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Is Science Just Modern Superstition?

Can scientists operate independent of their environment?

This title comes from Wendell Berry's Life Is A Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. Berry criticizes scientists who believe the mind is just a machine. He calls this the Tarzan Theory of the mind, which holds that a human, raised entirely by apes, “would have a mind nonetheless fully human.” He substitutes what he calls the Adam and Eve formula: mind = brain + body + world + local dwelling place + community.

I am reminded of cultural anthropologists who were studying village life in developing countries. When they returned from their trip, lead researchers told them to be more objective and recommended that they produce films rather than relying on their notes and personal observations. On their next trip, the researchers used cameras, but soon learned that the cameras were not necessarily more objective than individual observations, because the newly uncovered information depended on where they pointed their cameras! And where they pointed their cameras depended on what they believed were the most important things to observe.

Scientists strive to be totally objective, but can they operate independent of their environment? It is common belief that research findings are always changing and can’t be trusted. For example: “Boys’ and girls’ brains are different –– boys’ and girls’ brains are much the same. Kids’ electronic games lead to distracted brains and exposure should be limited –– the distracted brain results in greater insight, and exposure to games should be encouraged. Coffee is bad for you –– coffee is good for you,” and so on.

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Why does this happen and what can we do about it? One reason is that scientists come under pressure to yield their objectivity and produce “research” that supports popular and even faddish trends. This is not typical, but when this happens Berry is correct; science becomes nothing more than modern superstition.

Most social scientists have to “publish or perish,” and the research grants they need come from corporations, government agencies, and private foundations –– entities that may be pushing for results that support a particular interest or position. In a sense, the scientist is at the mercy of the grant provider from the very beginning and is temped to point his or her “camera” in the most rewarding direction. In addition, important studies that do not fit popular trends of the day may be overlooked by editors of scientific journals.

What are some examples of outside pressures that may have influenced the selection of research topics and/or the conclusions of that research? According to psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, author of the well-researched book, Is There Anything Good About Men?, a study by an Association of University Women in the 1970s when the self-esteem movement was in high gear, documented that adolescent girls suffered from low self-esteem.

The report itself was never published and thus was not subjected to peer review. Instead, press releases were issued and the media happily spread the word. It was difficult to obtain the report; but when one objective scientist managed to gain access to the research records, she found that white girls had only slightly lower self-esteem than white boys but that black girls had higher self-esteem than white boys and black boys had the highest self-esteem of all.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is published by the American Psychiatric Association. It has helped in the classification of mental disorders and has assisted clinicians with the identification of clusters of behavioral symptoms. Many people believed the manual was the result of scientific research. It was actually developed by having experienced professionals meet to discuss clusters of symptoms they had observed, while drug company lobbyists were nearby to add their input.

Dr. Robert L. Spitzer took charge of the task of updating the manual and the 567-page book became an unlikely bestseller in 1980. There is nothing wrong with this approach as long as it is not viewed as science, but the manual has led to some unfortunate diagnostic categories. Until the 1970s, the manual classified homosexuality as an illness, calling it a “sociopathic personality disturbance.” In 2003 Dr. Spitzer supported the use of therapy to cure homosexuality for those strongly motivated to change, but now has reversed his opinion.

Global warming is another example of how the media and political pressures can influence research. The Environmental Defense Fund makes it clear that greenhouse gases are responsible for global warming. They assert that this warming trend is not caused by the sun or the Earth's reflectivity, leaving greenhouse gases as the likely culprit.

Meanwhile, Capitalism Magazine reports that warming cycles are the norm and that peer-reviewed studies by more than 500 fully qualified scientists show that there have been several global warming periods similar to ours since the last ice age. They complain that while these scientists have been published in journals such as Science, Nature, and Geophysical Review Letters, the scientists’ findings have received little media attention.

It didn't help the perception of scientific objectivity when hundreds of private e-mail messages attributed to prominent American and British climate researchers included discussions of scientific data and whether they should be released, as well as exchanges about how best to combat the arguments of skeptical scientists.

What is one to believe? This issue may have been settled, at least for now, because a federal appeals court concluded in June 2012 that greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide endanger public health and likely have been responsible for global warming over the past half-century. Do we now need to have the courts decide what data reflect objective science? And aren’t the courts also susceptible to political and media pressure?

I believe this is why Wendell Berry insists that scientists work within the context of reason and cultural tradition. Yet we are warned over and over to be wary of common sense, values and reasoning. After all, scientific results are often counter-intuitive and upend logic. I can still recall the warning I received when entering clinical training: Beware of armchair speculation! We were to become scientist-practitioners, not mere speculators!

The media also play a part in promoting junk studies. In order to sell advertising space, newspapers must entertain as well as provide news to readers. Newspapers seem eager to publish quick and dirty studies that challenge accepted research. In fact, I would speculate –– armchair or otherwise –– that many of these studies are exceptions and are weak studies. Reliable and valid research requires a sophisticated experimental design and careful statistical analysis. And the study usually needs to be longitudinal, compiling data over several years. It should also be replicated by independent scientists at other research centers.

Let's give Wendell Berry the last word. “The ultimate manifestation of this incoherence is loss of trust.” Berry points out that today we distrust politicians and our governments, and we are withdrawing our trust in science, professions, corporations and our educational system. “So it certainly is desirable –– it probably is necessary –– that the arts and sciences should cease to be two cultures and become fully communicating, if not always fully cooperating, parts of one culture.”

Consumers need to resist “knee-jerk reactions to individual studies published in the popular press and instead rely on trusted professionals to help them interpret the research. And I guess it also means that the scientist shouldn't pretend to be Tarzan. He or she is still very much a human being, subject to all of the vicissitudes of the local dwelling place, as well as the community –– and the world.

Mack Hicks, Ph.D., is a psychologist and author of The Digital Pandemic: Reestablishing Face-to-Face Contact in the Electronic Age.

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