“Absence of proof is not proof of absence.”
Michael Crichton, The Lost World
We are individual. My experience growing up has always taught me this. Which boils down to the sarcastic joke “you’re unique, just like everyone else.” And the internet is full of these quotes, you know the “it is better to be a first rate version of yourself than a second rate version of someone else,” or “be yourself, everyone else is taken.” Which are rosy and wonderful thoughts and I raise them not to mock them or question their validity – but because it raises an issue with humanity and psychology. If we are all unique, and completely different from others, how do we develop theories about people? How do we communicate? How do we have anything that ties us together?
Yes I hear you, “But City Villager, really you’re just being hyperbolic! Of course we are similar in some ways.” But what ways? Yes, groups of people may be similar, but there are few universals, if any, in humans. Even things like the ability to love are debatable as psychopaths are apparently incapable of love. And yet I have seen numerous headlines and the point has been raised that these folks make great CEOs. This isn’t a one off case, but does that mean that the likes of Henry Lee Lucas are not human? Despite the fact that perhaps by all other criteria they are human. This is exactly like the point of triangles tonight. The idea that if you found a triangle that when you added up the interior angles was 175 degrees, not 180, and you took it to a mathematician what would they say? First they would argue that your measuring procedure was flawed, they would then measure it with the most accurate tool available, and the sum of the interior angles was still 175 degrees, at which point the mathematician would declare that it is not a triangle. It is in fact still a triangle, you just don’t want it to be. Like we don’t want psychopaths to be classed as humans because we are human, which means that we are theoretically capable of such atrocities.
At this point Dr Lamontagne is pushing us towards the great insight that there is no truth, and we cannot know the true state of the world – we have only our theories, which can never be proven true, only failed to be disproved, and eventually disproved. Thus truth lies in being refutable and the accepted reality is based on who had the better argument. Which I think even psychology acknowledges – we won’t believe a theory if it is not theoretically possible to disprove. In truth, I feel like I’ve touched on ideas of truth and objectivity and my apparent distrust in the whole thing, but I am still trying to figure out a theory of humanity, and understand how psychology can exist if by the inherent nature of people’s uniqueness, their theories can be disproved at any moment.
A few weeks ago I raised the point about the arbitrary nature of language, and I won’t drag through it again – except to raise the point that somewhere, somehow, we evolved to be able to communicate. I can’t think without language anymore, but what about before language? It is a miracle that somewhere, two homo sapiens managed to converge on a system of grunts that led to mutual understanding. Their two unique minds and unique perceptions converged on a single understanding. Language is a legacy passed between generations – I shudder for the next generation at this point. We are passing on such a lazy language, I feel like we may be going in reverse now and 200 years from now language will have returned to a system of monosyllabic noises, the only words that will survive will be hashtag and yolo. Great.
Moving away from the depressing future of language back to the idea of how we learn language. We are taught words for concrete objects – that pretty straightforward – assuming another person speaks your language, pointing to a mug and saying “pass me the mug” will get you the mug. Except we have entire books listing multiple words for the same thing – trash, garbage, rubbish, refuse. And yet we still assume that the other person understands us. Which is fine when we’re referring to concrete objects, usually this is not a big issue – if we say put this in the garbage can and we are met with confused looks we can clarify. Usually within general areas the same words are used for objects so this is a fairly infrequent experience. What about the abstract concepts? Or the words that don’t actually refer to anything, words like “or,” “and” or the numbers (I dare you to try and tell me what 3 means on it’s own). We assume that others understand the complexities of our thoughts and get frustrated when they fail to do so. We assume our understanding of the world to be the true state of things. Which at any moment could theoretically be destroyed.
Growth, I’ve been told, lies in being proven wrong. So we should be moving towards a progressively more refined understanding of the world. Do I understand more than I did when I was a child? Yes, but no. I understand a lot of what I didn’t understand as a child, but the more I learn, the more I figure out that I still don’t understand a lot of things.
So psychology is the science (?) of understanding the human mind. Yet half the time I barely understand my own mind- I won’t lie, there have been times I have been crying without having any understanding of why I was crying. So if I don’t understand my mind, an entity which I am intimately connected to, how can a psychologist presume to understand that which they can only observe via proxies, inferences, and assumptions that I can and will reveal my true inner states.
There are things though, that I am not sure science could or should explain. Take for example, love – I have raised this point before but I raise it again – can we explain loving? Should science try to explain it? It is almost inherently alogical, characteristically it does not make sense, many love songs suggest that it’s not supposed to. This is just one area, but the idea of the abstract presents a problem. And a problem that is heavily prevalent in psychology. We rely on proxies for concepts that each researcher defines very carefully, but if you look across studies, psychologists carefully define their constructs and criterion because many of the terms are not commonly defined. And to be clear by not commonly defined, I mean terms that people have multiple and varied definitions for, and thus in order to avoid miscommunication the researcher makes it as clear as possible what they mean. We then assume that since we clearly defined all the aspects of our definition of a construct, that the individual reading our research understands what we mean – what if we used words that are not generally understood or that have multiple meanings that could be confused? I’ll admit – on this one I got nothing. So let’s leave that for now and return to how we use the evidence we gather from research.
This week there was a lot of talk of generalities and specificity, which is the basis of all theories. Evidence-based practice means a whole host of specific instances, a collection of data points, was collapsed into one understanding. So is reality the instance or the general? Maybe a bit of both? We rely on the generalizations because the ones are too numerous for them to be of any use to us, but each one adds to or takes away from the theory. We presume that your sensory experiences are the true state of things, but what if they’re not?
What we judge to be fact is no different than what science considers fact. it is our understanding of reality and the state of things to the best of our knowledge. New technology allows us to access more information – consider our primitive understandings of how the human mind worked – now with the advent of modern technologies such as the MRI, PET Scanner, and EEGS, we can peer into the human mind and watch it as it works. Thus new technology exposes us to the contradictions necessary for our knowledge and understanding to grow. This does not preclude the so called free will – the ability to accept or reject information and evidence. We can choose to incorporate the information, to accept it but refuse to adjust our understandings, or to refuse the information all together assuming the basis of the information is false or otherwise invalid. This is the reason we have controversies.
Just because science presents evidence does not mean we accept it. Especially since science has been known to present contradictory findings, supposedly all based on valid research and irrefutable evidence. Look at how many things science has presented as both causing and preventing cancer. Cancer is incredibly complex, we know that a multitude of factors – from biological to environmental to lifestyle factors. Given the number of risk factors each individual meets in their lifetime, it is no wonder science cannot tease apart which factors we experience or are endowed with lead to cancer and which are simply coincidence. It’s sort of a miracle science attempts to predict it at all, but I guess their egos tell them they have to try – because science is the all powerful warlock – the deity with all the answers.
Occasionally even in cases of overwhelming evidence, people will refuse to accept what is readily accepted by the rest of their society. How do we know who is right and who is wrong? I mean in some cases the evidence is clear, and it’s pretty hard to deny it – like gravity – you may not like the name but it’s pretty hard to deny that it doesn’t exist. Though is it not possible that they are simply holding out for the one instance that disproves it all?
Was the general population wrong for accepting that the Sun revolved around the Earth? No, they simply lacked the information that would lead them to believe otherwise – they lacked the tools that would provide the evidence. In that case Galileo et al were right. And it appears that I am backing myself into a philosophical corner. If evidence can prove a theory wrong, what proves that evidence right? If all knowledge and reality is in a sense only true because it has yet to be proven false, then this has some serious implications for science of any kind. If everything is waiting to be disproved and some evidence “disproves” that theory, on what grounds can we say that the evidence is true? What if that evidence is eventually disproved? Does this mean the theory is once again valid? In this light, I argue that perhaps “fact” does not exist, only what seems the most cogent at the time. In which case we can have neither theories, nor prove them false.
I suppose it is simply that we accept our knowledge as best case scenario. We have to have some sense of how the world is – we need something to exist that will allow us to believe we can in some way predict the world. To be completely powerless is almost paralyzing. So we evaluate based on our existing generalities that serve as criteria for the sources from which we accept evidence, on what topics, and under what conditions. If based on our experience and knowledge the evidence is deemed logical, coming from a credible source, we incorporate it. If we know less, we are more easily led to believe things that are more likely to be false, but when they are proven false, we become wiser, because we have improved our understanding. Like when you tell a child something wildly inaccurate like Jimmy Kimmel had parents do last Halloween:
Funny Jimmy Kimmel videos aside, we appear to be pretty gullible in our childhood. Perhaps because we have not accumulated the necessary experience and knowledge? But what about when people refuse to believe the evidence coming from credible sources with a logical basis? Perhaps the answer is that they simply use different criteria?
Scientific communities set parameters, acceptable error rates, reasonable measurement procedures, number of necessary trials, etc. for evidence to be acceptable and worth adding to the bounty of scientific knowledge. Do these careful procedures and parameters make the results less vulnerable to logical fallacies and errors? Maybe? We as a society seem to view it that way – if a scientist told you something about say, what works with weight loss (even if it’s coming from someone who isn’t actually a doctor/dietician… I’m looking at you Dr Oz.) you would probably be a heck of a lot more likely to believe it than if a priest told you (although weight loss is a funny one – people will believe and try anything). But what makes them more believable? What makes science so infallible in our minds? The fact that they use such complex language that we don’t understand them and are essentially powerless to refute them because we don’t actually know what it is we’re refuting half the time?
It seems I am at a crossroads in this course, this experience. I have come to doubt virtually everything I know, I seem to be doubting that there is ever a way to know anything, but at the same time I argue that we have to have some belief systems – some way of understanding the way the world is and works, to be able to function effectively. I can’t walk around doubting that when I open the door the floor will not be there – that is much too time consuming. So I have to believe certain generalities, especially what is pertinent to my survival.
So science violates logic because of the way is inductive in its reasoning – it moves from the general to specific and we have no clue how, but as long as its methods are deemed reasonable, we’ll accept it anyways. Something that just struck me though – go back to the idea that technology allows us to know and see more. In certain instances this has allowed us to improve survival – such as the medical advances resulting in an increased lifespan. I mean I think back in the 1800’s to live to 50 was a minor miracle – now in Canada the average life expectancy is somewhere in the 80’s. So technology is fairly certain to have improved our lives and our knowledge, and the range of things we can “know” at least until a new technology comes along and shows us that what we knew wasn’t the whole picture…
Does this mean that our previous understanding was useless, that without the new knowledge we were incapable of survival. Medical advances have allowed us to live longer, that is undeniable. But what about non-medical sciences – did Galileo actually improve our lives by naming what I am guessing every individual over the age of 3 months already knew? Not really. Then what is the point of science? Not knowing certain ‘facts’ was not an impediment to life – having false theories of things like what made the tides go in and out hardly seems life threatening.
Preparing for grad school has really shown me – the entire scientific field almost seems to be dedicated to proving some gap in our knowledge still exists – exploiting the doubt. I can’t even count the number of papers I have read that have argued that the other guys who did the research before missed out on a factor in their study, or who argue that their research was good, but there’s still more to know – they didn’t expose the whole truth. Funny thing is that those same articles always end in a discussion of the limitations of the existing study and areas for future research. So basically – they didn’t get the whole picture but neither did we. Greeeeaaaattttt.
Returning to my point – I am at a real crossroads – I can see that the grounds of many of my beliefs may be unwarranted, but I still choose to believe them. Will I no longer do research because I see its inherent flaws? No. Because I can see that through those errors, just like in any form of learning or knowledge accumulation – it is our mistakes that show us how to improve. Yes, the explanations new studies come out with may still be false, and are vulnerable to the sociopolitical climate of the time, but at least they are presumably better than the theories that they defeated – otherwise they would not have defeated the theories in the first place. Their evidence had to be better, has to have exposed some flaw in the previous theory.
In short – Practice makes perfect? #YOLO?
“A mind all logic is like a knife all blade. It makes the hand bleed that uses it.”
Also – Quicky update – this will no be posted on Thursdays – I need more time to mull over things as we get into these messy areas.