Myths, Legends, and Science: Part 1
One of the most common words in today’s dog industry is the word “science”: such as science-based, scientifically proven, or backed by science. Problematically, the word is often utilized in an attempt to punctuate that an idea, product, method, or concept is simply fact, and that anyone who disagrees with it is likely ignorant, uneducated, or just plain wrong. Sure, arguments and debates are essential to science, and in order for those to happen we have to have strong opinions. However, there are a growing number of people who have started resorting to the word “science” without knowing the methods or conclusions that constitutes the evidence behind their claims and with the extra assumption that science only has a singular opinion beyond reproach. The problem is that this isn’t really what science is about, nor is it how we got to where we are today.
What is Science?
Most people would agree that physics, chemistry, and biology are science—often referred to as the “natural” sciences as they passionately try to unravel the mysteries of the universe. Although what about other subjects, such as mathematics? Music? Astronomy? Philosophy? Psychology? Economics? Metaphysics? Logic? What makes one subject a science in our minds and another a pseudo-science? While my goal is not to simply list what subjects I personally believe are and are not science, by the end of my series I hope you can make that determination for yourself, it is interesting that as far as history is concerned, ‘science’ is actually a relatively new word. The roots of what is now modern (western) science began in ancient Greece with the advancements of philosophy and the infamous Aristotle (384 to 322 BCE).
As a philosopher, Aristotle’s celebrity was incalculably immense. Described in Dante’s Inferno as “the master of those who know,” Aristotle wrote about the world and the heavens in ways that still permeate modern science. His greatness as a philosopher set the stage so strongly that for about 2,000 years, those we would call scientists throughout history actually referred to themselves as “natural philosophers.” This can be seen as late as even Isaac Newton’s publication of Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) in the 18th century.
Aristotle and Zeno’s Paradoxes
Zeno of Elea was a philosopher from the 5th century (BCE)—although what a great name for an evil space villain. Zeno was an extreme rationalist who argued that it was reason, and reason alone, that could give us the gateway into an understanding of the way things are. He believed that the senses (i.e. seeing, hearing, smelling, touching) were tainted as a tool for building knowledge and used several paradoxes as evidence that even observations about motion (as in an object moving) were actually just figments of the senses.
Zeno’s Dichotomy Paradox (dichotomy literally means “cutting in two”): imagine a dog running towards a stationary object. The object is at a finite distance D and the running happens in a finite time of T. Zeno claimed that in order to travel D, the dog must first travel the first half of D, then half of the distance that remains, followed by half the distance that remains of that, followed by half the distance that remains of that as well (i.e. the dog would travel half of D, then a quarter of D, then an eighth of D, then a sixteenth of D, then 1/32nd of D, 1/64th of D…) etc. ad infinitum—infinitely. Following this logic, it would then have to be assumed that the dog will have to travel an infinite number of distances in a finite amount of time. To Zeno, this was a contradiction; therefore, assuming that an object moves because we see it move is a false assumption when it is simply illogical for an object to complete an infinite number of distances within a finite amount of time.
Aristotle, however, came along with a resolution to Zeno’s Dichotomy Paradox. Instead of arguing with the conclusion, even though clearly the conclusion is absurd, Aristotle created a resolution to the paradox by focusing on the assumptions within the argument. By focusing on the paradox’s construction, Aristotle demonstrated two of the most important elements that science is built on—reasoning and logic—which is what made him so infamous (not his primitive hypotheses of the heavens which is often what is taught in history class). While Aristotle’s resolutions are apt, the paradox wasn’t laid to rest until modern mathematics came up with a mathematical proof to rationally explain Zeno’s Dichotomy.1
Deductive vs Inductive Reasoning
There are two distinct forms of reasoning that can be used to make a claim: deductive and inductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning takes a very large premise and narrows it down to a smaller conclusion.
- All dogs have noses.
- Muffy is a dog.
- Therefore, Muffy has a nose.
The power of deductive reasoning is that when the premises are true, and the argument construction is valid, the conclusion is undeniably true—I don’t know many people who would argue that Muffy doesn’t have a nose. However, at the same time, deductive reasoning can be tricky because it could be built on a false premise. Here is another deductive argument:
- All atoms have one or more protons.
- Carbon is an atom.
- Therefore, carbon has one or more protons.
We can only say that this is undeniably true (i.e. “sound”) if we have examined every atom in the universe. However, despite not having examined every atom in the universe, we still accept that all atoms have one or more protons because of Inductive Reasoning. Inductive reasoning would look like this:
- Every atom we have found so far has one or more protons.
- Therefore the next atom we find will have one or more protons.
If we assume this is true, based on this inductive reasoning, that the next atom we find will have one or more protons, then it is sound to conclude that carbon has one or more protons. However, inductive reasoning cannot prove because it generalizes from a finite sample, thus it is able to suggest that a hypothesis is probably true. Like a car with no warranty: it makes no guarantees.
Semmelweis and ‘Childbed Fever’
Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian physician whose story expands this concept of the importance of inductive reasoning in science. In the mid-19th century, Semmelweis worked at a hospital in Vienna where there were two maternity divisions, however problematically, about 12% to 17% of the women who entered the First Division to give birth began to subsequently die with what was called childbed fever (a horrific death with symptoms including organ failure and edema), while only about 2-3% of the woman who entered the Second Division suffered the same fate. Systematically, Semmelweis formed several hypotheses to try and discover the cause of the mortality rate in the first division.
The first hypothesis was that the deaths were due to Atmospheric Influences. Before germ theory, people believed epidemics were passed through atmospheric events, however to Semmelweis, this seemed impossible because it did not explain why women who gave birth on the street on route to the hospital had a higher survival rate than the women in the first division, nor why two different wings of the same hospital would consistently have different mortality rates—so this hypothesis was thrown out. Other hypotheses included: overcrowding; giving birth on the back instead of the side (it was common for women to give birth on their sides at this time); diet; rough handling by doctors; and Death by the terrifying and debilitating presence of Priests (my personal favorite even though it was unsupported)2. While many of these were also thrown out due to a lack of logic or probability, Semmelweis ran experiments where he had the priests take different routes through the hospital and where he had all the mothers in first division give birth on their sides instead of on their back—no luck.
After almost four years of trying to solve the problem, a colleague of Semmelweis’ received a puncture wound from a student’s scalpel in the morgue and died of the exact same symptoms as the women of first division. It suddenly occurred to him that the medical students—who not coincidentally had begun additional training by performing autopsies on cadavers about four years prior—were often traveling straight from the morgue to the delivery room and often still smelled of rotting flesh (believe it or not, medicine really has come a long way). Semmelweis then instituted a protocol that medical students had to wash their hands in a chlorine and lime solution before heading to the delivery room in the first division. Because this predates germ theory, Semmelweis had only decided to try a chlorinated lime solution because it was effective at removing the smell accumulated from working on cadavers. Regardless, within no time at all, the mortality rate in the first division dropped 90%. Sadly however, mandatory hand washing caused a huge uproar and Semmelweis was politically ruined (despite having evidential vindication—i.e. women stopped dropping like flies) for even suggesting that invisible putrid matter derived from dead and living organisms might be the cause of the mortality rates. Eventually, despite his discovery, Semmelweis was dismissed from the Vienna hospital only to then be forced to move back to Budapest due to harassment from the Vienna medical community before eventually being committed to a mental institution. Apparently doctors really didn’t want to have to wash their hands…
Important to the question of science, however, is that even though Semmelweis solved the problem it turned out that his hypothesis was actually still somewhat incorrect. As it turns out, the women dying from childbed fever were actually dying from a genial tract sepsis often caused by bacterial infections of Staphylococcus (staph infections)—not putrid matter derived from living and cadaverous organisms. One could argue, “well, what’s the difference?” If I suggested (as Einstein did, and emphasized by my incredible high school physics teacher) that gravity did not involve gravitons but rather bends and distortions in space and time, you would agree they are two significantly different hypotheses, regardless of the observational outcome. Inductive reasoning is a powerful tool, however conceptually and historically we know that it creates an understanding about probability, not fact.
Dictionary: Science is the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.
Broken down, we get two parts. The first part starts with the idea of the intellectual and practical nature of science. The history of science is filled with the Galileans (those who, like Galileo Galilei, believe in science for the sake of science—the intellectual nature) and the Baconians (referring to those who, like Francis Bacon, believe science has to have a purpose—the practical nature). More broadly and simply we can summarize this as the two primary types of scientific investigation: theoretical and applied. The theory of relativity would be exemplary of theoretical science and research in medicine would be exemplary of applied science.
The second part of the definition very generally describes what is known as the “scientific method” which I will go into more detail in my next blog. For now it is suffice to understand that thanks to great thinkers like Aristotle, science is built on experience (i.e. it is empirical). The method of science utilizes techniques designed to solve conceptual problems of our experience in the real world. Why is the sky blue? Why do dogs like to hump certain people’s legs? Why does coffee wake us up?
While this definition is a great start, science is also much more. For instance, science is falsifiable; it is exploratory; it is beholden to concise and logical arguments; it is damaged by bias; and most importantly, it is ever changing. Science does not ascertain facts, nor does it establish truths. Science is about examining the current evidence, asking new questions, and modifying our preexisting conclusions based on new explorations.
So the next time someone uses the word “science” as a definitive proof for an argument, remember that a true scientist is both cautious and careful when making claims and would never stoop so low as to insult the intelligence of someone by defaulting to the word “science” to win an argument against them—especially without establishing who’s experiences they are referring to.
(1) An awarded and readable overview of Greek science and philosophy can be found in G.E.R Lloyd, Greek Science After Aristotle (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1973)
(2) For more information about Semmelweis and his life, including detailed accounts and translations of his writing, check out W.J. Sinclair, Semmelweis: His Life and His Doctrine (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1909)
Science proves you’re wrong: Zazzle.com
Newton’s Principae Naturalis Mathematica: NPR.org
Zeno’s Dichotomy Paradox: http://berto-meister.blogspot.com/2013/04/what-is-zenos-dichotomy-paradox.html
Notation for sum of an infinite series: Wikipedia
Table of mortality data from Vienna hospital: Wikipedia
Warning Science in Progress: Zazzle.com
“Science” image: http://www.gdfalksen.com/post/52184550214