To know

The word science comes to English from the Latin scientia – meaning knowledge or skill. Which in turn is likely derived from the latin verb scio – to know, to understand (undoubtedly, this is the origin of the English “see” as in “See!? See!?” ;-)

While I love science and knowledge, I often find science and scientists irritating in their lack of imagination and slavery to orthodoxy. Of course, any large body or institution exists only to serve orthodoxy – nothing else. That anything else ever gets accomplished or advanced is a testament to the ingenuity of bright and tireless individuals.

Not that preserving orthodoxy is bad in itself. After all, you want a stable body of knowledge that is generally regarded as accurate and correct.

On the other hand, you want people to challenge the orthodoxy. Regardless of what science news story comes out, I always analyze it in the context of what I know and whether or not it makes sense. I just don’t accept somebody’s say-so.

Another irritating thing about science is that potential sources of bias are not revealed. So a Seventh Day Adventist or a Hindu doing research showing a Vegetarian diet is healthier should alert you to possible bias.

Another problem I have is the way research is done. I often find control groups to be suspect. If you are studying the health effects of a vegetarian diet, you first need to find some vegetarians. Then you need to weed out those vegetarians who eat fish and chicken (I have heard people describe themselves as vegetarian, “but I also eat fish and chicken”), those who cut out meat, but fail to replace it.

So what you end up with is a group that (1) consciously monitors what they eat, and (2) ensures that what they eat is balanced. These people, interestingly enough, may have other characteristics that are not being monitored, but may affect results. There choice to be vegetarian may be part of a much larger lifestyle choice – not smoking, no excessive alcohol consumption, regular exercise. There may be other factors –education level, income levels, ethnicity (oops! Doing research that considers ethnicity is generally considered really bad form). Unfortunately, these generally don’t get factored in because it would be too complicated to track too many variables. Track one variable and see what the results are.

On the other hand, the non-control group is the general population. Which include people who think that a Snickers bar, a coffee and a cigarette is a well balanced breakfast, a bag of Doritos and a diet Coke makes a good lunch and pineapple chicken balls, fried rice and a few glasses of wine in front of the TV is a good way to end the day.

But, interestingly enough, while we get research on vegetarian lifestyle, I don’t recall any studies on people who eat a balanced omnivorous diet using a control group that would be similar to the vegetarian control group (aside for the fact that they include flesh in their diet).

So, is it any wonder that research is constantly contradicting itself? One week coffee is good for you the next week it is a toxic sludge.

I am not ranting against vegetarians – but I did have to pick some example. I thought this one was pretty easy to write about. As for my own biases: I am an omnivore (meat is definitely a part of my diet), while I try to eat a reasonably balanced diet, I must confess to eating too much and generally including more carbohydrates than I should (think cakes, cookies and chocolates). I also exercise way less than I should. I still think back to my glory days when I actually walked at least 8-10 Km or biked +20 Km per day.


CrystalLime said…
i totally agree!

even for something as simple as eggs... one journal says it's good to eat daily, another journal will say it's only healthy for adult to consume once a fortnight!

i guess the rule of thumb to diet is a balanced diet and everything in moderation.
Richard said…
Yes! Balance and moderation are the key.

I continue to eat eggs (generally more than 1 per day). I find I feel better with two boiled eggs for breakfast than with most other types of breakfasts.

Despite all cholesterol I eat (other sources of animal fat included), my cholesterol levels are extremely low (about half of the minimum for the "normal" levels). You could say it is genetics, but my dad has high cholesterol.
Anonymous said…
I agree to the potential problems you mentioned about experimental design. But I can assure you all those problems (known as "confounding(s)") are well known to researchers. But sometimes corners are cut because of convenience or sloppiness. One major criterion of scientific data is "reliability," which in layman's term means the data must be "replicable" by other researchers. Because it is rare that multiple groups of researchers commit the same set of confoundings/experimental errors, so if data of all researchers converge (i.e, produce a similar pattern of results), we can be assured potential confoundings either do not exist or are irrelevant. The "father of cloning" in Korea got caught of fabricating data because other researchers could not replicate his data. -TT
Richard said…
TT: You are correct, reproducibility is vital. However, there have been quite a number of recent cases where some quite "groundbreaking" research has been proven fabricated.

As well, reproducibility has certain limitations - if the same results are reproduced with the same conditions, there is no guarantee that the conclusions are accurate, since the initial conditions are invalid.

My favourites tend to be related to climate change. ha ha! Much better than global warming. I am old enough to remember when back in the early 70s everyone was talking about global cooling and all the data presented clearly showed a tendency to a cooling planet. Now all the research seems to have suffered collective amnesia and the trend clearly shows warming for the past century or more (without even a mention of the graphs that showed global temperature decline since the 1950s).

Of course, I have lots of opinions about science, research and knowledge in general.

However, please do not consider me to be some outlandish crackpot with insane ideas (like believing in free energy, Nikola Tesla was a "god", etc...) I simple have a "healthy" tendency to ask questions and not accept anything at face value - even if everyone else seems to believe otherwise.

I would not consider myself a skeptic (at least in the way they present themselves on the web) - since I find them more cynical than skeptical (ha ha, maybe I am splitting etymological hairs here).

Thanks for dropping by and sharing your thoughts.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for taking the time to respond. You are right about wrong assumptions leading to wrong conclusions, albeit with the right validating method. In researching global warming/cooling, there are just too many variables. Also, there is no way to set up control groups and experimental groups, because it is not feasible to isolate an atmospheric variable and manipulate it. The same problem in understanding and researching the stock market ;-)

I do not know about Nikola Tesla and free energy (any reference?) to add comments, but I am always curious about nature and life. Finally, I avoid blogs where discussions get cynical. Skepticism, motivated by the desire of seeking truth, is inspiring. Cynicism, motivated by satisfying own ego and destroying others', is bad. -TT
Richard said…
You can find articles on free energy simply by typing the search terms free energy into google.

You can also try searching on the terms zero point energy.

Do the same with Nikola Tesla. He was a quite brilliant Serbian-American scientist / inventor /engineer. He is often remembered by the free energy advocates for his plan to transmit energy wirelessly to people.

The stock market is a stochastic (random) process. It can be modelled with simple Brownian motion (modelled, not predicted). My personal point of view is that the stock market grows because consumption grows (partly fuelled by population growth). I believe that once population growth slows so will the stock market. An interesting aside, only one stock remains from the original average measured by Charles Dow (Dow Jones average) and that is GE (general electric) - all the others have been replaced.

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