Is It Scientific?
And Do We Care?
I had a discussion with someone yesterday. She was telling me about a new age widget made out of a quartz crystal, bits of wire, and stuff. She said it was 'scientific'. When pressed as to what she meant by 'scientific' she said that it was based on 'real laws of physics'. Only she didn't know quite what they were. In fact, she admitted that perhaps no one knew what they were.
Hey, folks, this is not science! There are different ways of using the word, some valid and some not. A body of knowledge about a particular subject, such as biology, physics, geology, or others, resulting from the painstaking observation of the universe (or a tiny fragment of it) is often called 'a science' because the facts and conclusions can be rediscovered by anyone willing to use the scientific method of studying things.
Some people think that science is something done by people in laboratories or who call themselves scientists. Not true! Science is a method of thinking, a way of investigating ideas. Scientists are, in theory, people who use that way of thinking. And not everyone who calls himself a scientist really does stay within the mental discipline, although the principles of the method itself are simple.
The Scientific Method
The first step in using the scientific method is to postulate a hypothesis, a concept or idea or theory to be tested. For example, an easily-tested hypothesis:
The sun always rises in the east.
Then you have to define your terms wherever there might be any ambiguity. For instance, in the example given, we need to define east as related to the north and south poles (or in relation to some other reference point), not as the direction in which the sun rises. In this particular experiment you would also have to define the location of the observer or some other thing to allow for the fact that near the north and south poles the sun rises in the north during part of the year, stays up all the time part of the year, rises in the south part of the year, and doesn't come up at all for part of the year. Even more confusing, you wouldn't have a north if you were standing on the north pole - every direction would be south - and vice versa at the south pole. This isn't as easy as it sounded at first, is it? So let's say that our observer must be at the equator and define east as an area on the horizon anything from 45 to 135 degrees to our right as we face north. There is probably a better way of doing it, but I can't think of it at the moment.
Next, we devise an experiment to test our hypothesis. In this case we could do something simple, like taking a statistical sample of sunrises and extrapolating from there.
Now, there is an important thing to remember about statistics - they only give probabilities, not certainties. They can only say things like:
The sun rose in the east 769 times out of 769 consecutive days observed.
Therefore it is probable that the sun always rises in the east.
Statistics can tell you how probable the probability probably is (and yes, I meant to use all those "probables" in that sentence because that is precisely how exact a science statistics is).
This experiment is repeatable - that is anyone can observe the sun in the morning and get the same results. This is another essential principle of the scientific method.
To 'scientifically verify' a hypothesis, the validating experiment must get the same objective, measurable results from every independent person who does it. This is such an important part of the scientific method that a hypothesis is not considered verified until several independent experimenters have obtained the same results.
Here we see how easy it is to go astray with statistics and probabilities and science. There was probably a time before the existence of the sun and earth when the sun didn't rise in the east, so 'always' was not a good choice of words. We'd have been better trying to predict next Tuesday than taking on 'always'.
What with all the talk about shifting magnetic poles and tilting of the earth's axis, there may have been a time when the sun rose in the north or south or somewhere else. The poles could shift again. We don't know why they did before, or what might cause them to do it again.
There also eventually may come a time when the solar system clock has wound down, the sun collapsed into a red dwarf, the earth no longer spinning on its axis, and the sun not rising in the east.
So when someone tells you that something has been 'statistically proven' this is not quite true. It has only had its probabilities defined.
Theories are unproven hypotheses (perhaps even unprovable). They may be made by people who call themselves scientists, they may be written in academic books, but they are not facts.
'Scientific facts' are hypotheses that have tested by the scientific method and verified by independent experimenters.
Perhaps 'impossible' is a word that should never have been invented. In the classical list of logical fallacies, it is recognized that we cannot prove that anything is impossible or that anything does not exist.
In order to prove impossibility, we would have to show that whatever-it-is had never happened, would never happen, and could never happen in this framework of reality or any other. In actual fact, all we can prove is that something is impossible by the laws of physics as we know them. That's it. Leaves a lot of margin for error, that does.
And the principles same apply to demonstrating the non-existence of things, forces, beings, or anything else.
Real Laws of Physics
Now, about 'real laws of physics'. Anything that happens happens within the real laws of physics. Otherwise, it's a miracle, and there are various philosophical objections to miracles. Einstein said, 'God does not play dice with the universe.' Personally, I suspect that miracles are just applications of physical laws that we do not yet understand and which may supersede those we do understand.
But there is no use citing 'real laws of physics' as proof of the validity of our subjective perceptions when we don't know and probably can't even guess what they might be. Physical laws are facts, not theories.
This kind of sloppy thinking and misleading and untrue use of language convinces only the gullible, who weren't going to require 'proof' anyway. To people like that, 'scientific' and 'laws of physics' are buzzwords, words that make things OK without having any intellectual content. Scientist just moan when they hear this kind of thing. Pseudo-scientists (those who think they are scientists because they don't believe (or think they don't believe) in anything that hasn't been scientifically verified (they might say 'proven' but we know better, don't we?) think they can immediately dismiss a hypothesis (especially one they don't like) because the evidence cited (like being based on 'real physics') is absurd.
So the scientific method is a way of 'reality testing' ideas - it isn't a set of theories about how the universe works with a lot of big words and jargon in them, and it isn't the laws of physics or biology or whatever (although we may call it the 'science of physics' that only can include what has been repeatedly verified, not theories).
It's a way of thinking, and well worth trying.
The main drawback in the scientific method is that it can only be used where an idea can be objectively tested, and the test results repeatedly verified by any independent experimenter. It can only work when all the variables can be controlled, so it usually won't work when there are a lot of variables - as there are in many living systems. It can't answer questions like: Are you happy? Is there a god? What makes people feel happy? Do people have souls? What happens after we die?
So far, the scientific method hasn't done much for healing other than 'prove' that something happens that is statistically most unlikely to have happened by accident. Healing is too complex, there are too many variables, and we don't even know what all of the variables are. In one of her books that I read so long ago that I've forgotten its name, Barbara Brown suggested following a psychic around waiting for them to have an objectively verifiable psychic experience and recording what was happening. She pointed out that we would need to include all sorts of things in our data, like weather, atmospheric pressure, time of day, sunspot activity, the psychic's physical state in detail, and many other things. Part of the problem is that, as in healing, we don't know what variables affect psychic activity.
Over and over throughout history, first the philosophers, then the alchemists, and now the scientists have announced that they understand the universe. There are just these few unimportant little details that don't quite fit, but once we get them sorted out, everything will be clear and we'll have a Grand Unified Theory of Everything. This business of 'having all the answers' seems to be a consistent need in human nature at certain early stages of our spiritual development. Many people just don't grow past that.
Historically speaking, the problem with having all the answers is that one of the unimportant little details usually rocks the boat so severely that it sinks, and the scientists have to come up with a new paradigm, which they are then convinced provides all the answers. . .
In our society/science two of these 'unimportant details' are healing and psychic phenomena (like clairvoyance, precognition, etc.). These things have repeatedly been demonstrated to work under strict scientific experimentation by reputable scientists. Yet accepting them would require some fundamental changes in the 'scientific' view of how the universe works. Scientists (and other people) deal with this in one of three ways:
1. They get angry and go off in a huff. This is not a particularly useful or constructive attitude, but it is fairly common.
Human frailty and overweening egos are as rife in the 'scientific' world as anywhere else, if not more so.
2. They say that all that psychic stuff has to be impossible, because they 'know' it is impossible, and that, therefore, any experiments showing otherwise are either fakes or have something fundamental wrong with them, although they can't quite figure out what it is. And really, it's not worth bothering to think about, they reckon, so they don't.
3. They say, 'Wow! Something strange is happening. I want to try to understand it.' Then they begin to experiment and actually think about it. The risk, of course, is that they will find an explanation for part of it, but be frustrated in their search for the whole and then decided that this means that only the part is true and the rest is impossible. And whatever they do discover, it will be fought tooth and nail by the scientific establishment, if it contradicts accepted paradigms.
It is difficult to sustain an open-minded, questioning attitude when the answers are hard - or even impossible - to get. And I'm not certain that technology has advanced to the point where we can get all the answers about healing and psychic phenomena any more than we were able to draw sensible conclusions about astronomy before the invention of the telescope.
In fact, at present the scientific method can't answer many of the really important and interesting questions we have. Pity, isn't it?
The Authoritarian Bluff
The other thing, of course, is why do we care what 'scientists' think? Why have we let them bluff us into thinking that they are authorities on everything under the sun when actually they can't begin to answer some of our most important questions? I was at a social gathering once and was introduced to an allopathic medical doctor. Someone had told him I was a healer and apropos of nothing in the conversation he suddenly said to me, 'You'll have to prove to me that this healing stuff works.' His face showed a smug conviction that I couldn't. Politely and calmly (I've heard this kind of thing before, you see) I said, 'No, I don't.'
I didn't owe him and his closed mind anything. I also don't see any point in arguing with someone like that. If he really wanted to know, he'd read the scientific literature on the subject (there is plenty of it), perhaps even do some exploratory research himself. Either way he would find out that healing works - if his experiments are well designed and he is honest. Many other scientists have. But new thoughts can't enter a closed mind, and I have no intention of wearing myself out trying to push them in - even if it were my business to do so, which it isn't.
Secondly, he and his science are johnny-come-lately. Healing has been practiced for millennia because it works and it doesn't do harm. He still has a lot to prove to me, but I don't feel any need to 'prove' anything to him. If this is arrogance, well, then it just is.
Third, and finally, wisdom and knowledge are not the same thing. Knowledge is about facts. Wisdom is about something much more abstract. Ethics come into it, and morality, and establishing priorities. Modern science has fallen short again and again in wisdom in how the facts are applied. Humans fall short, and scientists are just human. Many, if not all, of the crises facing us now are a result of applying facts without wisdom. We do things just because we can. And we do things for short term gain without adequate consideration of long-term consequences. Even if we don't exterminate ourselves with weapons, there are a lot more subtle ways we can do in ourselves (and possibly the rest of the biosphere). We keep on doing these things. It may be the death of us yet.
Copyright © 1996 by Jessica Macbeth. All rights reserved.
This was first published in Otherworld Arts
Your comments will be read with interest.