Friday, October 3, 2008

Science is not scientific

My background is scientific: I've got a BS in biology and biochemistry, and I've worked in pharmacology and/or molecular biology ever since I started working. Even my hobbies outside of work are more or less scientific; readers of my personal blog will probably wince in recollection of my birdwatching lists, and I prefer reading nonfiction (Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos is one of my favorites, while The Elegant Universe is on my reading list) to fiction.

So it always astounds me when people believe that science is scientific--that is, precise, exact, where the proof is irrefutable and the data conform to nice and pretty graphs. It's not. Science does allow you to answer the most mundane questions ("How do we taste?") in the most amazing ways, and if it's done properly you'll even be correct. But it's not math--that is, there is always uncertainty, there is always room for error, and different interpretations, and you may find that a solid, well-thought-through hypothesis is shot to hell when you do one more test as an afterthought.

Good science is not about doing good experiments as it is about asking the right questions. That is, the clinical trials that the people at Science-Based Medicine love to espouse are really just demonstrations of safety and/or efficacy, rather than actually uncovering anything new. One could argue that the science that led up to the development of drugs ready for clinical trials is good science, and I would have to concede that point--but few studies actually purport to change the way we think about the human body, or anything else, for that matter; the studies that actually add to our body of knowledge are usually not of social interest. I.e., you don't see membrane-protein crystal structures making the front page of anything except Science (which is a very remarkable feat and one that rightfully deserves all of the attention and praise that it gets, but I don't think mobs of girls are going to be swarming over to the Scripps Institute begging for autographs). If you don't know why crystal structures of membrane proteins are so important, that sort of proves the point--that the good science simply doesn't engender social interest.

Allow me a moment to rant about the science that does interest people: dieting and weight loss, drugs against obesity, and drugs against drug addictions (funny how the phrasing works out). For the most part, these studies are flawed, some more than others--the ones that are less-flawed tend to be the basic-science ones, where they find that Molecule Zed makes a mouse skinny or fat and then elucidate the pathway by which Molecule Zed works. They tend to rely on statistics and epidemiology, which in turn make the assumption that the people answering the questions are honest, or that there's no other compounding factor. I always read these studies with a skeptic's eye (though I don't always disagree with the findings), but it's ironic, in my book, that the studies that interest people are the ones that are the most lax in how they are controlled.

What I call "good science" is less a question of method and more a question of...well, questions. Methods can be improved--someone who wants to study the effects of acupuncture could do worse than stick random needles into random people--but you can't get more basic than asking whether acupuncture works, and how (answer is probably not, in case you're wondering). Asking the right questions makes good science far more than running the most rigorously-controlled experiments; asking the right questions usually requires a divergence from the state of reality as we know it today.

Aside: I am afraid my posts will continue to be sporadic. Suffice it to say that life is crazy.

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