The Method of Science?

First, it is a complete pleasure to be stealing this moment to write for such an awesome site.  My hat is off to Rebecca and this great space on the crazy net.  I only wish I had more time right now.

 Some of you who know me know that I have 3 kids, two jobs, school, and lots of laundry.

 But, I did get curious about the reaction to the announcement that I will devote any free time to write about the subject of sCAM/alt med/anti-science. 

 I wasn’t surprised to the see the lame old reaction that the “sciences” (or maybe scientists?) just haven’t discovered how some sCAMs work.  Is there some undetectable energy that cures all ails in puny humans?  Is there some weird quantum universe fairy that waves a silver wand to answer puny human pleas about their ails?   

 My point is that science isn’t just something that is there to explain, or show, or reveal.  It simply ignores our meagre human perceptions and concepts.  Science is unbiased, unmanipulable. 

For instance, you see, or don’t see, water.  It can be frozen, flowing on land, or evaporating into the air right out from under our noses.  These simple facts are the science.  The simple fact about water molecules is that they are regularly 2 hydrogen atoms bonded to one atom of oxygen.  We know, through measures and observations why it exists as a solid, liquid or gas.  There is nothing mysterious about it, when you learn about it all.  The processes involving water can all be observed and measured and documented.  Nothing weird ever happens, unless you just figure it’s all weird. 

The wonderful properties of water involves its solubility in its liquid state.  Water is a great solvent. There is more on the wonderful chemistry/science of water:

but I must get back to making my point.  Water is complicated, and we use methods, or science, to explain all the complicated properties and whatsits about water.  From there we can understand why we humans are mostly water, and why it is essential to our survival.  There are bonds, solutes, etc. 

 As a child we don’t understand or get any of it.  We find raindrops magical.  We don’t even know clouds are merely water droplets and not some white fluff.  But, hopefully, we grow up and learn about the water cycle, water bonds, and all the other wonderful properties of water.  It’s all very much more interesting than before, when water used to be just some annoying wet stuff on a gloomy day that chases smelly worms out of their holes.

We humans have a HUGE knowledge base now, and can explain where water goes when we drip some on the counter and don’t bother to wipe it up, or when the pot boils until the bottom burns. 

 Hey, we can even make nuclear bombs, cure cancer with chemotherapy, and live longer than we ever have before.

 We can even explain why sCAM DOESN’T work.  It’s not that there’s some unexplained thing out there that “science can’t explain”.  We can show when it doesn’t work, and explain why it doesn’t work.  There are these simple methods of using controls and double blinding in simple tests too. 

You see, if you give homeopathy to one group with a poison ivy rash, and plain water to another group with a poison ivy rash, then you can write down if there is any difference made to either group.  You can take pictures.  You can spend hours, days, maybe years seeing if any little difference ever happens in either group.  You will have two miserable groups of people wanting something to be actually done to help their rashes (a nice bit of real rash medication would likely be appreciated within hours, actually).  Even if you tell both groups they are getting a proven cure (instead of the water or homeopath remedy you are applying/getting them to swallow), their rashes will persist beyond what any sane human will believe is a reasonable amount of time for a medication to start working.

That is science.  A method of testing a hypothesis.  You can test what you thought would happen.  You can find out why it may or may not have worked.  You can use logic to figure out why it didn’t work (homeopathy is just plain water, so it won’t work better than water ). 

 Yet some people believe that a sound scientific study is not good enough for them.  THEIR pet belief will be proven one day, if just the right kind of bad “science” comes along to prove it.  You see, you could do a study where you give people just homeopathy.  Skip the control group that gets just plain water.  We’re all different, you know, and homeopathy will work after the rash gets worse.  You just have to believe the hardest, and your rash will get better first, and you’ll be the lab rat it worked on the best!  The poor sap that died of infected lesions just didn’t believe hard enough :P  Yes, bad things can happen if you don’t use real medicine (maybe not every time, but the infection death could have been prevented with real meds).

There is good “science” and bad “science”.  If that is how you wish to see science.  Otherwise, science is not a thing.  It is a method to test and then document.  Results can be reasoned out and challenged, but now we can demonstrate that the earth goes around the sun, and that sCAM is bunk.

Eos of the Eons

I'm a skeptical humanist Canadian. My pet peeve is misinformation, especially on anything to do with science and medicine. I hate words like "big pharma" and "allopathy". I can assure you that my 3 children have had all of their vaccinations.

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  1. I should explain what sCAM means. CAM stands for "complementary and alternative medicine". It includes everything that doesn't actually work, and cannot be called mainstream medicine (homeopathy, naturopathy, accupuncture, miscellaneous weeds/herbs, quantum machine hooey, reiki, magnets, crystals, etc.). I just throw the S in to show what I think of it all.


  2. The simple fact about water is that it is regularly 2 hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule.

    That should be "two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom." (At least under normal conditions, a stable molecule of either element will have two atoms, bound together. Of course, in the ozone layer we find groups of three oxygen atoms, and in deep space one finds monatomic hydrogen.)

    A trivial mistake, really, but since I just critiqued Michael Shermer for a similar gaffe, I figured I should be consistent.

  3. Oh, you're sooo right. Thank you for catching that silly foible :)

    Water molecules are made up of atoms. I was writing that at first, too, and then I changed it. Ah well, at least the courses I'm taking now don't involve chemistry at all. It's been over 10 years since I took any real science courses. I promise to check that better next time though, since I know better *red face*

    Keep up the good work Blake,


  4. The s in sCAM can stands for Supplements. A lot of them are bunk, although there may be some that are worthwhile.

  5. Welcome, Eos, your tenacity is right at home here. And don't sweat the little mistakes — that's why we have guys like Blake around. Instantaneous peer review!

  6. "Instantaneous peer review." That's nice. I think I'll consider myself an enthusiastic amateur peer reviewer instead of a lonely curmudgeon grown old before his time. It's, well, more cheerful.

  7. Some of you who know me know that I have 3 kids, two jobs, school, and lots of laundry.

    I got tired just reading that. It also makes me feel very lazy.

    Thanks for finding the time to write!

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