What is Science Trying to Prove?

So just imagine this – it’s midnight, you have to get up at 6am, go hang out on campus for 14 hours the next day enduring a 6 hour break in the middle that is just long enough to come home but the bus ride is also just long enough that it’s not worth the effort. Sounds like a good time to sleep, no?
I don't alwaysOf course not.
It’s time for a big idea. That absolutely MUST be written down BEFORE you sleep, because let’s face it, we always think we’ll remember in the morning, but science has shown we really just can’t. We don’t really consolidate anything that last 15 minutes, so I pick up my phone and dutifully start typing.
So what was this absolutely marvelous idea that absolutely HAD to be written down? That was worth sleep deprivation on a 14-hour-Monday (which just makes it suck even more)?
It’s (another) discussion on the issues of science. I’ve talked about the whole induction deduction issue before, and I have talked about how psychology is more aware of its propensity for errors in conclusions and results, largely due to the variation that exists within individuals, but I’ve missed out I think on how science contradicts some of it’s own principles, and has set up this double standard.


source. For the record, men’s brains are technically larger, though most of the difference is owing to their generally larger size,  and there is a high degree of overlap between the distributions of male versus female brain size. Which is essentially irrelevant because connections matter more than mass.

What is interesting is that science is paralleled largely as a man’s world. You know, as in men are rational and logical and they rely more on the right hemisphere (?) than women who are so incredibly irrational (but damn are they good in the kitchen!). And because of this “fact” women cannot be associated with science, it must be a man thing. Which to be fair more females are engaging in scientific pursuits lately thanks to various women’s and men’s movements, and some of the big thinkers in science are female (nevermind that Watson and Crick used a woman’s data and then took all the credit…). But we are presented with this wonderfully rational and emotionally sterile picture of science. Except that’s not really the case.
The problem with science is that its methods are designed to prove by deduction and inferences – we don’t prove something is true in theory. In theory we demonstrate that the alternative is extremely unlikely, to a level that our theory or proposal is more likely. And science acknowledges this in its theoretical methods, but the problem is that this information is then taken as fact and used on future studies as such. Thus our hypotheses become progressively more precarious as they come to rely on “most likely true” which was developed from another “most likely true” but science doesn’t acknowledge that. So we’ve essentially set off a cascade of potential error each time we report results.

Oh the normal curve. This will prove or disprove the last 8 months of my life's efforts. Crossing fingers and toes.

Oh the normal curve. This will prove or disprove the last 8 months of my life’s efforts. Crossing fingers and toes. Source.

What becomes even more problematic is the public reaction to such results. As a student in psychology and science it has been drilled into my head to carefully look at the results, and while I rarely track down the results unless it bears significance for me (usually in the context that I am already interested in the topic for personal or school related research), I know how to read a study and discriminate between statistical and practical significance.
Curious if the general population was as careful I asked a few friends, who, except for one, told me that they would likely simply take the evidence at face value without further skepticism or investigation assuming it came from a reasonably credible source (i.e. the newspaper. Because you know, those guys NEVER bias their information.). At this point I decided to ask them if they knew the difference between statistical and practical significance. It’s my bread and butter. What we want is both, but we don’t always get that. Tragically, again, only one person (the same person) understood what I was talking about.

The issue is that newspapers rarely distinguish the two. So people make life decisions potentially or at the very least alter their opinions about things, somewhat needlessly. So for non-psych junkies allow me to explain it in less than 30 seconds: statistical significance says that there’s a very small mathematical chance that there isn’t a difference between the groups/that our “best guess” was wrong; practical significance is whether or not something actually matters – is the effect size (i.e. the effect of whatever manipulation was applied on one group compared to another untreated) big enough to be a big deal?

So you end up with a situation like this... maybe.  Source.

So you end up with a situation like this… maybe.

For example, suppose a study reports than individuals on diet X lost significantly more than the individuals on diet Y. They very well may have – there might be a mathematical difference, but then you look at the effect size and the means, and you realize that there’s a high degree of overlap, lots of people on diet Y lost more than diet X and lots lost less, but the difference in the average amount of weight lost between groups is say 35lbs compared to 32lb.

Well stop the presses. Not. This is hardly worth getting excited for.

Well stop the presses. Not. This is hardly worth getting excited for. Source.

So how science is reported and viewed is a problem. Beyond the general population’s lack of awareness of how to interpret the results, is the issue of how people don’t appear to get how science does it’s thing. We trust the process just a little bit too much. Even I have fallen prey to reading a study, remembering to check all the appropriate statistics and methodology and going, yup looks good, let’s source this in my paper and call it fact, without considering how it was that the scientists developed their theories and how shakey the foundation of their theory (or any theory for that matter) may be. Yes I ensure that I mention when things only showed increased likelihood (i.e. the study was correlational and thus proves very little according to science), but I also sort of treat it as fact, as a given, when I build it into my argument. So really, I’m not better than the general population, I’m just more aware of  that fact that I’m doing it.

Beaker, Flasks, Test TubesIn most of the “pure sciences” – chemistry and physics – you are dealing with inanimate objects with no will or growth on their own. But I don’t recall there ever being a discussion of the null hypothesis, I remember taking measurements to calculate error – but the error measurements didn’t assume confounds, it affirmed that either you did something wrong or the scale or PCR or whatever other science machine wasn’t working properly. For example, you compare the mass you DID get versus the theoretical amount you SHOULD HAVE gotten. When you calculate the error it is based on a theory, which either was thought up almost out of thin air, or was based on other potentially flawed measurements. Thus the theoretical answer (based on either a theory/idea or a potentially flawed answer) is used to judge the accuracy of another lab experiment. Yet the point of comparison may be no more accurate.

To give the pure sciences credit, at least they have a tangible point of reference. In psychology we just have the complex calculations and a lot of assumptions because we never can KNOW if we were right or wrong about people. They change their minds too often. Psychology lacks a point of reference for it’s error, it can in no way calculate the true state of the world, and so we work in a world of theories, but we are not immune to using these theories as near fact. We perhaps acknowledge it more, but we are no better. 

See the issues?

  1. We take “science” as fact, when really it’s probability because we can never know the true state of things.
  2. We judge probability from theory.
  3. We develop theories from ideas and pre-existing “fact.”
  4. Go back to 1.

There’s an infinite loop of probability painted as truth. But we don’t talk about it. Like if we ignore it, it’ll go away.
At the risk of sounding like some sort of hell-raiser, just out there to leave you hanging from a metaphorical cliff, I don’t have really any solutions to fix this. It’s part of being human, this notion of knowing and perceiving reality without actually having any proof of anything. The only solution I can offer is skepticism and awareness. Not taking things for face value, find the science and judge it’s results for yourself, or at least learn to read the graphs and data and not fall prey to tricks such as modifying the scale.

Flawed but Useful: In Which I Defend the Process of Research

“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”

― Albert Einstein

The more I think about it the more I see that the process science, particularly psychology, uses may be flawed, but at the end of the day the result is still good.

Psychology, and arguably the other sciences in some experiments, is a field where through experience and thinking about things, you can often arrive at the same answer as a long and expensive experiment, but where that experiment still tells you nothing with certainty. I have noticed that in psychology, we have these theories, that in a sense guide our investigation of individuals, but we don’t necessarily use to know anything. Probably a by-product of the number of studies that are correlational in nature. Even when they are experimental, we come up with these cool results, but rather than proclaim them to the world, we downplay them and say, well they might not generalize, outside this setting, or we might have missed some other variable.

In a sense this almost seems to be a field aimed at confirming intuition. Of course, especially when it comes to mental illness and understanding how to best treat them, human instinct has come up with some pretty bizarre ideas. Some pretty damaging solutions. Does this mean that as a field it is flawed? No. Sometimes even science science gets it wrong (drug companies I’m looking at you).

There is always room for improvement.

Perhaps because of the nature of evolution and development? We are finding new answers not because our science was flawed but because humans have changed – our environment, physiology, work habits, mating practices – we are qualitatively different from the generations before us, and will be different from the ones that follow – with development comes new issues and old issues die off. Before the invention of cars, drunk driving wasn’t a problem, before medicine advanced allowing us to live longer, many of the problems of old age, such as dementia, were never experienced.

I have read articles exploring the idea that if our DNA is 99% identical to the apes, and we are classed as a different specifies, at what point while man kind again be classed as a different species. It is easy looking retrospectively at skeletons and say, their skeletons and tools look different. But our sizes and shapes have changed as a result of our sedentary lifestyle – I am quite sure hundreds of years from now, if anthropologists dug up our bodies, they would find a species with a c-curved spinal shape from our poor posture and tendency to look down at our phones – would they class us as the first of a new species? Would my grandparents be classed as homo sapiens and I as homo praesent (somewhat funny, apparently the Latin word for phone, is almost the same as “present” oh the irony…either that or Google translate is having a laugh because other sources told me the closest word is telephonatus)?

Just a thought.

So our tests might be wrong, that’s going to have to be okay, there’s not much we can do about it. Want to know how we validate our new tests? By measuring correlation with the old test, which we are now arguing was missing something. So we’re making sure this new test is good enough by making sure it lines up with the flawed test.

riiiggghhtBut let’s say this works, eventually you get back to the original test, how was that test validated? Everyone agreed? Given the amount of controversy in the field, and the fact that each new test is developed because the authors argue that the old measure isn’t good enough, I find this highly suspicious. There are literally hundreds of tests of depression. Hundreds. Of course it’s not that straight forward – we add in the idea of incremental validity, it has to predict something else. For scientists to accept a new measure there has to be something it adds – incremental validity, otherwise what’s the point. But the incremental validity seems no more valid than the idea of convergent validity supporting the validity of a test.

Many of these measures involve issues of clinical concern, say for example depression. If the previous measures were used to make diagnoses, and the diagnoses are used to form the groups to be compared in validating the discriminability and general validity of the new measure – how do we know that the previous measure wasn’t so flawed it misdiagnosed. Now your results are impacted by the inaccuracy of your groups. Yet we assume that this is not the case, we may be perpetuating diagnostic and measurement flaws.

At this point I really just seem to be a trouble-maker, raising issues without truly acknowledging the benefits and solutions.

So allow me to flip the coin.

Our measures are potentially flawed so why use them?

Because we need some way of understanding – so we generate tests aimed at capturing the generalities of the disorders, and we make ourselves aware that an atypical presentation is possible. Maybe the new tests are because we have learned more and we are trying our best to include all the specifics we know. The measures may be flawed, but at least they tell us something. To know nothing is terrifying and useless. Identification is the first step in treatment, not the last, so if our measure was flawed, the individual may not get the diagnosis, but they can still have the help. If they were diagnosed, essentially their treatment will be no different, except in cases where medication (i.e. antipsychotics for schizophrenics, or lithium for bipolar) is needed. Basically? We have to start somewhere.

Where do we start? With our understandings and interpretations of human behaviour. We cannot do like the theoretical physicists and think about our subject matter until the answer dawns on us (we we can but we have to have something to observe directly to spark our thoughts). While we have an intimate connection with  our subject matter, which could afford us access to more information, we are in a sense studying variations of ourselves. But we don’t necessarily understand our own mind, how are we to claim we understand the human mind – its functions, processes, limits, flaws, and potentials? The layman bases his understandings of others minds on how he would process the information, he doesn’t necessarily understand his own mind, but he uses his potentially flawed understandings to believe he understands the minds of others.

Psychologists adopt a much more rigorous methods, but we cannot completely detach ourselves from the issues of the laymen. Before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, we should recognize that while we don’t always understand our subject matter, neither do scientists. Do they know what an atom looks like? No, it’s too small to observe, but based on their conceptualization (which took quite a few tries by the way), they conduct experiments and make predictions – they have no concrete knowledge of the nature of an atom, but they use the theory like it’s fact. Do they know how the heart functions completely undisturbed? No, they see how it functions through imaging techniques (which could disturb the function in some way) or through scopes or when the chest is open. That understanding is still very advanced, and so they use it in medicine. Do they always get the results they were expecting? No.

We think we understand, we sometimes do, but sometimes, we are surprised and learn something new.

As Claude tells us, it is only through being proven wrong that we learn anything.

Studying the human mind, means we will often be wrong, but we can accept this issue, because we also have the opportunity to learn/understand something – may not perfect knowledge, but for me there is no true distinction between knowing fact and believing fiction. Both depend on our appraisal of the information and our experience of knowledge and understanding. If we accept that there is no way of knowing then we are helpless to function, predict, and understand.

At the end of my seventh semester, halfway through my fourth year, do I have a solidified theory of the human mind? No, how could I? It’s much too diverse. I have theories of specific areas of the human mind but no theory can cover everything. We are too different with too many parts. And then there’s the issue of knowing more than we can explain – like knowing how to run without being able to explain how.

Life is complex, we are going to be wrong sometimes, but like I said, we have to start somewhere. I have no solution to this issue, I cannot make the measures perfect, I cannot predict much with absolute certainty. The only solution I can propose is to accept this – let it be ok to be wrong, accept that only in this moment is our explanation useful in any way. Accept that we don’t know things, but we can have ideas, it is not wrong to use these ideas. We have to start somewhere.

In my mind, if we can accept that our process is flawed and somewhat illogical, then we’re alright. As long as we accept that moving from the specific to the general isn’t exactly right, and because of that we cannot reasonably argue that our specific assumptions based on our potentially flawed generalizations, we cannot argue with absolute certainty that we are right, then we’re ok.

For a really interesting TED talk from Kathryn Schulz check out here.

“Without being sure of something, we can not begin to think about everything else.”

― Kathryn Schulz

Check out next week – Claude and I had some really interesting conversations on the brain and what it does, I’m working on some stuff, but my minds a little busy and these things are a little messy.

The Terror of Oneness

“All you really need to know for the moment is that the universe is a lot more complicated than you might think, even if you start from a position of thinking it’s pretty damn complicated in the first place.”

― Douglas Adams

This I think was the aha moment Claude was pushing me towards. It was almost painful in a sense, some of the things I have come to realize in the last few days, and yet it was incredibly exciting.

Ernest BeckerAfter watching videos from Shots of Awe and noticing Ernest Becker was repeatedly referenced I decided to pick up two of his books, I am choosing to start with The Birth and Death of Meaning, while I’m insanely busy the next two weeks I will let you know how the book goes. I’m almost afraid to start it, afraid that like the explosion of awareness that started Tuesday night, Becker’s words will consume my mind.

What struck me as I thought about the human aim, the singulars and the generalities, expectations, and the reasoning of science was the idea of oneness.

We believe in our oneness, we believe that our uniqueness is something to be applauded and recognized but on what grounds? Why, when you consider the number of homo sapiens that have existed, that continue to exist , would our existence matter? Throw in all the other carbon form forms, living and non, and the planets, starts, and galaxies, known and unknown, and it becomes terrifying how little we matter. How insignificant our existence becomes.

Science, perhaps rightly so, occasionally allows error, ignores the exceptions to the rule because even 5% is so insignificant when you consider the proportion relative to all the other ones in the universe. Yet, science usually says no – any error is too much, it is after all the reason the science kids scorn the psych kids. Perhaps this is because they realize the terror of the infinite – the idea that as time goes one we are essentially becoming less and less significant. Maybe I’m giving them too much credit, but it would explain their massive egos. If they make a massive contribution, they figure they count for more ones?

We realize that the human imagination is capable of infinite possibilities. Possibilities beyond reality, that we may never live to see come to see to fruition. And yet our significance, our life is incredibly, painfully, tragically, finite. Our existence is limited in many ways, even if our mind is not.

If we ignore the exceptions, discount them as too insignificant in the grand scheme of things – then we too, do not matter.

We work from generalities because the ones are too much to know. It is information overload. Perhaps psychology accepts this more because it see the vastness of the ones. Psychology is okay with being proven wrong, because the uniqueness of man, and the sheer number of people who have existed and continue to exist, means that it is incredibly likely that eventually an exception will be found.

Yet we have this need to understand, to grasp the infinite possibilities, the infinite nature of everything that is, has been, and will be and make it finite. Which is almost beyond our processing abilities – perhaps why people become experts and we all hate a know-it-all. To know everything, to know anything with absolute certainty is impossible. It may also be the reason we developed technology. Both to pull our ideas and conceptions into existence, and to remove some of the processing demands from our own minds; to free them up for bigger thoughts and allow us to see the infinite connections. To expand awareness beyond the limits of our biology. To create something less finite than our own existence. To go beyond our mortal flesh, beyond our impending loss of everything.

This has been an earth shattering realization for me – I am one in a sea of unknowable size, becoming less and less significant by the day. I have this finite existence, despite the infinite capacity of my mind. It has been suggested that the brain’s capacity for storage and processing is virtually limitless, but perhaps it is just that we have not the time to test it long enough to find the limits. If we are finite beings is our mind not something finite or does our mind go beyond our pitiful, insignificant existence? Do we suppose our minds are infinite and that we simply have not had the time to find it, to avoid the terror of the fact that our own lives are so finite? To avoid our own mortality? Is this an attempt by science to extend the human life, to conquer death, to make our bodies as infinite as our imaginations?

We have always grappled with this – it’s why the question of “Why am I here?” has plagued the minds of homo sapiens since we first developed the ability to think at such a level.

Is psychology then the study of the oneness? The careful studying of what makes us more than hydrogen atoms (not even water molecules) in an ocean? The attempt to find the things that bind us together to at least form a puddle. The drive to be a part of something that makes our own lives connected to something bigger so that we are no longer, the insignificant being that we fear we may be.

Feel small yet?

Feel small yet?

How about now?  For the record - one drop of water contains 1.39 time ten to the 21st (that's 21 zeros) molecules. Have I oversold this? Maybe, probably not when you consider EVERYTHING that has a will be. PS Catch the joke? ;)

How about now?
For the record – one drop of water contains 1.39 time ten to the 21st (that’s 21 zeros) molecules. Have I oversold this? Maybe, probably not when you consider EVERYTHING that has a will be.
PS Catch the joke? 😉

Maybe that’s why adolescence is so tough – the stereotypical cry of “You don’t understand! No one understands what I am going through!” (which I admit, I was not immune to, I was a teenager not so long ago, in fact I think I used the big kid variation last week.) is evidence perhaps that in adolescence, the whole spotlight effect is because we feel our oneness more deeply as we try to separate from our parents, the whole autonomy struggle psychology is always talking about. We try to become this one and it terrifies us, so in adulthood we seek out this understanding of a connectedness, the patterns and generalities that make us less alone.

Beyond the oneness, I see psychology as the study of thought, behaviour, emotion, and neurological functioning. Of existence, humanity, culture and uniqueness.

The study of the ties that bind, and the threads of the rope.

It seeks to expand our awareness of existence in ways technology has perhaps not expanded enough to grasp. Existence beyond the limits of ourselves, yet flowing back on the oneness at the same time. A perpetual cycle to understand humanity in an attempt to understand ourselves, which we use to understand humanity.

A cycle not unlike that of knowledge acquisition.

Wow. Just wow. What a week.

What do you think? Does the idea of oneness and complete insignificance terrify you? Do you think it somewhat explains mental illness? Perhaps is mental illness simply a reaction to this realization in some way? At least some of them?

Is that what psychology is?

Tell me down below what you think.

“The only thing that scares me more than space aliens is the idea that there aren’t any space aliens. We can’t be the best that creation has to offer. I pray we’re not all there is. If so, we’re in big trouble.”

― Ellen DeGeneres