Sunday, February 23, 2014

Doctors Are Not Always Right

George Washington died in 1799 at the age of 67. When he fell sick with what sounds like a cold or infection of some sort, he received care from eminent and respectable physicians. Nevertheless, within a few days, he was dead.

His medical treatments ranged from possibly helpful ("a medicinal mixture of molasses, vinegar, and butter") to very unhelpful (extensive bloodletting) to toxic (orally administered mercurous chloride, also known as calomel, generally given to patients until they salivated uncontrollably, a symptom of acute mercury poisoning).

We can look back at this story, shaking our heads sadly at the barbarity of the medicine of 1799. While doing this, we may note that mercurous chloride was an ingredient in infant teething powders in Britain until 1954, and shake our heads sadly some more. Or that mercurious chloride was a legal ingredient in skin whitening creams in the US until 1990.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Science Doesn't Prove Things

Science provides hypotheses and models of how things work. The value of a model is measured by its ability to explain past observations and predict future ones.

A new scientific theory is accepted into the mainstream canon when there is consensus that it provides better, simpler, more accurate, or more detailed explanations than existing theories. New theories often meet with great resistance unrelated to their merit or utility, for a variety of reasons outlined in my previous post.

Today’s breakthrough theories will become tomorrow’s mainstream theories. And sooner or later, many of today's best and brightest theories will be displaced by newer theories.

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?