1 Jun 2009

Science and Pseudoscience

I know a researcher who worked for the Swiss government at the cutting edge of nuclear medicine investigation - non-invasive brain scanning. I once asked him what practical use his work had. He thought for a moment then said brightly, “Well, when someone thinks of the word ‘cheese’ we know exactly which part of his brain he is using.”

Surely this is how fundamental scientific studies work: it measures a tiny piece of life and, using the results of other equally small experiments, gradually builds up a general hypothesis which is relentlessly put to the test through more detailed experiments.

This is a highly rational and verifiable method of understanding reality. It enables us to build up models about the world that surrounds us, based on measurable and accurate data which can be confirmed and re-confirmed if necessary.

However, it is always necessary to remind ourselves that no matter how detailed the experiments, the resulting models are constructions and do not reflect reality exactly. They are themselves hypotheses. In fact they are beliefs about how the world is, based on laborious and often ingenious hard work, but nonetheless, beliefs, not reality.

This is not an attempt to deny the scientific method all its merits, but rather a caveat to prevent us from converting it into a magical answer to everything. Take an example of what an anecdote that happened to me. A few years ago I wrote an article on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work. When working as a psychologist at Chicago university Csikszentmihalyi’s developed a theory called “flow”. Basically it is that state of grace which you experience when you are deeply involved in something of great interest, when hour-long activities pass like minutes. The article talked about the possible applications of ‘flow’ to educational contexts. Some time after publishing the article in Internet I received an e-mail from a chemistry graduate who said that ‘flow’ was not a complex psychological phenomenon but actually a straightforward chemical reaction. He added that to induce ‘flow’ you simply had to provoke a surge in dopamine. I asked him how you administer dopamine surges in a classroom. He still hasn’t replied.

The point here is that sciences such as chemistry have found clear answers to some chemical questions but maybe need to recognise that description is not application. When chemical answers become applications the answers are less clear. Think, for example, of the disastrous effects of thalidomide or the moral implications of cloning. Recognising that humans can be analysed into chemical components does not imply that humans must see themselves as chemical compounds. Scientific analysis is true, but it is not the whole truth. Wholeness is something that the human spirit yearns for and which can only be satiated in complex beliefs like art, which influence our culture perceptions, religions which give us interpretations about the ultimate meaning of life or scientific models which rationalise the structure of our reality. The clash between these different beliefs can lead us to think that one is more valid than the other. I think that it is truer to say that one usually prevails, depending on the moment, but that none of them is more authoritative in all spheres.

It is certainly true that application of science to everyday life, what we call technology, is very attractive. Its method of asking the pragmatic question. “How can we make it work?” has led to very useful innovations. They have directly affected our daily lives, particularly in communications and health, from cell phones to heart transplants, from the Internet to cures for cancers. However, we must not confuse this very positive spin-off of fundamental science with scientific philosophy. True science does not claim to explain everything. It patiently builds theoretical models and tests them in a rational manner. It would be irrational, and unscientific, to assert that science is Truth.

It was the Greek philosophers who gave us the belief that we could understand the world through our reason and thus opened the way for measurement, analysis and science. This has enabled mankind to work towards material progress in many areas. Yet some would argue that reason cannot explain everything we experience. In fact the very impetus of science, that of concentration on the observable, may have blinded us to what is not directly observable, or measurable, and given us a materialistic perception of our world. In this way, science, just as it has enabled us, could at the same time limit us, by inducing us to believe that what we cannot measure does not exist.