Saturday, January 30, 2010
We're going to need some crystals...
This might be a bit tangential to class but hey, that's what the blog is for. A number of times recently I have noticed a tendency of people to criticize science (sometimes 'mainstream science' or 'traditional science') as being very inflexible and unwilling to change whereas the alternative is the one portrayed as open to change. You often see this in the debate over 'alternative medicine'.
In reality the truth is pretty much the exact opposite. Science is remarkably open to new ideas. BUT what science does is to test those ideas. That's really all science is - a way of organizing our knowledge by proposing and systematically testing different ideas. Those ideas that don't work are eventually rejected (flat earth, miasma, witchcraft etc) and those that do work (germ theory etc) get increasingly refined and sometimes completely replaced by a whole new paradigm (Newton to Einstein etc). In many ways science is ALL ABOUT change. A career in science is not a good idea if you don't like change.
Most scientists are not against 'alternative medicine' because it is outside the mainstream - they are against it because it has been tested and there's little evidence it works. So why do many people believe in it? Because the placebo effect is HUGE. People DO improve if you give them a pill, potion, wave a magic wand, or stick needles in them - but only because they believe they will. This is also a problem with much traditional medicine. Many anti-depressant medicines (one of the most prescribed drugs) show only marginal improvement over a placebo.
Scientists have repeatedly tested many alternative 'therapies' and in cases where there appears to be some evidence of an effect (eg acupuncture) you'll find a fairly rich literature (in acupuncture though it is hard to rule out the placebo effect). In cases where there are good studies demonstrating no effect scientists tend to lose interest (eg homeopathy).
So I'm not sure why scientists, who have tested many if not all these 'therapies' are portrayed as being unwilling to change when advocates of pseudoscience like homeopathy, astrology or the notoriously litigious scientology persist in their beliefs even as evidence accumulates that their beliefs are wrong.