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Monday, June 11, 2012

Unclear On The Concept

I was reading a news article over the weekend about how nutritionists are changing the popular view that you might suffer gross bodily harm if you don't drink 2 liters of water a day every day of your life.  I was reading it primarily because I have never followed what seemed like bad advice from the beginning.  I was a strong believer in responding to signals that a healthy body produces, such as thirst and hunger, before blindly stuffing myself with excessive amounts of food or water or anything else for that matter.  So, I was happy that this article vindicated my approach to taking care of the fluid needs of my body.

What I was surprised by was the number of comments beneath the article that not only seemed to demonstrate that people were ignorant about how the human body works (which is understandable in that not everybody wants to go into great technical depth about how their body works), but more importantly, about how science in general works.

There were several comments complaining about how scientists keep changing their views and recommendations, and how new research seems to invalidate a lot of older research results.  To me, all this seems completely natural and the way it should be.  But this seems to make a large number of people very uncomfortable.  People want absolute certainty in life, and science does not seem to want to oblige!

To me, the ability to change and evolve constantly is what makes science valuable.  Science advances only when old "truths" are refined or modified or completely set aside by new scientific findings.  The advancement of science does not mean that scientists in times past were wrong or stupid.  They did the best they could with the tools and techniques of their times.  New tools enable scientists to observe and quantify new things that may invalidate older observations.  Scientific techniques also evolve, making observations and measurements more accurate and reliable.  And, last but not least, scientists are only human:  so, sometimes they make mistakes that are not caught right away.

And let us not even get into the arena of pseudo-science, where corporations and other interested parties buy "scientists" to produce spurious results that favor their viewpoints.  The best known example of this kind of "science" is the effort that companies like Exxon-Mobil undertook as part of their corporate policy to create fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) in climate-change research.  Other examples of this are the large number of websites spouting absurd hypotheses about the health effects of whatever they are touting (usually some miracle supplement that makes you rich, handsome and healthy while creating world peace and solving world hunger), or dissing (genetically modified crops, food additives, vaccination, or whatever else catches their diseased imaginations).

Because of this, I can understand why some non-scientific people find the whole scientific process suspect and unsettling.  Answers change all the time.  It is difficult, if you don't have a good scientific background, to know what to believe and what not to believe.  But instead of making an effort to understand science so that they can appreciate the progress science has made, or evaluate "scientific" claims in a more balanced way, many people seem to want to vent their anger and frustration at their own ignorance on science and scientists.

Perhaps, this is one of the reasons for the popularity of religion compared to science.  After all, religion is the exact anti-thesis of science:  nothing changes, everything is certain.  The old is never replaced by new (either in thought or action).  There is no need or attempt to verify that what is presented as truth is actually true.  There is no need for painstaking research.  There is a well-organized hierarchy of religious figures (pastor, priest, bishop, cardinal, pope, etc.), and when there is a conflict of views, you always know who is correct (the one higher up in the hierarchy) and who is wrong (the one lower down in the hierarchy).  And you can safely ignore religious figures who are not part of your religion, so that makes it even easier to find and follow "the truth".

Well, here is my attempt at putting in words my thought-process when it comes to evaluating scientific claims, whether it be about your health or the health of the planet or the state of the universe:

  •  Learn a little about how science works.  Science is all about making valid connections that are true regardless of who tries to make the connection.  Science is repeatable.  Scientists publish their methods and results, and other scientists have to verify that when the method is repeated, the results also repeat (heard of cold fusion lately?)
  • Learn a little about how the world works.  The internet has made science so much more accessible than it used to be.  You don't have to go hunting for books at a library and wait for years before the latest science is available in print form.  Websites like wikipedia, howstuffworks, etc. make scientific concepts easy to understand.  They also make it easy for everyone who has the inclination to understand the broad principles behind any field of science, whether it is human physiology or geology or astronomy.
  • Who is the scientist making the claim?  What are his/her qualifications?  Does he/she have a track record of publishing peer-reviewed scientific papers in famous scientific journals in the field?
  • Who is paying for the research?  Is there a hidden agenda?  This can be hard to find out.  If the claim is published in a famous scientific journal, usually such financial ties must be disclosed.  But if the "scientist" just sets up a website to broadcast his agenda, he/she need not disclose any such ties.  So, I always take non-peer-reviewed "scientific" discoveries and findings with a big bag of salt.
  • Does the scientific claim seem plausible and common-sensical?  If the finding is from a famous scientific establishment with a long track record, and the finding has been peer-reviewed and found sound, then it is quite possible it is true and correct even if it sounds implausible at first (who would have believed that the earth revolved around the sun when it was clearly obvious that the earth was flat and the sun revolved around it from east to west?).  However, if the previous two filters raise questions about reliability, then the bar is pretty high for a claim to pass the smell test, as far as I am concerned.  So, when a former electrician "discovers" an amazing health supplement, and chooses to set up a website to tout it rather than publishing his "findings" in a good journal, it is time to move on!
Maybe, this post will help someone who is on the fence about science appreciate it for what it is.  Yes, it comes with warts, but it is still beautiful!  More importantly, maybe it will people appreciate science for what it is not:  it is not dogma.  It is not static and unchanging.  It is not magical or miraculous.  It makes no promises that it cannot keep.  And it is not evil any more than any other inanimate object in the universe such as electrons and protons, or stars and planets, are evil.  Most importantly, I hope it reduces the number of people who are unclear on the concept of science.  Religion is religion and science is science, and there is nothing that prevents anybody from being religious about certain aspects of their life and scientific about other aspects of it.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

That's why I don't trust anyone who touts the phrase
"The science is settled now let's get on with it"
particularly if they are a politician.

Blogannath said...

That is true, especially if the trickster says this when the science is not settled. But you have to be careful not to use skepticism as an excuse for procrastination. For example, the science of taking care of your body may never be fully settled, but you will be the loser if you delay developing sensible eating and exercising habits in the meantime!

Kavitha said...

There are many victims of pseudo-science especially in this modern complex world cuz its hard to know which research is done thoroughly which one not. Tools and technologies are available to every dumb researcher too, and not always one thinks the right way in deducing from those researches. To me people go more confused with the amount of internet information. I myself having studied science had to go back and forth with my own belief system when I was researching about something related to my health.
Its as confusing as it was in the 16th century when it comes to health.

A tip for your water drinking lines in the beginning, when my husband and I went for an adventure walk on the glacier, the guide told us,
"Remember to drink water very often, if you drink water when you feel thirsty its already late, your cells felt dehydrated enough that they now tell the brain to ask for water" Just a tip that helped me, now I keep a bottle of water in front of me at work and seldom I drink it when I am thirsty, but keep drinking a gulp in 15 ins to never feel thirsty. :-). I understand its not gonna be possible all the time, sometimes I have to develop resistance to not collapsing if there is no timely water, yet, when all its possible I have to keep hydrated.

Blogannath said...

Actually, if you had read the article mentioned in the first line of my post, you would know that the guide was wrong about drinking when you are not thirsty. The human body has evolved to tell you to do things when they are necessary. Thirst is one of those things that the body has evolved to tell you when it is the correct time to drink water.

Going by the guide's logic, we should not wait to get hungry before eating either. Instead, we should keep stuffing ourselves every 15 minutes so that we never get hungry. Well, that has worked out quite well, I think, with obesity rate at an all-time high.

Kavitha said...

Well you may be right. Although I would not compare food and water. Food is fuel water is just the carrier, regulator, supporter and sometimes cushion. I don't know what is the harm with regular more water. I know food can be stored, I have not heard of anything that says excess water is stored. And above all, if I wait for my body to alarm, I should be Ninga sensible to get it right time, or generally drinking only when I feel thirsty, I have drunk around 2-3L of water when the necessary average is 4L for women. so I ensure I drink 4L, in all forms, some times I drink when thirsty and other times, a gulp hasn't harmed and I keep to an avg 4L. I have believed that research of 4 L :-) so far so good.

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