Thursday, July 18, 2013

"Science - One Of A Series, Unless I Can't Think Of Anything Else"

When it comes to questions like, “Does the earth revolve around the sun or does the sun revolve around the earth?”  (Spoiler Alert:  A)  we no longer turn to religion for the answer because religion got it wrong  (Spoiler Alert:  B.)

For reliable answers to these questions we turn to the discipline of science, now divided into dozens of sub-specialties, but it’s all science.  I know that, because there’s a common denominator to all of them – I do not know what any of them are talking about.  

Science does not claim to have all the answers.  But they do believe that their approach, labeled “The Scientific Method”, is the only valid approach to the discovery of all the answers.

Acknowledging that there remain a myriad of confoundments yet to be illuminated, I have heard more than one scientist proclaim that there are no permanent “unknowables.”  They go on to posit that “The Scientific Method” as the one true path to ultimate understanding.

Why does that remind me of?

Oh, yeah.  Religion.

Having casually uttered such secular heresy, I was assigned for my sins a book to read called Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact by Ludwik Fleck (1935), translated from the German By Fred Bradley and Thaddeus J. Trenn and republished in 1979.

Believe me, if I’d have known that was going to happen, I would have just kept my mouth shut.

I would flatter myself if I said that I understood more than five percent of Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact.  But I have to tell you, it was an eye-opening a five percent.

Rather than correcting my thinking, Fleck’s book – in the parts that I understood – reinforced my views, saying that many scientists, possibly a great many

“…commit a characteristic error.  They exhibit an excessive respect, bordering on pious reverence for scientific facts.” 

Here’s more:

“Natural scientists in their philosophizing commit the opposite and also very typical error.  They are aware that there are no “solely objective features and conditions” but only relations governed by a more or less arbitrary reference system.  Their error consists in an excessive respect for logic and in regarding logical conclusions with a kind of pious reverence.”

Go, Fleck!  He’s really givin’ it to them, isn’t he? 

Fleck coins a term called the “Thought Collective”, a sociological phenomenon in which, for example, scientific researchers, without being consciously aware of it, are constrained by the “thought culture” in which they are immersed to think about things a certain way, and much as they might like to, they are incapable of thinking about them any other way. 

Fleck’s thesis is not that scientific progress is impossible, but that scientists must remain eminently humble about its conclusions.  (Which is all I said, and the roof fell in.  Maybe I should have said it in German.) 

I found myself agreeing the Fleck.  Though I have learned that my opinion is not, in fact, mine.  It is merely the view of the cultero-centric “Thought Collective” coming out of my mouth.

We have to trust science, because, barring Tarot cards, Palmistry and reading the bumps on your head, where else are we going to go?  Still, sometimes you wonder.

The June 24th issue of The New Yorker has an article (by Jerome Groopman) concerning the latest findings about Alzheimer’s Disease, which I decided to read now because, since millions of people contract Alzheimer’s, I may not be able to read it later.

The problem with Alzheimer’s research is that there are conflicting opinions on which way to proceed.  A treatment that seems hopeful for to one researcher may, according to another equally passionate researcher, “upset the equilibrium of the brain.”

To be honest, I’m not ready to take that chance.   Nor, pretty much, is anybody else.

So they try things on rats.

But check out how they did it.

To demonstrate that an excess of something called beta-amyloids is a primary cause of Alzheimer’s, half the rats were injected with human amyloid, and the other half were injected with harmless saline.

At this point, I had to put down the magazine and think.  And the thought that came to my was,


There is something wrong with that.  I understand the concept of the “controlled experiment.”  You have two groups, and the conditions have to be exactly the same for both of them, except for one thing, and that’s the thing you’re studying. 

Okay so they inject half the rats with human amyloid – I get that part – but why didn’t they just give the other group of rats… nothing?

“What’s the point?  ‘Look, you guys.  We’re giving you the same thing’?  The rats don’t care.”

“The ‘Scientific Method’ requires that both groups be injected.”

“Why, because the group that got injected is going to notice?  ‘Hey, I just got injected and those other rats didn’t.  I think something fishy’s going on.’  That’s why the other group gets injected with saline?  So you can fool some rats?”

These are the people we are putting our faith in – people making a whole bunch of rats unnecessarily thirsty.

The article also talks about tests they’ve come up with that can confirm that you will definitely develop Alzheimer’s Disease down the line.

I mean, okay, religion burned you at the stake.  But at least you didn’t have to wait for it.  They took you outside, and they lit you on fire.

To me, this is just mean!

“You have ten years till you forget how to swallow.”


It’s unlikely to occur in my lifetime, but I’m looking forward to the next system coming along that will effectively put science in its place.

I would tell you what that would be.  But my “Thought Collective” keeps me from imagining it.

1 comment:

Jim said...

Okay, Earlo, let me attempt to handle the injection part of this.

Suppose the experiment went as you wished -- half the rats are injected with human amyloid, and half are not injected at all. The results of the experiment show an increase in incidence of Alzheimer's in the amyloid group. The conclusion could be drawn that Alzheimer's is caused by either amyloids, or by poking needles into you.

You do the experiment that way, and Jenny McCarthy will be on Fox News in a New York minute.