Why scientists disagree #5

Posted on May 17, 2011

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Jenny: ” Professor, you say that scientists disagree about about their theories and their facts. Can you give me some examples?”

Fig 1 Imaginary bridge

Professor Wiggly: ” Recall that theories are used to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. So  theories are imaginary maps of unknown or unexplored territory. So it’s no wonder that scientists disagree about unexplored territory because no one has been there. And when they’re talking about large territories like the universe or human behavior there are huge gaps in our knowledge, in our observational check points.  furthermore, when we talk about the future we have no observational check points, we travel into it on imaginary bridges.”

Peter: “Common Professor, gives us some examples!”

Professor Wiggly: ” Sorry about that. OK, you’re already familiar with how medical scientists disagree and keep changing their minds, for example  about vitamins. One year they promote Vitamin C, then they say don’t take too much C but take lots of vitamin E, then they warn don’t take too much E but take lots of vitamin D. Another example is the nature vs nurture battle in attempts to explain and predict human behavior. Some scientists promote the theory that human behavior is mainly shaped by nature that is by our genes (size, intelligence, energy, strength of your immune system, aggressiveness, etc.  While other  scientists proclaim our behavior is mainly shaped by nurture, that is by our environment, by how we were raised and by peer group influences – how the twig is bent so grows the tree, for example our social environment, not our genes, determine what language we speak, and most of our  preferences for food, dress, life style, etc.”

Jenny: ” OK So it’s almost like scientists are a bit like politicians, they have different beliefs about how the world works and how to change it. And it sounds also, like politicians, that scientist cherry pick the evidence that support their theory and ignore  contrary evidence.

Peter: ” Yeah sounds like some scientists belong to scientific ‘parties’ like the Vitamin C, party, the Vitamin E party, the vitamin  D party, the string theory party, the ‘genes are it’  party, the cultural determinist party – the one that believes your early upbringing and culture determine your behavior.”

Fig; 2 People are different

Professor Wiggly: ” And notice, you can’t blame them for disagreeing, because like politicians scientists tyry to map and control huge territories about which little is known. For instance politicians aren’t sure how citizens are going to react to their messages so they rely on polls, on how a small sample of the population react at a given time. Similarly medical researcher study how a small sample of volunteers or patients react to a different dose of vitamin D, or a new drug. But notice neither the politician nor the researcher knows how the vast majority of the population not included in their sample will react, nor do the know how the people who were included will respond the next day, or week or year. In the case of medical researcher this is a massive problem because not only do different people react differently to the new medication – some demonstrating no response, while others have dangerous side effects at the time of administering the drug or even weeks later. That’s why it can years before a new drug is eventually pulled from the market  because when

Fig 2: Billiard Balls

you’re trying to map and treat or manipulate a huge population (territory) you only have a few observational checkpoints or test sample to guide you. Your medical researchers can never reliably map the whole population, any more that space scientists can map the whole universe – the world’s population is not only too large but they also keep changing. What works today on sample of people may not work tomorrow, or may not work on a different sample. Humans, unlike iron filings and billiard balls, are different. Observing one billiard ball and you know a lot about all billiard balls.  Observing one person and you know a bit about that person at that time, but not much about other people, or about that person at another time.”

Fig  1:  Bridge: flickr.com/photos/paulduer

Fig 2: People: flickr.com/photos/undefinedbliss240/4762244750

Fig 3: Billiard balls: .flickr.com/photos/annalizz/4638189223

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Posted in: Sciencing