Some friends of mine are really into naturopathic medicine. Whether it’s using chamomile tea to cure their headache, or cinnamon to help them wake up in the morning, they avoid anything you can find at the pharmacist, and will trust anything their friendly local herbalist tells them.
Their confidence should have been shaken by a recent study from the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council. It found that homeopathic remedies were no more effective than placebos for a variety of conditions including asthma, eczema and arthritis. But for some reason, this didn’t shake their faith. The study was, as they put it, too scientific.
They tell me that they don’t trust science. Since I’m trying not to be a jerk, I say “ok” and change the subject. What I really want to say is that science doesn’t care whether you believe in it or not. Science works.
By science here I mean the experimental method. Formally, this means establishing and testing hypotheses through trial and error. Informally, I think of popcorn.
When I was a kid, before we knew about its carcinogenic properties, I liked microwave popcorn. The package said to cook it for between 3 and 4 minutes. So I started at 4 minutes, and found some of the popcorn had burned. I tried 3 instead, but then there were too many kernels left unpopped. I tried 3:30, which was better, but still had a few too many kernels. At 3:45, I had a couple of burnt pieces but almost no kernels. I bumped it down to 3:40, which left only a few kernels and no burnt pieces.
So that’s what I understand as science; a process of trial and error to figure out how things – popcorn or protons – work. We try alternatives to see what works, and in the trying we come to learn things about what we’re studying.
Whether you believe a theory or not says more about you than it does about the theory.
When I’m teaching, I tell my students that whether you believe a theory or not says more about you than it does about the theory. People who don’t believe that science is the best way we have of understanding the world around us, well, are telling us more about them than about science.
When I take a pill to relieve me of my headache, science tells me why it works. Some of the pills make the swelling go down. Some of them block the pain receptors in my nervous system. It tells me not just what’s happening, but why.
The question I’m left with is why people who believe in herbal remedies wouldn’t trust science to help them understand why their remedies do or don’t work too.
And some herbal remedies do work. That cinnamon tea does help wake you up. Acupuncture does relieve certain symptoms of some problems. The capsicum in spicy food can, sometimes, help with digestion. For all these and more, science can explain why.
Of course, there are things science is not equipped to do. Science won’t teach you how to raise your children, how to be a good person, or how to play a musical instrument. It can’t tell you why there is something rather than nothing or anything about the supernatural. That’s not what it does. Science is a tool for understanding, so it is no criticism of science that it has, and will likely continue to have, bad ethical effects.
More, not less, science
But if we’re concerned about ethical people, why are we assuming that ignorance is going to be a better starting point than knowledge? Even the problems with scientific knowledge – from the atom bomb to lead in gasoline to the greenhouse effect – are problems of limited or insufficient knowledge, rather than problems with the knowledge itself. I don’t like drug companies favouring treatments over cures either, but the solution here isn’t less science but more. These are problems, but they’re problems with people, rather than a problem with science itself.
Science isn’t the end of enquiry, but it’s the best form of enquiry we have for answering questions about the world. Science isn’t perfect, but it isn’t supposed to be. It’s a process. It’s a way of trying to discover why the world works the way it does. As such, to not believe in it says more about you than it does about science.
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