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Posts Tagged ‘scientific method’

Going round in circles

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity … and I’m not sure about the universe.”
Albert Einstein

What is it about a good idea that makes us, as a species, invariably take it too far? Does it originate in some deeply embedded race memory that says since storing food for winter is a good idea, the more food the better? Wherever it comes from, it seems to be a habit we get into without thinking, then before we know where we are, we’ve taken it to extremes and gone and overdone it again, which seems to have an uncanny knack of landing us back where we started.

A lot of what passes for ‘science’ these days is a case in point. As its defenders are so fond of pointing out, we humans are very easily fooled by our senses and appearances into erroneous theories and conclusions. No argument there at all. We therefore need to rigorously test our theories to prove that they’re real rather than illusory. No argument with that either (leaving aside for the minute the whole monumental philosophical question over the boundary between reality and illusion, and how we go about creating our ‘reality’ in the first place).

All well and good so far. And a bit of wheel reinvention never goes amiss either. It’s got us from the cart-wheel and grinding stone to all the gazillion uses of wheels in our present technology, not to mention the treadmills that so many of us spend our lives running round in. So with so many attempts at wheel reinvention going on all the time, wouldn’t it be a good idea to establish a basic method for making certain that such attempts jump a few elementary scientific hurdles before they even get off the ground?

If the conceptual impossibility of that analogy tripped you up, it was deliberate. What started as a good idea and a well-placed trust in scientific principles seems to have gone too far and extended itself to encompass the established method as well. Not such a good idea. Particularly when some of those elementary hurdles are built on unverified assumptions that set up an inescapably circular logic for everything else that follows. Oh those wheels … they simply can’t bridge the gap between the founding principles of the scientific method and the way the scientific method is practiced.

If by now you’re wondering where this post is going, apart from round in circles, here’s the crux of it. The scientific distrust of natural human reasoning now seems to have got us to the point where generations of ‘common sense’ wisdom based on generations of common human experience is being re-examined, reformulated and redesigned with the apparent underlying assumption that it must be flawed and ‘science’ can do better. But where’s that all going to lead?

Stating the friggin’ obvious

In more of a firestorm than blaze of publicity (just try Googling “swearing pain”!), it was announced at the beginning of last week that a study performed at the University of Keele has determined that swearing can reduce pain.


As the Guardian succinctly put it:

“Swearing can actually lessen pain, according to scientists at Keele University. They asked 66 volunteers to submerge a hand into iced water while repeating one swear word out of a list of “five words you might use after hitting yourself on the thumb with a hammer”. The experiment was carried out again, but with one of “five words to describe a table”. Volunteers were able to keep their hands in longer when they swore. Their heart rates also accelerated and their pain perception reduced. The scientists, writing in NeuroReport, believe swearing triggers a “fight-or-flight” response and heightens aggression.”

The study itself is behind a pay wall, but if the reports of it are accurate, there is so much that’s questionable about the thinking behind it it’s enough to have me swearing. For starters, the design completely ignores the relevance of context. Five words you might use in response to pain experienced after injury are contextualised to the experience of pain. They have relevance; they engage with the experience, even if the pain is being deliberately, rather than accidentally, inflicted. Therefore to differentiate between the effect of swearing and not swearing, you need to use five non swear words that are similarly contextualised. Five words to describe a table have diddly squat to do with the price of fish. The researchers even excluded the one subject from the trial who couldn’t suggest any swear words. Had this person been included and allowed to use the words they would normally use in response to injury, the conclusions might have been quite different. Also, had the subjects been instructed to use the table descriptors as if they were relevant to the experience of injury, again different results would have ensued.

Further, the researchers appear to be suggesting swearing triggers a “fight-or-flight” response and heightens aggression, rather than being, as so many of us have no doubt experienced for ourselves, a reactiona symptom of a “fight-or-flight” response triggered by shock or trauma. You may be able to induce a half-hearted adrenaline burst by deliberately swearing at the same time as deliberately injuring yourself, but this is about as natural a circumstance and response as the half-hearted responses vaccination triggers in the immune system. Apparently the importunate lead researcher, psychologist Dr Richard Stephens, when interviewed on Radio 4 was attempting to suggest that pain in childbirth might be a physiological trigger to the whole process! Sounds like a bad case of putting carts before horses.

Last but not least, in focusing only on swearing, the study seems to have missed the point entirely. It’s releasing sound, pure primal sound, that reduces pain. Stephens apparently first started thinking about the connection between swearing and pain during the birth of his now-5-year-old daughter. At an agonising point in labor, his wife began cursing up a storm, he says, though she felt bad about it later. “The midwives said, ‘Don’t apologise, we hear that kind of language on the maternity ward all the time.'”, but had he done a bit more research on women in labour he would have discovered that swearing is only one expression of the pain-mitigation impulse (and to any homeopath, one that specifically conforms to the Chamomilla pattern). Just as many women are moved to simply vocalise without running any of the impulse through the language centres of the brain.

It’s part of an instinctive and immediate reaction and release mechanism — a response to pain, no matter how caused, and whether physical or emotional — which seems designed to eject/expel (or reject/repel) the offending impulse before it can result in lasting injury, whether to feelings or soft tissue. It’s about letting go the experience as quickly and forcibly as possible, expunging its energy from the body-mind. Sound gives the process concentrated and focused power. Done effectively, a good roar can stop any bruising from a blow. Words are entirely superfluous. What’s critical is the degree of engagement between sensation and sound. Used deliberately, vocalisations can help martial arts practitioners enhance the power of their attacking moves or defend themselves more effectively. It’s the same impulse behind the grunts of weightlifters or Wimbledon tennis players. It’s a similar logic behind the Maori haka. (Ultimately, it’s a not dissimilar impulse — Rejecto, ergo sum? — that impels one to blog about pieces of nonscience displaying a disturbing lack of joined-up thinking …)

So much of this knowledge is ‘common sense’, known and used by humankind for thousands of years across all cultures, yet in trying to reinvent this particular wheel, the narrow and fragmented ‘scientific approach’ seems to have distorted it out of all recognition. At least commentators on the many online reports of this research seem to have enough common sense to react appropriately …

Is it smart?

Next we have the headlong rush by car and aircraft manufacturers to engineer out human error. There’s a Mercedes Benz commercial running in the ‘States now publicising their new E-class “smart” car that can figure out if you’ve started wandering between lanes, been driving too long without a break, or if you’re in imminent danger of collision and not paying attention, in which case it slams on the brakes.

But the computer can only do what it’s programmed to do. It’s not omniscient, and can’t replace the capacity of a living breathing human being to respond to unique context (context again!) … provided of course they’re paying attention. Although well-intentioned, the inevitable consequence of such developments is that humans will start to rely on technology to do what only humans can do and will pay even less attention, in which case you end up in situations like the woman who drove her £96.000 Mercedes SL500 into a river in spate because her satnav told her to turn into it.

Then there’s the Air France Airbus that disappeared into the Atlantic on June 1st with the loss of all 228 people on board. The leading crash theory suggests the aircraft had a faulty speed input and the computer assumed the plane was flying too slow and adjusted accordingly, and fatally. In this theory, the computer doesn’t know that the air speed indicator tube is frozen over and that the plane hasn’t slowed. It only assumes what its inputs and internal logic suggest.

Just like good old natural human reasoning really … Which all goes to prove that in taking things too far, we merely end up going round in circles.

Can we afford to be so superficial?

Monday, November 13th, 2006
George Vithoulkas

George Vithoulkas

“I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it would be such as oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.”
Leo Tolstoy

In a piece on his website under the title “Can we afford to be so superficial?“, Prof George Vithoulkas writes in highly condemnatory terms about a proving of Thiosinamine he’s received from Manchester’s North West College of Homeopathy. The target of his derision is the assertion in the proving documentation that people involved with the proving, but who had not actually taken the remedy themselves, produced symptoms of the remedy.

He writes, “It is unbelievable that in our times due to the new ideas by new teachers people have come to believe such trash.” And goes on to say, “It is really pathetic that somebody managed to persuade quite a few of the poor novices in homeopathy that the symptoms of those with placebo can belong also to the proving of the remedy through a metaphysical medium!”

Yet when we are dealing with a form of medicine which has no properties pertaining to physical substance, when it is – according to Hahnemann himself – immaterial substance, then what we are dealing with is, by definition, a metaphysical medium!

The assertion in the North West College’s proving documentation is a phenomenon that’s repeatedly observed and well documented in provings from Jeremy Sherr onward. It’s got nothing whatsoever to do with new teachers beguiling their students, but with solid, replicable and demonstrable evidence, discovered and experienced again and again by students, qualified homeopaths, and homeopathic pharmacists alike who are involved with provings. Such observations require proper investigation, and if that means questioning and reassessing our foundational assumptions in the light of new evidence, then that’s what’s required. That’s the cornerstone of the scientific method after all. The map is not the territory. It’s only a map. And if the map proves deficient, then it needs to be redrawn. This is how Hahnemann discovered homeopathy in the first place.

Vithoulkas’s argument rests on the differentiation between remedy and placebo, viz “In a proving you have the same or similar symptoms of those with verum with those with placebo, the logical conclusion should be that such symptoms do not belong to the remedy but rather to the environmental or circumstantial or to psychological conditions (hysteria, ecstasy, fear, anxiety etc.) but surely not to the remedy!”

Hahnemann’s original provings did not feature placebo controls, so there really is little established precedent for their use in homeopathy. They are a modern transplantation from the biomedical model, based on the assumptions of materialist science and, as is now being found repeatedly, are of marginal – if any – use in homeopathic provings. (See Walach, H, Sherr, J, et al, Homeopathic proving symptoms: result of a local, non-local, or placebo process? A blinded,placebo-controlled pilot study. Homeopathy (2004) 93, 179–185.) Moreover, to base our materia medica on an assumption so recently grafted onto homeopathy seems somewhat inconsistent with Prof Vithoulkas’s avowed classical affiliations.

Prof Vithoulkas’s enormous contributions to homeopathy are not in doubt, but since his language here betrays an emotional, rather than rational, basis for his argument (a well-reasoned and supported argument has no need of words like “trash” and “pathetic”), perhaps we should reflect the question back to the man who posed it and ask “can we afford to be so superficial?” as to put the interests of pursuing scientific principles in homeopathy in second place to one man’s desire for mainstream acceptance?

Thanks to the current insanity revolving around homeopathy in this country, in both media and blogosphere, it's become necessary to insult your intelligence by explicitly drawing your attention to the obvious fact that any views or advice in this weblog/website are, unless stated otherwise, the opinions of the author alone and should not be taken as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. If you choose to take anything from here that might be construed as advice, you do so entirely under your own recognisance and responsibility.

smeddum.net - Blog: Confessions of a Serial Prover. Weblog on homeopathy, health and related subjects by homeopathic practitioner Wendy Howard