One of the terms that has always intrigued me is “unscientific”. It is most often thrown around in an attempt to discredit ideas that are not part of current conventional wisdom. In medicine it is used to discredit “alternative” or “natural” approaches to health. As soon as something is labelled “unscientific” no further assessment of its merits is deemed necessary.
So how reliable is “science” and what does the word actually mean?
The Oxford dictionary defines it thus; “ the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment”. So something may be scientifically validated but that nothing is either scientific or not. Furthermore the key point is about observation and experiment.
Real science is based on observation and then seeking to understand what is being observed. For something to be proven it needs to be able to be validated on more than one occasion. In turn experimental findings and observations that cannot be repeated independently need to be discarded. This is part of the evolution of knowledge.
The advance of science, since the enlightenment, has lifted humans out of the dark ages. Our modern world owes a great deal to peoples ability to come up with, test and validate new ideas. And what we regard today as “scientific” can recently have been science fiction. Think of cell phones in Star Trek.
Mobile phones, space travel and other feats of engineering deal with inanimate objects. The human body is not a machine and hence the rules of pure science do not apply. Indeed medicine is not a science at all. This is why no drug works equally for all people. And no test is 100% reliable. The practice of medicine is an art based on a science.
Yet there are problems. Recently Science Magazine submitted a deliberately false cancer study to 300 journals. Of these 255 agreed to review it and 157 published it. The “papers” authors described the faults in the study as obvious to any person with reasonable skills in reviewing papers for publication.
In this instance Science Magazine published its findings and the paper was retracted. Yet the number of studies, which are retracted, is growing. And then we have the other problems of ghost written studies and studies, which are not published because they got a result that those funding it did not like.
And whilst the pharmaceutical industry may be the worst offender, it is not the only one. Public health studies, which do not conform to the “narrative”, also do not get far.
The other big issue as touched on above is reproducibility. If a finding cannot be reproduced then it is of no immediate value (excluding a learning which may lead elsewhere). A review of 53 “landmark” cancer studies was done to see if the original results could be reproduced. The original researchers were often involved.
Guess how many could be verified? The answer is six! A bit over 10% of landmark and hence influential papers could be reproduced. Many reasons are cited for this including how the statistics are done. One of the biggest flaws in medical research is its reliance on “statistical significance. A finding is deemed to be valid if the chances of it being a coincidence are less than 5%. So immediately one in 20 studies are likely to be wrong.
The nature of science is to advance by doing, observing and learning. The problem is that people tend to get fixed on an idea and continue to believe it even when shown to be false. Furthermore policies and guidelines in medicine can and indeed are based on “evidence” which has turned out to be faulty.
This would not matter if changes were made when new information is available. What we believe to be true changes as knowledge evolves. However when trials with negative results are not published or when trials contradict, “politically correct” ideas, changes do not get made.
And if all this isn’t enough, quantum physics tells us that observer bias means people tend to see what they want to see. We all want to be clever and see breakthroughs. If they cannot be verified they are not breakthroughs.
Science needs to regain respect. It needs to come off its pedestal.
It is not all doom and gloom. Observations, which have been valid for thousands of years about what we need to eat and the importance of physical activity, remain valid. So too, the need for quiet time, adequate sleep, for fresh air, sunshine and good relationships.
The need for the wellbeing of mind, body and spirit goes back to the ancients.
Our problem today then is that we embrace the latest ”research” which is more likely than not to be discredited. But we discredit the wisdom of ages, which has stood the test of time
Science has a valid role in society. It is not a religion. It is never settled.
It should always be questioned. True science welcomes questions. False science rejects it.