Friday, October 19, 2012

The Golden Calf

Science is smart and science is stupid. Both are true and there could be studies done to prove it.

One of the smart/stupid things about science is the ubiquitous study. Studies are interesting but they do not reveal eternal truths. They provide a glimpse into one small, carefully cordoned off area of interest. Extrapolations from the data are based on statistics and therefore do not necessarily apply to individuals.

It's all well and good, except that in my society, we worship at the altar of the scientific study. We consider study results to be the final word, the indisputable truth, the word from on high. Oh man, wouldn't it be great if studies actually could reveal the final word? What a lovely fantasy.

Here is a link to a story from the New York Times that describes the parsing of information that lead to incorrect conclusions about the value of organic food in a very well thought of Stanford study. The writer is only interested in how the study was conducted, but never hints at the fact that perhaps all studies are flawed to some degree or another, biased and shaped in order to produce desired results. After all, in every study, information is parsed.

Meta studies have disproved all kinds of things that were allegedly true due to earlier studies. In one meta study about placebos, it was discovered that, while always effective, placebos are far more effective now than thirty years ago.

Whatever in the world can that mean? We believe in the power of pills, definitely, more so than thirty years ago - I guess!

We spend a lot of money on studies. I'm not trying to say they're worthless, but how I wish more in my society cultivated the questioning attitude. I wish we weren't so willing to swallow the results of studies hook, line and sinker. In any area of inquiry, there is never a final answer. Every answer should create more questions. Smart scientists know that. How I wish John Q. Citizen did.

May we open our eyes, cultivate the questioning attitude, and try not to be so gullible. May it be so.


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