming data are more likely to be accepted than than those challenging the groundbreaking results. Another explanation, involving tests studying the effectiveness of acupuncture, suggests cultural bias, every test done Asia confirming acupuncture’s effectiveness, while Caucasian test results were considerably less enthusiastic.
And there’s also the unsettling possibility that, while the scientific protocols were rigorously adhered to, the test results were simply a matter of chance.
In the end, at least of this article, they simply were not entirely sure what was going on. Leading to some humbling conclusions.
“We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us. But that’s often not the case. Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe.”
Hm. Having to “choose what to believe.” That sounds very much like a question of faith. Which would make science the same as, I don’t know, religion.
But with more dead rats.


Anonymous said...


You know a dolphin swims and lives in the water... very much like a fish.

But if you call it a fish, you are missing the very big distinctions between mammals and fish.

Unfortunately, science is often labelled as just another religion because of some of the similarities (and I don't think you have really nailed one here), so that it can be dismissed as another religion.

This misses some very big distinctions between science and religion, and that's why such a false equivalence raises red flags for many people.

Dimension Skipper said...

I'm "mystified and perplexed, not to mention dumbfounded, troubled, jittery and confused" about the font issues with this post.

Great topic and post, but what's going on with the large and overlapping font?

Or is it somehow just me seeing things this way? And when I click "Show Original Post" here on this commenting page the thing displays as one single huge paragraph! (But in normal font size.)

Jim Russell said...

Well, now I'll have to go find and read that New Yorker article. From your synopsis, it sounds like it was written by someone who has no freaking clue how science works.

I've always liked Stephen Jay Gould's comment on "scientific facts":

"In science, 'fact' can only mean 'confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.' I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms."

Keith said...

There was a study published last week which showed that placebos work even when the patient knows they're taking a placebo. Yikes.

Dimension Skipper said...

It appears the font issue has been corrected... Thank you.