Wednesday, 25 June 2014


I'm not a scientist. It's not even my area, really. I took Chemistry and Biology in school, and did well at both, but we weren't offered Physics, obviously, it being an all-girl school, (no, I have no idea either, don't ask me) and I've kept up an interest. My more recent studies were MOOCS, in Physics, Astrophysics, and Astrobiology, and yes you read that right.

Don't get the idea that I don't know what I'm talking about when we get into a scientific discussion though. I'll tell you why too. Like reputable scientists, I am capable of saying "I don't know."

That's the mark of a scientist you know. Knowing the limits of knowledge.

Some years ago I was on the board of a charity that gave support to women with postpartum disorder. I never suffered from it myself, and in fact that was one reason I was invited onto the board, along with a token man. They wanted somebody with a "healthy" perspective. When you are dealing with any issue, it's obviously useful to have people involved who know the issue from the inside, but it also helps to have those who are on the outside.

One of the issues being discussed at that time concerned SSRI drugs and whether they were safe to use in pregnant women. At that time no research had been done, nobody wanted to take the risk. Were they safe or not? We didn't know, and therefore the advice at that time was for pregnant women to avoid these drugs.

For some reason the concept of "we don't know" among scientists is often seen as a flaw. Let me ask you something. What if you had two medical conditions, neither of which were life threatening, and one could be easily treated with drugs, but nobody knew the effect it would have on your body due to the other condition. Would you prefer that you were told, honestly, that "we don't know" or would you be quite happy for a doctor to pat you on the head, tell you it would be just fine, and then discover that the drug caused you severe, irreparable damage due to the other condition? No. You'd want to err on the side of caution.

Another example. Let's assume your house was infested with some insect or other, and there were two ways to eradicate it. One was expensive and would take a long time to work, but was known to be safe to humans, the other was cheap and quick, but no research had ever been done on the effect it had on humans. Which would you choose? You would choose the first one, because you would respect the honesty that "we don't know" about the second one.

This is true of so many things in our world. Unbeknown to us so often as we go about our lives, decisions are being made based on what we know and what we don't know, based on safety. On the other hand sometimes decisions are being made based on expediency and economy. (Cue fracking discussion, but let's not.)

Do you know what science is? Really?

It is the body of knowledge that we have collected over time. It is a collection of information, carefully put together. It is not a collection of anecdotes. It doesn't matter if hundreds of people claim to have witnessed a tornado, for example, there are certain tests that are taken before it is confirmed. Sometimes this is quite easy and sometimes the findings are a little ambiguous, and it's marked down in the records as a "possible" tornado. Which is very frustrating if you just got a tree through your roof, but not all high spinning winds are tornadoes, by definition, and that's that.

If the river near you turns a funny colour, you don't turn to mythology or guesswork to decide why. You get an expert to come and test it, and find out what caused this phenomenon. A thousand years ago, that expert wasn't available, and there was plenty of guesswork (and superstition) involved in telling the tale, but we have moved past that. However, on occasions, nobody knows what causes certain odd phenomena, and guess what the scientists say? They say "we don't know." It's the only honest thing to do.

There are people out there who claim to be scientists, who call their research science, but it's not. Remember -  science is a collection of information. This involves agreement by peers. One man working alone may discover something, but that isn't accepted by the scientific community until others have studied the findings, tested them, repeated them, and agreed that it's all correct. Deliberately selecting others with a bias doesn't work either.

There are frequently arguments among scientists, and this is a good thing. It's very frustrating for us out here, because we aren't sure who to listen to. But it's part of the process of sorting the wheat from the chaff in research. If your research doesn't hold up to the objections in these arguments, it will not become part of the body of knowledge.

It's a good system. It's not a perfect system. Sometimes scientists say "we used to think X, but we now believe this to be incorrect". This is also a good thing. New evidence, new findings, new research overturn the old and replace it.

Nowhere is this more true than in nutritional advice. Just in my life time virtually everything I eat has been good for me or bad for me, apparently, in some way or other, at some point. I'm so glad I am not a bandwagon jumper or I think I'd have gone mad. The question is was any of this ever really part of science at all. The answer is probably "not really". It's one thing to be able to tell if there is Vitamin C in a vegetable, and to collect data to see roughly how much the average person needs every day to fend off deficiency disorders, but beyond that it's really not possible (yet) to define anything close to an "ideal" diet for any individual, let alone a broad group of humans.

Because of this, the whole area is left wide open to anecdotal evidence, guesses, biases, agendas, charletans, and actual risks from all of these.

One of the soundbytes that has been going around the internet ever since I've been on it, is that doctors do one single afternoon class on nutrition during their studies. It's not clear how true that is. I have asked a couple of doctors about this and neither of them remember studying it at all.

But that doesn't mean they are ignorant. If you know how the body works, and you take a reasonable interest in healthy eating you are still going to give better advice than a Dr Oz viewer who had to look up "metabolism" on Google and still isn't clear about it. And there are such people as Nutritionists, whose dedicated studies make them far more knowledgeable, and who sensible doctors refer people to.

Still, this is one of those areas where an interested amateur can be ahead of a doctor.

I said can be. It doesn't mean they are. They may have picked up some bogus information along the way, especially if they set out (even unwittingly) to go against prevailing nutritional wisdom. It is quite possible for a person interested in the topic to study it independently for decades and still be wrong.

So what happens, is that one person - we'll call him Ted - who has an issue that may be diet related, runs into one of those doctors who never really understood it, and didn't refer him to a nutitionist either. He gives Ted some drug or other which doesn't work or makes things worse. He doesn't seem to know what he's doing, and Ted loses faith in him. Then he finds (probably online) an individual who calls himself an alternative healer of some sort, thinks he's an expert on health and nutrition, may even be right on many aspects of it, and has a positive reputation. Ted seeks advice from this person, and it could go either way. By sheer dumb luck he could be right. Furthermore, if it doesn't go well, his healer tells him science is all trial and error anyway, so he shouldn't worry too much. But let's assume it goes really well. Ted is cured, by diet alone, of his health problem.

What happens? Not surprisingly Ted has found faith in whatever this healer does. It's all about results, right?

A few years on, and Ted's suffering headaches, so he goes back to this healer, who does whatever it is he does, but this time Ted isn't getting better, in fact he's getting worse. But Ted has decided, from previous success that doctors are no good, and alternative healers are better. After some time it is clear even to the healer that this man is very ill, and he tells him to see a doctor. Ted still doesn't trust doctors, and by the time he is forced to seek mainstream medical care, he's terminal.

It happens. It's happened to people I've known, and it's happened to people you've known.

Who do we blame? Do we blame Ted? Maybe he should have been more sensible. But it makes perfect sense to trust someone who (compared to you) is an expert, especially when he's been right before. It even makes perfect sense to not trust someone who appears to be lacking in expertise, no matter his qualifications. Do we blame the healer? He has to shoulder part of the responsibility, he should have known his own limitations. But he means well, and his ego has been inflated by his success rate. Doctors get it wrong too, right? Do we blame the doctor? Well, he should have found a way to help Ted, even if it involved admitting inadequacy. But doctors have egos too.

So who do we blame?

It's not a who, it's a what. It's ignorance. It afflicted all three of them.

The moral to this story is that just because a layperson had enough nous to fix your simple ailments, doesn't mean he can diagnose a more serious condition, let alone cure it.

There is no substitute for real expertise. There are plenty of smart people around who are self-taught and good at what they do. No question. I know a lot about certain things, and so do you. But do we know as much as somebody who has dedicated their entire career and their life to it. No. What's more, would we be wrong in pretending we know it all? Yes. What should we do then, when we reach our limitations of expertise? Well, the correct thing to do is admit it, and refer to someone with more expertise.

And the very best thing of all is for a group of experts, yes, even if they are arguing, to be who we trust, because between them is likely to be the best expertise of all.

This is why scientists works towards consensus, why they argue, why they test one another's hypotheses. It is far less likely that a large number of independent researchers will be wrong.One man can come up with an idea or discovery, certainly! But if he's a true scientist he will present that to his peers, and seek their opinion and their validation. There is a process by which new ideas and new discoveries are rigorously tested by others trying to disprove them. When they can't, then it becomes part of the body of knowledge.

And you, sitting at home, reading it on the internet, can shout and scream all you like that you don't believe it. You are entitled to your opinion, but frankly, your opinion isn't worth anything.

It's also no good saying that something is obvious, and poking fun at proper research, and whining about what a waste of time and money it is. What is obvious? It's obvious that humans aren't harmed from eating marmalade sandwiches, we've been doing it for centuries. But for all you know, it could be causing harm, until the research is done you don't know, and if you claim that you do, then you are just being ignorant.

What does ignorant mean exactly?

It has several meanings.

The first is quite straightforward, it means you don't know. If you are ignorant of the wherabouts of another person, it may be because you weren't paying attention when he said he was going somewhere, or you may simply never have been told. The reason you don't know is not relevant. You just don't. So there's no judgement being passed here. Your ignorance is just a state of being. I am currently ignorant of who is reading this. Nothing wrong with that.

But we have developed a very common secondary meaning, that suggests this lack of knowledge is a choice. That you haven't bothered, and you don't care. We often also apply this meaning to the word stupid, and consequently some see the two words as synonyms, which can cause arguments.

There's a third, colloquial usage of ignorant which suggests the person is actually being difficult. I'm not quite sure how this arose, and I suspect it began when a person's boorish behaviour was actually excused, based on him not knowing any better.

So what do we do when we find somebody who is ignorant? The best thing to do, surely, is try to educate them. Unfortunately they sometimes resent this and fight any efforts to learn. You can lead a horse to water, etc.

The media is full of information, and not all of it is accurate. Sometimes it's difficult, when you are not an expert, to discern. Therefore you have to seek guidance if you are ever to understand. Choose your experts carefully. If their answer to difficult questions is "I don't know", don't dismiss them. If they claim to know everything, run away very fast.


  1. What you didn't mention is the importance of measurement. A scientist can tell us how much harder granite is than chalk by subjecting samples of both to crushing force and measuring how much each can withstand.

    At the same time, there is the question of things we can't measure. Is it because we haven't identified a quality that can be measured? or because we are trying to measure something imaginary?

    1. I see us being unable to discern between things that need measuring and things that don't. And we get it wrong both ways too, we obsess over quantity when we should look at quality, and vice vera.

  2. I have always had the greatest respect for the scientific method. When we lose sight of it we start blaming the old woman with the squiinty eye when the cow gets sick. Witch burnings, pogroms.....let's not go back there please. . Enlightenment has much to recommend it. AND: good science needs funding. Lots of it. With the privatisation of everything that funding increasingly comes from corporations with a stake in the findings. Science as a method is wonderful, but it is practiced by vulnerable and fallible human beings in corruptible institutions. Take the case of Dr Hubert, a thoroughly conventional soil scientist, dedicated to better living through chemistry and all that. He started making some observations about GMO fed animals, and wanted to ask questions, do studies. He got totally stonewalled at the institutions that had employed him all his life. He ends up on the fringe with the granola heads because he got pushed there. Then the fact that he is interviewed by Dr. Mercola is held against him.and so on. Scientific methology needs a controlled setting, where you can rule out one variable at the time. Not easy to do with unruly human beings. I understand they can do things with statistics. But life is lived as an anecdote. Scientific observations start with anecdotes. Anyway....time to get the day started. Today we plant rebar.

    1. Yep, Yep, Yep.

      Don't get me started on Mercola. He is not a doctor. He is an osteopath and a conspiracy theorist, and a bloody good businessman. Occasionally he gets it right. See healer above. And that's enough on him.

      The GMO thing is not one issue, it's several and if we don't sort them out we are in huge trouble. The biggest issue is power.

      Life is not only lived as an anecdote, but we need fictions. Money is a fiction, for example. Our society runs on fictions. But we must know what is fiction and what isn't and work with it accordingly, or there is a big rabbit hole to fall into.

  3. Well done, as usual. Very basic and valid things said. Good definitions. An enjoyable read. I have a friend who maintains a veritable BASKET of natural remedies that he takes pretty much daily. Do some of them "work?" Yes. Are they all equally beneficial? I would question that. I'm fond of saying,"drugs are your friend; ask for them by name." I know people who avoid doctors, and they are fools.

    1. It's like everything else. Balance. I use a lot of natural remedies, but they are all tried and tested. There are two extremes - one is to dismiss all alternatives, and the other is to trust them implicitly.

      Actually that just reminded me of a video clip. I've added it to the post.

  4. Regarding the importance of fiction and the stories a society tells itself, there is much interesting musing going on at this blog: