Monthly Archives: July 2011

Why science is the best tool we have to understand reality

In my previous post I was presented with some odd comments about science and how we can develop justifiable certainty. These are my responses.

There are various ways to minimise the cognitive dissonance that we experience when science treads on our precious beliefs. Denial is one way, the comments below that I respond to are largely blanket dismissals of science.

Statistical significance

Claim: “I believe my experience over what others tell me or insists is true.”
Response: I’ve never been to Madagascar but people tell me it exists. I couldn’t possibly believe them unless I went there myself.

It takes a degree of ignorance to make the statement that someone’s personal experience on a matter is somehow more valid than thousands of people who carefully test ideas over several years and decades.

This is why scientific medicine works while belief-based medicine is like a blind man in a dark warehouse trying to hit a dartboard.

In medicine, it is unreasonable to expect people to try treatments “just to see what it’s like for themselves”. People should be able to find out if a treatment is safe and efficacious from reliable evidence. Besides, there is an endless production line of nonsense treatments and remedies and it would be an unwise waste of time to just trust people’s subjective opinions (which by nature are biased and subject to a host of cognitive biases).
I am not a scientist and am not qualified to do the research that scientists do in any field you care to think of. It would be silly for me to just flat out reject science because I haven’t experienced it myself. I can, though, be open to reason and learning and benefit from the knowledge that took others a lot of hard work to acquire. The observations, facts and logic are all open to me if I choose to study further.

The scientific method employs careful checks and balances that leads to information we can rely upon. No other area of culture employs such a rigorous standard of intellectual honesty.

Imagine if everyone settled on reality by way of accepting only their subjective experience. What could we possibly learn about external reality?

Everyone’s subjective experience is by nature different and so we stumble around without an external reference checking system.

We can develop technology, medicine and understanding because we all live according to the laws of physics and our anatomies, genetics, neurology and biochemistry are all the same (with obvious genetic variations).

Be objective as possible

Claim: “All interpretations are subjective”
Response: Aside from being a hasty sweeping generalisation it also represents a false equivalence. Subjectivity and objectivity exist on a continuum. Science allows us to be as objective as possible by controlling all the variables that could influence the outcome of an experiment.

The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true. – Carl Sagan

There are legitimate philosophical debates about the nature of knowledge and objectivity. However, it is a fallacy then to say that scientific findings are as subjective as the musings of individuals.

Furthermore, the only reason a person would dismiss science and advance their own subjective conclusions is because it justifies them advancing whatever nonsense they like and calling it reality.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not to their own facts. -Steven  Novella

Facts are not negotiable and are by definition  publically verifiable. Facts are objective. Regardless of disagreements, if we make an observation that same observation could be made by someone else.

A molecule called DNA carries all the genetic  information for an organism. The effect of mass is to curve space. The human eye can detect only light in the 390-700 nanometre range. The atomic weight of cobalt is 58.93 and trilobites are fossilised in Cambrian rock. These are objective facts.

Detection and measuring equipment has further increased our ability to make finer and precise objective readings of reality. The effect has been to develop more accurate models of reality and thus better technology.

Knowledge constantly evolves

Claim: “Interpretations in science change all the time”.
Response: Yes, scientific interpretations change constantly because our knowledge improves. This is a strength of science.

The fact we don’t know stuff and we learn more is what keeps scientists busy! The march of human progress and understanding continues!

An excellent analogy is that scientific theory is like the car. Components can be substituted or improved upon, without changing the overall truth of how a car functions. Theories will always be improved upon because the limits of  knowledge mean there will always be more to learn.

One presumption implicit in the “well science changes” argument is that somehow it shouldn’t — as if science is useless unless we have absolute unchanging knowledge. This is an unrealistic expectation of science and the knowledge accumulating process.Another fallacy is that interpretations change willy-nilly much like they do in politics. This is a false analogy as the mechanisms in politics (democracy, authoritarianism etc…) are different to those of science (meritocracy, rigorous testing against reality, logical conclusions).
By contrast, modes of thinking based on personal experience and belief tend to stay stultified in the ideas of the past. Such is  the mechanisms of belief and cognitive biases. Science was designed explicitly to overcome these human tendencies to make faulty inferences and defend prior beliefs. Pseudoscience and superstition stop where science begins.
The false premise here too is that science somehow contradicts itself by changing all the time. However, this isn’t historically accurate. Major shifts in scientific ideas have overturned premature ideas sure, this is to be expected. However, major advances often don’t overturn well established theories, they merely increase the resolution and precision.

Einstein’s theories of general and special relativity didn’t replace Newton’s laws of motion — relativity gave us insights into the fabric of space-time and how physics operates at high speeds. Likewise, quantum theory doesn’t negate relativity but does give us a look into physics of our universe at sub-atomic levels.Over time science converges on the truth – our  understanding of reality is constantly improving.

Converging on the truth

Claim: “There are multiple ways of interpreting data”.
Response: This comment is a version of “it’s only a theory” and it stems from ignorance of what a theory actually is. Science is a tool to discriminate between fact and folly.

Multiple ways of interpreting data is a feature of preliminary findings. Science advances by knocking down theories (falsification). While there may be multiple interpretations to explain a body of facts these are always provisional and multiple interpretations are gradually knocked off as scientists attempt to demonstrate that each interpretation is false.

After a time, it becomes absurd to hold on to any given interpretation because it is clearly false. The fact that people often do hold on to falsified theories is another reason why personal intuition is insufficient.

A strong interpretation (theory) connects all the dots from different lines of evidence and can predict as yet unobserved facts.

Read more information on the scientific method.

CAM practioners in the UK taken to task for extravagant claims

The Advertising Standards Authority is coming down hard on quack remedies and modalities and it’s about time too.

And CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) practitoners are scrambling. Unregulated, “alternative”, unscientific medical interventions are squarely in the crosshairs of the British Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). Purveyors of dubious remedies and magical “cures” are now being taken to task for claims on their websites.

The immediate reaction of the CAM practitioners is of course predictable: “They’re limiting health freedom”, “the medical establishment are greedy”, “but the ASA are supposed protect the public”.

Which leads me to some specific reactions from an NLP trainer, practitioner and therapist Nick Kemp. Uneasy with the implications of the newfound teeth of the ASA, Nick wrote a blog post outlining what he sees as an organised attack on alternative health modalities.

The NLP (Neurolinguistic programming) community is unregulated externally and has a number of features of a pseudoscience. Nick is all to aware of this, pointing out that many NLP individuals and institutions write cheques they can’t cash in terms of claims.

Mentalists and skeptics Derren Brown and Banachek point out that there is some good stuff in NLP, but as a field unhinged from the need to prove its claims NLP amasses a fair degree of quack alternative ideas also.

Evidence please?

People who make claims that are supported by evidence have nothing to be afraid of.

However, CAM modalities are alternative because they do not pass scientific muster. If a modality works it becomes accepted as medicine and does not remain “alternative”.

There is no ‘alternative versus conventional medicine’ dichotomy. The CAM industry has created this “us versus the elite establishment” semantic distinction, but it doesn’t represent the reality that there is either science-based medicine or unscientific belief-based medicine. The only real question that needs asking is “Is there objective evidence that it works?”

Avoiding the real question (does it work?)

So most of the complaints by CAM practitioners are elaborate red herrings and non sequiturs designed to evade the question “does it work?” Not just anecdotally, but is there science showing it works?

Nick Kemp’s main beef is that the ASA is being far too strict and doesn’t understand NLP or alternative therapies. Essentially, practitioners of all stripes, homoeopaths, naturopaths, chiropractors, NLP practitioners… Are crying foul and pulling the martyr card.

The need for public watchdogs

Mr Kemp also conveys some disdain for the Nightingale Collaboration – a campaign that challenges questionable claims made by healthcare practitioners in order to hold them accountable.

He says:

“Groups like The Nightingale Collaboration actively encourage “skeptics” to make complaints about websites to support their own agenda.”

He is dismayed by the fact the Nightingale Collaboration has previously attacked chiropractors, homoeopathy and cranial sacral therapy.

I pointed out to Mr Kemp that there is good reason why these health modalities deserve criticism – they don’t work! In the case of chiropractors, the essence of chiropractic (still claimed by many chiropractors) is sympathetic magic. When this was pointed out by journalist Simon Singh The British Chiropractic Association responded by suing him. This kicking of the hornets’ nest is why skeptics and other concerned citizens upped the anti in opposing false and potentially harmful medical claims.

Aside from a handful of good journalists like Singh and Ben Goldacre, the media has proven itself incapable of  properly informing the public about the reality of CAM quackery.

The public needs groups like the Nightingale Collaboration to publically hold purveyors of quackery accountable for the very real danger they pose in promoting belief-based medicine over solid science.

(See this Guardian article for some background information on the Nightingale Collaboration and why Simon Singh and others formed the organisation).

“Leave your logic and science at the door thanks”

When I put forth the true state of the evidence for homeopathy (it doesn’t work beyond placebo) this is the response Mr Kemp gave:

“As someone who has used homeopathy for 30 years I have enough evidence that it’s not placebo.

“As for the ASA vetting, well they are check ad copy and have no therapeutic insights. I could write a lengthy post about the absurdity of many ASA deductions, but don’t really have time at present!”

It is a shame Mr Kemp doesn’t have more time because I would really like to know how the ASA is making absurd deductions AND I would like to know what he uses homoeopathy for.

The deductions the ASA make are simple – if there is objective evidence something works and you are a properly qualified practitioner then great. If the objective evidence is not in or worse if it repeatedly shows the treatment is hooey, then you can’t make claims to effectiveness.

Mr Kemp’s statement about absurd deductions is rather ironic. Any way you look at homoeopathy, the deduction that it works beyond placebo is absurd.

Homoeopathy is absurd because:

  • Double blind placebo controlled trials repeatedly show homoeopathy does not work.
  • The proposed mechanism for homoeopathy violates the laws of physics, therefore proponents have a huge burden of proof on their hands that they cannot meet.

Unfortunately, Nick Kemp displays the precise thinking the ASA is meant to safeguard the public against.

Firstly, his appeal to 30 years of personal experience of homoeopathy typifies the kind of anecdotes that the CAM industry relies on as the definitive evidence. As clinical data is unfavourable to their cause they have to use anecdotes. They either don’t like science or believe anecdotal reports trump science. This is the very problem the ASA must throw cold water on.

Testimonials are great marketing devices (people love stories) but testimonials are poor evidence of clinical effectiveness. The reliance on testimonials is a huge red flag when flicking through practitioner websites.

Cures

Regulators like the ASA (UK) and FDA (US) have become increasingly sensitive to the word “cure” due to the large number of unsubstantiated claims to cures for all kinds of ailments, especially those relating to cancers.

Most of the claims with “cure” in them come from scientifically discredited modalities. The public absolutely needs to be on guard from these kinds of extravagant (read: absurd) claims by internet charlatans.

There are countless stories about people abandoning their cancer treatment, medical treatment and prescribed medicine on the advice of a quack practitioner. Until now, purveyors of cancer cures have been largely unaccountable for the claims on their websites.

Conclusion

Unregulated, unscientific modalities and practices need to be brought to the surface so that the public can make informed choices based on the best evidence available. This protects the public from being misled, ripped off and prevents the promotion of harmful (untrue) medical advice.

For too long claimants have not been required to meet reasonable standards of objective evidence. Often claims are reduced to what people want to hear, what people want to believe rather than what is responsible and effective. It is misleading and dangerous to make false claims and then hide behind “well, I am giving people the freedom to decide what’s best for them”.

If CAM practitioners really do subscribe to the dictum “first do know harm” why are they so unwilling to submit their work to the evidence?