Monday, February 3, 2014

Mainstream Science Advances Slowly, Even In The Face Of New Evidence

Per the Oxford English Dictionary, scientific method is “a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”

It wasn’t the case that we all woke up one morning and agreed on scientific method; its adoption, like the adoption of most philosophical and, indeed, scientific paradigms, was a process rather than an event, and its adoption process stretched into the 1800s. And it has not been adopted by folks whose personal beliefs preclude or supersede it.

So what is the scientific method?
  • observations and measurements 
  • creation of hypotheses that explain past observations and measurements 
  • predictions based on the hypotheses 
  • experiments that test the hypotheses
  • Neils Bohr: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
This comment was clearly made with tongue in cheek; but Bohr, a leading scientist of his century, would not have made it had there not been some truth to it.

So what was he getting at? Why do we have to wait for the “old guard” to die before new scientific theories can be accepted, given that today we all (mostly) agree on the rules of the game of science, i.e., scientific method?
  • People’s reputations are tied to particular existing theories.
  • People’s grant money is sometimes tied to particular theories.
  • Sources of funding (government, industry) preferentially fund some experiments over others, based on their institutional priorities and biases.
  • “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Sometimes people are simply unwilling to accept new ideas, for whatever personal reasons (religion has been a big one historically). Einstein famously never accepted the implications of quantum mechanics, a field that built directly on his work.
So science does not happen in a societal vacuum, people are not unbiased, people are not perfect, and people feel like they need to earn a living within the existing social structures.

For anyone who is interested in exploring this theme further, I highly recommend Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a book written 50 years ago that is more relevant now than it was then, since nowadays many of us hear about "the latest scientific discoveries" on the evening news and think that we have had truths revealed to us.

In a future article, I will share my thoughts about what this means for health, nutrition, and medicine.


Raine Saunders said...

Thank you for this post. I am looking forward to your follow up as to how the scientific method relates specifically to nutrition and health. :)

Alex Lewin said...

Thanks Raine!

I have done another post in this series. I haven't quite gotten to the nutrition and health part yet... :-)